Though scores of new restaurants open and close in Sonoma County every year, a handful stand out. This year, a dozen new restaurants caught–and held–my attention throughout the year. Among the qualities that resonated with me over and over:

  • Quality: Using their own farms, or nearby farms, along with quality producers isn’t new, but the lengths to which many of these restaurateurs went–from gleaning to literally planting and harvesting their own food–went up a notch this year.
  • New Flavors: Playing up ethnic flavors, exotic spices and incorporating new ingredients from around the world
  • A return to the past:  Old world, slow cooking techniques, a return to classic French cuisine
  • Garden and forest: Use of flowers and other unusual fauna brought in earthier, darker flavors
  • Produce-forward: Creative takes on meatless dishes, treating vegetarian dishes with respect and care
  • Chef-led: It’s pretty hard to have a point-of-view restaurant without a clear direction in the kitchen. 

Here are the best Sonoma County restaurant openings of 2017:

Handline Coastal California Cuisine: This casual coastal-inspired restaurant from Lowell Sheldon (Lowell’s) and Natalie Goble takes everything from fish tacos (with homemade corn tortillas) to burgers and luxe vegetable dishes seriously. Sustainable, thoughtful, fresh and fun, this is a go-to spot when I’m paying the bill–the highest praise I can give a restaurant. 935 Gravenstein Ave., Sebastopol, 707-827-3744, handline.com.

Tisza Bistro: Tisza may have been born during the wildfires of October, but named after a meandering Hungarian river, its menu is awash in a love for the flavors of Sonoma County and Eastern Europe. A mix of Old World comfort food (with lots of roasting) and fresh, California-inspired ingredients make for an intriguing menu ranging from brown butter artichokes with tarragon and lemon aioli, duck confit with brandied cherries, spaetzle mac and cheese, and smoked bratwurst and braised sauerkraut. Plus, the schnitzel ain’t bad. 8757 Old Redwood Hwy, Windsor, 707-838-5100, tiszabistro.com.

Drawing Board: It’s not every day that you find vegan smoked carrot lox and cashew cream cheese on a menu next to roasted bone marrow. But at a culinary moment when diners want a combination of the familiar and exotic; decadent and healthy; conventional and sustainable, Petaluma’s Drawing Board feels like a roadmap to the future of dining. 190 Kentucky St, Petaluma, 707-774-6689, tdbpetaluma.com.

Flower and Bone: Dahlia Martinez combs her neighborhood and backyard farm daily looking for tasty tidbits she can preserve, can, puree or otherwise incorporate into the sweet and savory stories she concocts at her downtown Santa Rosa restaurant, opened with partner Jason Sakach. The couple also owns Santa Rosa breakfast/brunch/lunch spot Naked Pig. Hours are limited, so make a reservation. 640 Fifth St., Santa Rosa, 707-708-8529, flowerandbonerestaurant.com.

Russian River Vineyards Restaurant: A stunning organic farm is the foundation of this truly farm-to-table restaurant. With Chef Ben Davies at the helm and a talented kitchen staff, Russian River Vineyards has become a Forestville dining destination instead of a Hwy. 116 drive-by. 5700 CA-116, Forestville, 707-887-3344, russianrivervineyards.com.

Trading Post: Chef/owner Erik Johnson is a high-end restaurant pro who is showcasing Cloverdale’s edible bounty, and elevating the once-sleepy town to a culinary destination. Is it too soon for a visionary restaurant in the hinterlands? Time will tell. 102 S. Cloverdale Blvd., Cloverdale, 707-894-6483, thepostcloverdale.

Barrio Fresca Cocina: Mexican cooking has so much to offer beyond burritos and quesadillas. Using fresh sauces, scratch cooking and the rich flavors of his homeland, Carlos Rosas brings authentic, yet unpretentious dishes that stand out in a sea of taqueria sameness. 6760 McKinley St., Suite 120, Sebastopol, 707-329-6538, barlow.barriobayarea.com

City Garden Donuts: These aren’t workaday donuts or wacky cereal-coated marshmallow-dipped curiosities that are more fun to look at than eat. Instead, City Garden takes a more subtle approach using intensely-flavored glazes made with fresh fruit (the lemon glaze is perfectly pucker-worthy) and chocolate atop pillowy brioche. 1200 4th St, Santa Rosa, 595-1932, facebook.com/CityGardenDoughnuts.

Brass Rabbit: With classic dishes like Boeuf Bourguignon and rabbit pot pie, Chef Shane McAnelly’s cuisine pays homage to French comfort food, but doesn’t take itself too seriously, giving room for playful changes with the seasons. 109 Plaza St, Healdsburg, 707-473-8580, thebrassrabbithealdsburg.com

Reel Fish Shop and Grill: One of the questions most often asked by restaurant-seekers in Sonoma County: Where can I get great seafood? And though many restaurants have one or two seafood items on the menu, Reel Fish Shop & Grill is one of only a handful that specialize in seafood. With a focus on helping to maintain rather than deplete ocean populations, it’s a solid choice when you’re craving a taste of the sea. 401 Grove St., Sonoma, 707-343-0044, thereelfishshop.com.

Journeyman Meat Co.: The long road from vintner to salumist culminated this year in Pete Seghesio’s butcher shop in Healdsburg. Part salumeria part local meat shop, the tiny space has become a perfect pairing of old-school Italian and Sonoma County tradition. 404 Center St., Healdsburg, 707-395-MEAT, journeymanmeat.com.

Brewsters Beer Garden: The palatial outdoor garden, inspired barbecue and drink menu set this up to be a winner from day one. While service has continually been a challenge, we’re hoping a little tightening up over the winter will reveal what this hot spot has the potential to be long-term. And the pork belly with cheese curds and fried chicken sandwich still have us drooling. 229 Water St., Petaluma, 707-981-8330, brewstersbeergarden.com.

Goodbyes
Though there were a handful of closures throughout the year, the toughest were the restaurants that burned in the fires: Willi’s Wine Bar, Sweet T’s Restaurant and Bar, the historic Cricklewood steakhouse, Mountain Mike’s Pizza, Puerta Vallarta and Equus Bar and Grill at the Hilton. It was difficult to see the burned-out remains of places we’ve eaten and loved over the years. Also closed at the end of 2017 was Chloe’s French Cafe, which suffered fire damage and closed soon after (though the team will continue catering).