In the restaurant business, it’s saying something to make it through the first year, and rare to last more than ten. But in Sonoma County, there are more than a dozen that survived well past their 30th year, and a handful which outlasted generations of diners, stretching back more than a century.
These are well-worn eateries that have a proven formula. Most share a common heritage, built by Italian immigrants to the region, serving hearty family-style meals at approachable prices. It’s not a stretch to say that the farms, timber mills, railroads and vineyards of Sonoma County were built on pasta and meatballs. And maybe a steak or two.
We pay homage to 15 tried and true restaurants that have stood the test of time and are still going strong.
Stormy’s Spirits and Supper, 1854
Established as a roadhouse, Stormy’s has hosted generations of West County diners. The restaurant turned into a steakhouse in the early 1970s, and remains at family-style dining destination in Bloomfield. 6650 Bloomfield Road, Petaluma, 795-0127, stormysrestaurant.com.
Washoe House, 1859
A former stagecoach stop connecting Petaluma, Santa Rosa and Bodega, this historic roadhouse is best known for two things: Dollar bills pinned to the bar ceiling and The Battle of the Washoe House. According to legend, following the 1865 assassination of Abraham Lincoln, a group of Petaluma militia were intent to creating trouble for Southern-leaning Santa Rosans. Their thirst got the best of them, and the group ended up getting drunk instead of rabble-rousing. The Washoe House was sold in 2015 to Petaluma Creamery owner Larry Peter. 2840 Stony Point, Petaluma, 795-4544.
Union Hotel, 1891
Though there are several newer locations of this classic restaurant, the Occidental restaurant has been around for more than 125 years. What began as the Union Saloon and General Store grew into a family business, with four generations managing the restaurant over the years. The bakery and cafe is packed on the weekends, and rightly so, with some of the best pastries around. 3731 Main St., Occidental, 874-3555, unionhoteloccidental.com.
Volpi’s Grocery, 1925
Though its operated as a grocery for most of its existence, Volpi’s major claim to fame was as a speakeasy in the 1920s. Locals know that the “secret” bar is still in operation, with a convenient escape door to the alley in case of a raid. Or your ex-wife. The grocery became a restaurant in 1992, though there’s still an old Italian grocery vibe with well-worn wooden floors and walls lined with Italian tchotchkes, accordions, and candle wax-covered chianti bottles. 124 Washington St., Petaluma, 762-2371.
Italian immigrants Santi and Virginia Catelli opened Catelli’s “The Rex” in tiny Geyserville as an unpretentious family eatery featuring spaghetti, minestrone and ravioli. The family closed the restaurant in 1986, but it was reopened in Healdsburg, where it stood until 2004. In 2010, siblings Domenica and Nick Catelli reopened the restaurant at the original Geyserville location, where its been host to a number of celebrities, but remains an approachable family-style restaurant. Their paper-thin layers of lasagna noodles makes Catelli’s version one of the best in the region. 21047 Geyserville Ave., Geyserville, 857-7142, mycatellis.com.
Dinucci’s Italian Dinners, 1939
Though the building dates to 1908, serving train travelers, the current restaurant didn’t open until 1939. Run by Henry and Mabel Dinucci, the restaurant was a welcome stop for hearty family-style Italian dinners. Te restaurant was sold to the Wagner family in 1968, but some of Mabel’s recipes have lasted the test of time, and are still in use today. The historic interior hasn’t changed much, with red and white checkered tablecloths right out of the 1940s. 14485 Hwy. 1, Valley Ford, 876-3260, dinuccisrestaurant.com.
This family-owned Italian restaurant started as a stopover for train travelers going from San Francisco to Eureka. The restaurant lore is that the original owner, Joe Negri Sr., an Italian immigrant, was once the personal chef of movie legend Rudolph Valentino. After moving to Santa Rosa, he opened Negri’s, which has continued to serve up traditional Italian pasta dinners, many using original recipes from the 193os, ever since. 3700 Bohemian Hwy., Occidental, negrisrestaurant.com.
La Casa, 1967
With simple, traditional Mexican food just off the Sonoma Square, La Casa has seen the transformation of this sleepy rural town into the tourist destination it is today. The restaurant was purchased in 2015 by the Sherpa Brothers Group, Nepalese restaurateurs who’ve reinvigorated several of the town’s restaurant spaces. If you go, don’t miss the margaritas. 121 East Spain St., Sonoma, 996-3406, lacasarestaurant.com.
Prime rib has always been the staple of this old school steakhouse, where generations have snuggled into its booths for filet mignon, lobster tails and baked potatoes. 4618 Old Redwood Hwy., Santa Rosa, 527-7768, cricklewoodrestaurant.com.
The Villa, 1976
Great views and a popular bar have made this Italian restaurant a destination for generations. The fare is right out of the 1950s, with dishes like Beef Stroganoff, Sole Dore, Veal Picatta and Scaloppine, Shrimp Louie and spaghetti and meatballs, but newer additions like pizza and risotto are also popular. You’ll find plenty of goombas and early bird diners (dinner starts at 3pm), along with a newer generation at Happy Hour, enjoying the hilltop gathering place. 3901 Montgomery Dr., Santa Rosa, 528-7755, thevillarestaurant.com.
Don Taylor’s Omelette Express, 1978
You’ll find owner Don Taylor at the door of the original Santa Rosa location most weekends, welcoming generations of families who’ve made breakfast at Omelette Express a tradition. Omelettes are, of course, a best bet, but there’s plenty more on the lengthy menu, including Benedicts, burgers, sandwiches, salads and some of the best coffee in town. 112 Fourth St., Santa Rosa, 525-1690; 150 Windsor River Road, Windsor, 838-6920, omeletteexpress.com
La Gare, opened 1979
Roger Praplan relishes the fact that he’s serving the grandchildren of some of La Gare’s early customers. Praplan’s parents were early entrepreneurs in Santa Rosa’s Railroad Square, purchasing their lot for $25,000 in 1977. Though dining trends have come and gone during the restaurant’s 30-plus years, Praplan stays laser-focused on the traditional French cuisine that’s made the restaurant a popular birthday, anniversary and holiday restaurant for decades. “People always want to reinvent. Just readjust, and stick to your vision,” said Praplan. 208 Wilson St., Santa Rosa. lagarerestaurant.com.
John Ash & Co, opened 1980
It’s impossible to talk about Sonoma’s longstanding food scene without paying homage to its patriarch, John Ash. What began as an idea became a revolution — using nearby produce, meats and cheeses to create wholesome, ethical, lush food and pairing it with great local wines. Though it seems almost quaint now, Ash was an early pioneer at his Montgomery Village restaurant. Though Ash is no longer in the kitchen of his eponymous restaurant, some of the top chefs and winemakers (Jeffrey Madura, Dan Kosta, Michael Browne) are alums of the historic eatery. Now headed by Chef Tom Schmidt, the restaurant still holds close its original vision. 4330 Barnes Road, Santa Rosa, website.
Restaurant at Madrona Manor, opened 1981
As Healdsburg has grown up, so has this once-unassuming restaurant inside this Victorian bed and breakfast. In 1999, when Bill and Trudi Konrad purchased the property, they hired Chef Jesse Mallgren. An alum of Gary Danko’s at Chateau Souverain and SF’s legendary Stars, Mallgren grew up in Sonoma County. Though he defines his cuisine as first and foremost local and seasonally-inspired, about 10 years ago Mallgren began pushing boundaries with molecular gastronomy techniques that include using liquid nitrogen to make ice cream. “We use the best techniques with the best products,” he said. What he credits with the restaurant’s continued success: Creative control in the kitchen. Free of financial and time constraints of many other chefs, Mallgren can channel his energy into a showcase tasting menu. 1001 Westside Road, Healdsburg, 433-4321, madronamanor.com.
Depot Hotel, 1985
Though it’s a bit of a sleeper, the off-square restaurant is located inside a historic 19th-century hotel, and features a hidden pool on the outdoor patio. Owner Michael Ghilarducci and his wife founded a cooking school in1987, and now their son, Antonio is the executive chef. 241 First St. West, Sonoma, 938-2980, depotsonoma.com.