Hotel Sutter: Where history meets comfort

ALONG WITH WATERING HOLES and movie houses, Gold Rush-era hotels have long been economic anchors for Mother Lode towns. Just as saloons such as the Golden Era lounge in Nevada City are being restored, historic hotels also are being renovated—helping to revitalize the downtowns and their surroundings.

The Hotel Sutter in Sutter Creek (Amador County) is a shining example. Originally known as the American Exchange Hotel, the building’s roots date back to 1858, where it housed travelers and served as a stagecoach depot. Over the years, its visitors ranged from the founder of Bank of America to actor John Wayne.

An enterprising couple from Lake Tahoe—Chuck Laughlin and Karen Sage—bought the old hotel three years ago, renovated it and transformed into a gathering place for locals and a destination for visitors from the Bay Area, Sacramento, Reno, the foothills and elsewhere. It also is a popular hotel for wine country wedding guests.

Hotel Sutter features 21 parlor-style rooms, a restaurant (San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Michael Bauer praised the chicken pot pie), outdoor balcony dining, two historic bars and live music, 3,000-sq.-ft. of event space for weddings and meetings, and a shuttle for wine tours.

The boutique hotel includes striking and imaginative features, such as large wood-and-glass doors that swing out to the sidewalk to create an open feeling, original exposed brick walls, Douglas fir flooring, and cooling misters on the balcony for hot summer days.

Chuck and Karen became acquainted with the hotel on their trips to nearby Amador City, which became a second home after renovating the town’s old Catholic church over 20 years ago. “This hotel kept speaking to us,” he said in a recent interview. “We bought it thinking it would be a wonderful keystone property for Amador wine country.”

Karen is knowledgeable in design, and the couple hired a local contractor and launched an extensive multi-year renovation while still managing to keep the hotel open. They painstakingly removed plasterboard walls and exposed the old brick walls “with all their stories,” says Chuck.

All the rooms were remodeled, each with its own bathroom, and the furniture and lighting was upgraded. An elevator also was added, along with ADA improvements. The hotel also was renamed to Hotel Sutter, more closely reflecting the region it serves.

The rooms have stylish decor, double-, queen- or king-sized beds with handcrafted quilts, private bathrooms, flat-screen TVs, coffee-makers and complimentary half-bottles of local wine. Turndown service is available on request.

The owners have hired Marin Management Inc., a well-regarded hotel management company, to operate the hotel. The 26-year-old company—which manages about 30 hotels in the West—is known for being detail oriented. It manages historic properties, such as the Hotel La Rose in Santa Rosa, as well as wine country hotels, such as the Wine Country Inn in St. Helena.

“Many small towns identify their personality with their anchor hotels,” says John Manderfeld, president of Marin Management and a 45-year veteran of the lodging industry. “They breathe a lot of life into the community.”

Manderfeld fondly recalls his first visit to the Hotel Sutter, describing the big doors that open to the sidewalk, inviting passersby to come inside. “You feel as though you are part of the community,” he says.

He observed that foothill towns such as Sutter Creek are ideal basecamps for nearby skiing, snowshoeing and other winter activities. “It’s not terribly cold in the winter,” he says. “You can walk around town comfortably and also have a great ski experience.” From the Hotel Sutter, guests head into the mountains on scenic Hwy. 88 for a wide range of winter activities, including skiing and snowboarding at Kirkwood Mountain Resort.

For après ski, the hotel features the 85-seat Sutter Restaurant, which serves creative farm-to-table cuisine and is available for catering. The meat and produce is sourced locally when- ever possible. A new chef, experienced in fine dining and catering, is helping to reenergize the kitchen this winter.

Popular appetizers include fried Brussels sprouts with lemon aioli and applewood-smoked bacon; cast-iron mac ‘n’ cheese and butternut squash and quinoa salad. (Visit — our magazine’s companion website—for the Brussels sprouts recipe).

The hotel’s dinner menu includes a grilled rib-eye steak, lamb shank, stir fry, bourbon prawn, seared salmon and chipotle chicken. It also includes gourmet burgers, including the “1853,” with applewood smoked bacon, onion strings, cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato and red onion.

The lunch menu features a homemade chicken pot pie (stewed chicken, fresh vegetables, topped with all-butter puff pastry); fish and chips and a prime rib dip sandwich. It also includes the gourmet burgers. An extensive wine list features local wines.

The Sutter Saloon and Cellar Bar & Lounge serves handcrafted cocktails, local wines and craft beers. The Cellar Bar is popular for its live music. It also has an HDTV for viewing the Super Bowl (February 5 this year) and other sports events. Weekly gatherings include trivia games and karaoke.

The Hotel Sutter is full of history. In the mid-1800s, a stagecoach was parked outside the door, picking passengers up for their journeys into neighboring towns and cities such as San Francisco. Cowboys used to lead their horses upstairs to their rooms, to keep them from being stolen. “We’re a caretaker for this historic hotel,” says Karen.

Wine tasting and winter sports are a perfect pairing, and few are better suited for this adventure than the Hotel Sutter. The hotel has its own 21-seat shuttle for guests to tour surrounding wineries. “We are on a first-name basis with the winemakers,” says Laughlin. “People say this is like Napa was 30 years ago.”

Guests can hop on the shuttle and visit the wineries for winter wine barrel tastings, wine cave tours and conversations with the winemaker. The hotel also hosts winemaker dinners. Downtown Sutter Creek also has its own tasting rooms. “Wine on 49” is a collaboration of tasting rooms in the Sutter Creek area.

(Photo: Jason Henry)

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