“Are you serious?” is about the only thing to say when a very undignified plastic container of shrimp and grits is inexplicably plopped in front of me at Healdsburg’s newest dining hotspot, Duke’s Common. I’m feigning indignity quite well after a couple glasses of rosé.

This flimsy plastic tub — albeit brimming with buttery Southern grits with lobster sauce and fiery little shrimp — is the kind you’d find stuffed into a doggie bag or filled with fruit salad. Not exactly the bespoke earthenware stoically dotting starched white tablecloths around the rest of the Square.

Snacks and sticks from Duke’s Common in Healdsburg. Heather Irwin/PD

Snacks and sticks from Duke’s Common in Healdsburg. Heather Irwin/PD

Then I get the joke. It’s a riff on “family meal”, a secret dish found at every restaurant, but not available on any menu. Humble, but nourishing, it’s a members-only experience for restaurant staff, made with a hodge-podge of kitchen leftovers and served from a communal pot. When family meal is set out, everyone from servers and dishwashers to executive chefs and line cooks come running — usually with a plastic take-out container — for this behind-closed-doors ritual.

“We all thought it would be a fun tongue-in-cheek menu item,” said Chef Shane Mcanelly (Brass Rabbit, Chalkboard), who collaborated on the project with Duke’s Spirited Cocktails owners Steven Maduro, Laura Sanfilippo, Tara Heffernon and Cappy Sorentino. “It’s been fun for me to take ideas that we might do for family meal and elevate them slightly,” said Mcanelly.

Five Dot Ranch corn dogs with stadium mustard. Heather Irwin/PD

Five Dot Ranch corn dogs with stadium mustard. Heather Irwin/PD

Bridging that gap between front of house and back of house, restaurant or bar, lofty versus unpretentious, Duke’s Common is the halfway point—literally and figuratively—between the classic American cafe dining of Brass Rabbit (109 Plaza St.) and unfiltered farm-to-table booziness of Duke’s Spirited Cocktails (111 Plaza St.). Housed in the former Scopa space, the goal of the casual commisary is to be, “A high-spirited place to gather with friends to enjoy a quick bite and drink in the heart of downtown Healdsburg,” say owners.

At the Common, thirty-somethings balance toddlers on their hips, while sipping Prosecco, the pre-dinner crowd can grab quick nibble and glass of wine, and after-hours revelers can stuff down some Disco Fries before boogying home to bed.

Menu at Duke’s Common in Healdsburg. Heather Irwin/PD

Menu at Duke’s Common in Healdsburg. Heather Irwin/PD

Keeping in that unruffled spirit of hale and hearty bites like fries doused with gravy and tubs of shrimp and grits, it’s clear to see that Duke’s Common doesn’t take itself the least bit seriously. There’s a brief but eclectic lineup of things on skewers (mushrooms, chicken, corn dogs), small bites like the insanely popular McChicken sandwich and slightly larger bites that include slices of pizza for $4 or a burrito stuffed with falafel, along with cocktails, wine, and beer. Nothing on the menu is more than $10. We ordered just about the entire menu for under $100, much to our surprise.

Duke’s Common has arrived in the right place at the right time—a place for all of us to gather, whether we’re plastic dish or white tablecloth kinds of diners.

Best Bets

McChicken Sandwich ($6): Exactly nothing like its namesake–except for being fried, doused in mayo and highly addictive. A top-seller for a reason.

McChicken Sandwich with spicy mayo, cabbage slaw at Duke’s Common in Healdsburg. Heather Irwin/PD

McChicken Sandwich with spicy mayo, cabbage slaw at Duke’s Common in Healdsburg. Heather Irwin/PD

Marinated Shrooms ($6): Surf and turf without the beef. The earthbound flavors of mushrooms meet briny furikake seasoning and seaweed. Kewpie mayo dots keep the dish on-trend for you know, people who like Kewpie mayo.

Little Pork Tacos ($7): Yucatan-roasted pork shoulder with habanero marinated onions and lime. You can get ‘em just as good elsewhere in Healdsburg, but having a Carmela Anthony cocktail ($10, vodka, lemongrass, ginger and prickly pear) in your hand concurrently trumps any Michelada.

Maple Bacon Donut ($3): Donut may oversell what’s more of a maple-glazed beignet. Big flavors make up for the tiny size. Recommended: Catch all bacon and glaze crumbs into waxed paper, then upturn into your open mouth. Refuse to acknowledge you just did that.

BBQ Pork Banh Mi ($8): Sub out pork for black pepper tofu topped with pickled carrot, daikon, cilantro, pate and jalapeno mayo, and you’ve got a killer veggie ‘wich.

Five Dot Ranch Corn Dogs ($6): Doll-sized bites of corn dog with spicy stadium mustard. They’re just so darned cute.

Maple bacon donut at Duke’s Commons in Healdsburg. Heather Irwin/PD

Maple bacon donut at Duke’s Common in Healdsburg. Heather Irwin/PD

Falafel-Ritto ($9): We recently had a similar bite at Zoftig, but the tiny size of this version was more cocktail-hour appropriate and packs a powerful flavor one-two punch with tzatziki, falafel and pickled onion.

Swing and a Miss

Pork Satay ($7): Lemongrass and ginger flavor petite skewers of pork. More peanut sauce would be advisable.

Disco Fries ($6): Though our fries seemed to have peaked before even hitting the dance floor, this concept gives Saturday Night Fever to poutine (gravy and cheese curds), adding mozzarella and Bechamel to the mushroom gravy. We like a crispier base, or the whole thing falls like a dropped disco ball. 

Duke’s Common is located 109A Plaza St., in Healdsburg. For information, call 707-431-1105 for visit dukescommon.com.