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Mister Hospitality

by Rosemary Edmiston

Mark Carter Photo

MOST OF THE TIME MARK CARTER AVOIDS PUBLICITY. He isn't particularly fond of the kind of small-town notoriety that has come with his success.

But Carter himself couldn't keep quiet about his latest accomplishment. He was proud and for good reason.

Last month industry giant Wine Spectator named Restaurant 301 at the Hotel Carter a Grand Award winner, the highest honor the magazine bestows on dining establishments across the globe. For wine and food connoisseurs, it's a distinction that makes Eureka of all places a destination for fine cuisine and an impressive wine collection.

Named along with Restaurant 301 at Third and L streets in Eureka's Old Town were the Rubicon in San Francisco, Alain Ducasse in Paris and Hotel Waldhaus am See in St. Moritz, Switzerland.

Chosen from 2,000 entries, the 44-seat Restaurant 301 is now among the finest wining and dining establishments in the world.

Writes the managing editor of Wine Spectator: "These four restaurants join our existing roster of 87 Grand Award winners from around the world that share a passionate commitment to wine. Together, these 91 restaurants form the top of the pyramid in our overall restaurant awards program."

For the amiable Carter, landing on the pages of Wine Spectator brings his and his wife Christi's journey into the hospitality industry full circle.

"Everything stems from Christi," Mark Carter says matter-of-factly of the contributions made by his wife, the restaurant's first executive chef and a partner in the business with her husband. (The mother of two teenagers in recent years has taken a less active role in the Carter House Victorians and Restaurant, but continues to maintain the books.)

Carter's success also stems from his father, Humboldt County icon Joe Carter, who found success in real estate. He died in 1987. But the younger Carter is quick to point out that it was his father's wisdom, not material wealth, that proved most beneficial.

"When I was 10 years old to the time I was 18 my father would sit at the dinner table and he'd tell me about life. He'd tell me what I should do maybe and how people would react to me over the course of my life," Mark recalled. "He would say that people are going to tell you someday that you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth and you got all this. But you're going to be able to tell them, `No, I didn't.'"

For the Carters, earning the Grand Award was a process that took years.

Restaurant 301 received the lower-level Best of Award of Excellence from the magazine in 1995, with a list of 500 wines. That list, now about an inch thick, boasted 2,200 labels before the Grand Award was earned.

Keeping the list current and the cellar stocked is a job itself. But if the restaurant allows the number and variety of offerings to shrink, it risks losing the Grand Award distinction.

Holding the thick, bound book listing everything from a $28 Pinot Noir to a $3,200 bottle of 1945 Lafite Rothschild, Carter said, "The reason I did this, in fact, was to try to make one of the great wine lists. Hopefully people would come to Eureka to see us, to see the wine list, to stay with us, to eat the food. And it's actually kind of working out that way."

In fact, the Rothschild and other vintages with exorbitant price tags are really more for show.

"You have to have something that far back," said Carter, "otherwise you wouldn't win. You need some older vintages. That's half the game, too."

The other half is food, atmosphere and service.

"It's surprising," writes Wine Spectator, "to find cooking at this level of inspiration and aplomb in a remote locale like Eureka. Carter provides (Chef Rodger Babel) with ultrafresh herbs, greens, vegetables and edible flowers grown at the hotel's impressive garden. ..."

After graduating from Eureka's St. Bernard's High School, Carter figured he'd study architecture or art. He lasted six months at College of the Redwoods.

"I didn't like it that much," he said.

Carter quit and took off for a week of soul searching. When he returned his dad set him straight, and helped him get his start.

"He said `You should probably build apartments and some income property, and when you're about 30 they'll be paid for and you can do anything you want.'

"One thing I love to do is I love to listen to people and I listened to my father and actually did that. I built my first apartment building at 18."

It was at 14th and California streets a project that left its mark on Carter. He lost his thumb to a table saw.

"I said `Well, Jesus, if I build 10 of these things I won't have any fingers left. I'll just have little nubs. That would be pretty interesting.'"

But Carter did continue to build and amass properties, with the rest of his fingers intact. And like his father, he opted to hang on to most of his investments.

"I don't have the first one," he added. "I traded my first one for one of the buildings that we use now, which we call the Bell Cottage."

Carter's business ventures earned him a title he's not fond of developer. Irate yuppie developer, according to one newspaper.

"Developer takes on the connotation that you're a speculator and you fix (buildings) up and you sell them. We've always taken a different approach. We've always pretty much fixed things up and kept them and tried to maintain them. Shepherds of the buildings, you know."

It was a 1990 San Francisco Examiner article on a parking battle "that pits what many see as an old-boy network tied to the town's traditionally timber-based economy against younger residents more closely wed to small business and tourism" that gave the then 38-year-old Carter the irate yuppie label.

Eight years later the story has a certain irony to it.

Tourism is now one of the fastest-growing industries in Humboldt County, and Carter is at the forefront.

He and his wife have hosted visitors from all over the world, including a fair number of celebrities. When movie producer Steven Spielberg was in town to film "The Lost World," cast and crew took over the Carter House for three weeks. Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo and the folks making "Outbreak" also chose the Carter House.

"`Jennifer 8' was one of the early ones we did," recalled Carter. "We had Andy Garcia, Uma Thurman. ..."

And when Wine Spectator hit the streets last month, phone inquiries picked up and several guests flew into Humboldt County specifically to check out the restaurant and its wine list.

Upon arrival guests inevitably meet the denim-clad bespectacled Carter, an outspoken fan of the county he's always called home.

"I still am just totally in awe of Humboldt County and I hope that we can maintain how beautiful it is," he says.

"People come here, who used to only drive through, and they spend maybe two, three or four days."

When the Hotel Carter was opened 12 years ago, Carter recalled, "there weren't that many tourists coming up here.

"You couldn't even find a guide book that had the Eureka Inn as a place to stay or go to. There were only three places ever mentioned north of Mendocino and that was the Eureka Inn (now owned by Carter's sister and brother-in-law), Lazio's (a former seafood restaurant) and the Samoa Cookhouse, if they mentioned that.

"But they usually didn't mention anything, and we had to actually call everybody up and tell them to come up here and see this beautiful area called Humboldt County."

Even with the distinction of being a Grand Award winner, it takes work to keep the rooms occupied.

Business clients keep the Hotel Carter busy during the week ("the medical industry is huge here," says Carter), but "it's still not an easy sell, believe it or not," he adds.

Mark and Christi Carter's odyssey into the hospitality business began in 1982 as a means to help finance the newly remodeled Carter House at 1033 Third St.

The dark brown Victorian was based on a design by Joseph C. Newsom, the architect who designed the Carson Mansion, located a few blocks away. Carter said it took all his savings to finish the project.

"That was something I wanted to do all my life. Seeing the Carson Mansion, seeing something as wonderful and as magnificent as the Carson Mansion, I wanted to do something like that, being a builder myself.

"So I took everything I had and I built the Carter House. I mortgaged all I could mortgage. I spent all I had in the bank, and by the time I was done I had no money. I still had my properties, but all those incomes went to paying the mortgage and helping me pay that mortgage."

Building the picture-perfect house not only took a hefty sum $700,000, according to Bon Appétit but also pointed the couple in a new direction.

"If I hadn't built the house I would have never had to work again in my life by that time," said Carter, who had earned a small fortune from building and investing by the time he was 28 years old. (Years later he would inherit more property from his father, although those parcels are not part of the Carters' lodging and dining facilities.)

Initially, Carter said, he figured the Carter House would be the family home, "but it went on and on and on and on and it cost three times what I thought and it took three times as long as I thought."Photo of Christi Carter

So Mark and Christi opened their home as a bed and breakfast, housing guests, serving the morning meal and selling consignment antiques they acquired to fill the expansive building.

"We furnished the three bed and breakfast rooms in 1982 with borrowed furniture. People would rent the rooms; they could buy a piece of furniture if they wanted. Everything had a price tag on it in those days. We had to make it work," Mark recalled.

For Carter, it was a perfect fit.

"I found out that I love people from outside the area. They would come, we would wait on them, we would cook for them and we would take care of them. And at the end of their stay they'd be so happy with what we did for them that they made me feel better than any money could ever make me feel."

Construction of Hotel Carter followed a few years later, and today the Carters oversee the bed and breakfast, hotel and two cottages (with a combined 30 rooms), and the restaurant and wine shop.

"It takes a team effort to make any of these things work today in this operation," says Mark. "When it first opened it was just Mark and Christi; we did everything. Over the years it got bigger and bigger and it took more people. Today it takes 40 people to make this place run."

As with the bed and breakfast, it's the guests who continue to fuel Mark Carter's enthusiasm.

"When people come and stay with you and they don't know who you are they have no preconceived idea, most the time, of you or what you're family was like or anything else.

"So they just come in with no baggage and it's great. They say hi, you say hi and you meet for the first time and everybody's on equal terms. It's the coolest thing going."

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