Contrary to what the folks in Napa Valley would like you to believe, there are numerous restaurants in Sonoma County that are more than worth your while.
Fodor’s provides the descriptive prose for the list that follows – a list hand-picked by members of the Vinesse tasting panel and our California North Coast wine finders. From casual to classic, there are culinary delights around every corner in Sonoma County. Here are a few of them…
Barndiva. One of hottest new restaurants in Healdsburg (it opened in 2004 to general acclaim) trades in the cozy country style of so many Wine Country spots for a hip nightclub feel. Dance music plays in the background while servers stay busy ferrying inventive (if pricey) specialty cocktails. The food is as stylish as the well-dressed couples cozying up next to one another on the banquette seats: dishes, divided on the menu into “Light Clean,” “Spicy Passionate,” and “Comfort Soothing” categories, are well executed and beautifully presented. During warmer months, the beautiful patio more than doubles the number of seats. Service is friendly rather than expert.
Bistro Ralph. Ralph Tingle has discovered a formula for success with his California home-style cuisine, serving up a small menu that changes weekly. Typical dishes include osso buco with saffron risotto, and sauteed mahi mahi with hedgehog mushrooms. The stark industrial space includes a stunning, gracefully curved wine rack, concrete floors, and a painted brick wall. Take a seat at the bar and chat with the locals, who love this place just as much as out-of-towners do.
Cafe La Haye. In a postage-stamp-size kitchen, skillful chefs turn out half a dozen main courses that star on a small but worthwhile menu emphasizing local ingredients. Chicken, beef, pasta, fish and risotto get deluxe treatment without fuss or fanfare. The offbeat dining room, hung with large, abstract paintings, turns out some of the best food for the price in Wine Country.
The Farmhouse Inn. From the personable sommelier who arrives at the table to help you pick wines from the outstanding list, to the maitre d’ who serves local and European cheeses from the cart with a flourish, the staff matches the quality of the outstanding French-inspired California cuisine. The signature dish, “rabbit, rabbit, rabbit” – a rich trio of confit of leg, rabbit loin wrapped in applewood-smoked bacon, and roasted rack of rabbit with a mustard cream sauce – is typical of the dishes that are simultaneously rustic and refined. The tranquil, country-style dining room… elegant but unassuming… is open Thursday through Sunday only.
The Fig Cafe. Celadon booths, yellow walls and a sloping high ceiling make the latest in the string of Sondra Bernstein’s popular restaurants feel summery and airy even in the middle of winter. Artisanal cheese plates and fried calamari are popular appetizers, and entrees such as braised pot roast and grilled hanger steak tend to be hearty. Don’t forget to look on the chalkboard for frequently changing desserts, such as butterscotch pots de creme. The unusual no-corkage-fee policy makes it a great place to drink the wine you just discovered down the road.
John Ash & Co. Patio seating, views out over vineyards, and a cozy indoor fireplace make this spacious restaurant with an elegant French country ambience a draw on both summer and winter evenings. The California cuisine incorporates a bit of France, Italy and even Asia, but the ingredients are largely local: Hog Island oysters come from Tomales Bay, and the goat cheese in the ravioli comes from Laura Chenel, local cheese maker extraordinaire. Entrees may include Dungeness crab cakes or pan-seared ahi tuna. The wine list is impressive, even by Wine Country standards. A cafe menu offers bites in the bar between meals.
LaSalette. Chef-owner Manny Azevedo, born in the Azores and raised in Sonoma, serves dishes inspired by his native Portugal in this warmly decorated spot a few steps off Sonoma’s plaza. Boldly flavored dishes such as prawns with tomato-peanut sauce and coconut rice, or salt cod baked with white onions, might be followed by a dish of Portuguese rice pudding or a Port from the varied list. Crepes are served for breakfast Wednesday through Sunday.
Meritage. A fortuitous blend of southern French and northern Italian cuisine is the backbone of this restaurant, where chef Carlo Cavallo works wonders with house-made pastas. The warmly lighted dining room, with its sea of unusual sculpted-glass light fixtures, is more romantic than the lively bar area, where an oyster bar augments the menu’s extensive seafood choices. Vegetarians can enjoy a special tasting menu, which can be adapted for vegans.
Willow Wood Market Cafe. About 5 miles east of Occidental in the village of Graton is one of the best-kept secrets in the Wine Country. Tucked among a hodgepodge of kitschy toys and other gift items are a number of tables where casually dressed locals sit down to order freshly made salads and sandwiches, or heartier American fare such as pork tenderloin ragout with shiitake mushrooms.
Here’s how to contact the restaurants…
Cafe La Haye
The Farmhouse Inn
The Fig Cafe
John Ash & Co.