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Monica Barbaro’s Guide to Northern California

The “Chicago Justice” star on her idyllic hometown, Mill Valley, a longstanding foodie mecca just outside San Francisco

Since debuting in 2012, NBC’s “Chicago” franchise—a brainchild of legendary producer Dick Wolf, among others—has portrayed the lives of various Windy City public servants, from firefighters (“Chicago Fire”) to police officers (“Chicago P.D.”) to doctors (“Chicago Med”). Earlier this month, it welcomed a new squad to its stable of attractive, good Samaritans: the crime-fighting prosecutors of “Chicago Justice,” a team that includes Assistant DA Anna Valdez, played by Monica Barbaro. Workplace drama of a different sort isn’t the legal-themed spin-off’s only distinguishing feature: According to Barbaro, it takes many cues from Wolf’s seminal series, “Law & Order.”

“It’s absolutely the most like ‘Law & Order’ of the ‘Chicago’ shows. Each episode tells the full story of a case, and they can be watched completely out of order,” Barbaro, who previously appeared in Lifetime’s “UnReal,” says. “And like ‘Law & Order,’ the show brings that same kind of gritty truth to cases that can be really tough to talk about.”

True to Wolf’s hardboiled form, “Chicago Justice” foregrounds its city’s gritty landscape by shooting largely on location. “Chicago itself is a really big part of the show and of the story,” says Barbaro. “It’s an excellent city with great restaurants and bars, but we worked so much that I honestly mainly saw the touristy places.” Aside from their Second City backdrop, the “Chicago” series share a common bond in Molly’s Bar, the fictional watering hole featured in all four (now a soundstage set, Molly’s is inspired by the very real Lottie’s Pub, in the city’s Bucktown neighborhood, where early “Chicago Fire” scenes were filmed).

On the shore of Lake Michigan, in Illinois, the city of Chicago itself is a far cry from Barbaro’s home of Mill Valley, an idyllic Northern California enclave just outside the Muir Woods National Monument. Besides being wedged between wine country and the Bay Area beer boom (see: Mill Valley Beer Works, below), the free-spirited San Francisco suburb is a cradle of locally sourced fare (celebrity chef and locavore Tyler Florence lived and worked there for years) and gob-smacking scenic trails. Herewith, Barbaro’s favorite hometown hangouts (and a few of her can’t miss places in San Francisco, too). 

Cup of Joe: In Mill Valley, I love the Depot Bookstore & Café, inside a small and beautiful historic landmark. It has lovely coffee and treats. A personal favorite in San Francisco is Java Beach Café, by Ocean Beach. When I [came home while] in college, my mom would pick me up at the airport and we’d drive to this sweet little spot for some coffee and a snack, then take a walk along the beach.  

Power Lunch: Founded in 1929 and still owned and operated by the Canepa family, Mill Valley Market is the perfect place to grab a snack or delicious sandwich (my favorite is the Mt. Tam). Eat it outside the old Depot station.

Cocktail Hour: Instead of cocktails, I highly recommend heading to Mill Valley Beerworks for a variety of nice brew options (they make their own, too). It’s a small, classy restaurant with locally sourced, tasty dishes for dinner and weekend brunch. 

Retail Therapy: There’s plenty of shopping to be done in Mill Valley at the various clothing boutiques downtown. In San Francisco, the Marina is a great place to shop. Check out y&i clothing boutique for women’s apparel, Eurasian Interiors for candles and small gifts, and Books, Inc. for, well, books.

Field Trip: If you haven’t stood next to a redwood tree, you must go to Muir Woods. It’s a gorgeous, peaceful place that you will never forget. A good deal of it is paved and family/wheelchair friendly, too. 

Date Night: Sausalito’s Poggio Trattoria has an incredible menu and is right near the Bay. If you finish dinner before 8:00 pm on a weekend night, you can grab some delicious ice cream at the original Lappert’s Ice Cream just down the street, then walk along the water and watch San Francisco sparkle in the distance. 

Don’t Miss: High up near the cliffs in the Presidio overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge, the Legion of Honor museum is a site to behold. It’s the home of an expansive permanent collection as well as the host to a variety of exhibits that come to town. (Your price of admission will get you same-day entry to the deYoung, another spectacular art museum on the edge of Golden Gate Park.) I recommend driving around for a bit before or after any visit to the Legion of Honor. If you have the time, hop out at Lands End to learn about the area or hike out toward the water.

Hidden Gem: Drive Mill Valley’s Panoramic Highway through the mountains during the day—or better yet, at sunset. It’s breathtaking.

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