As we look forward to the new year, and the promise of many amazing new restaurants on the Sonoma County horizon, it’s hard not to take a peek back at some of the biggest openings and closings of 2016. It was a year of big changes and many surprises. Among the changes: More restaurants focused on healthier themes, family-friendly and fast casual. Farm-to-table style cooking is evolving into something more personal, with chefs getting back to basics, but with a new simplicity and focus. We saw more Japanese influences and a whole lot less bacon. Seafood is making huge strides, with more options than ever, and great pastry spots are on the rise.
One of the biggest surprises? Several ambitious, high-profile restaurants as well as old standbys shuttered unexpectedly, leaving some serious holes in the fine dining scene, though new projects and up and comers this year will keep Sonoma County on the Michelin map.
Here are some of the most significant restaurant openings and closings of 2016.
2016 Sonoma County Restaurant Closings
Biggest Shocker Closing of 2016: Revival
This ambitious restaurant project by restaurateur Crista Luedtke and Chef Ben Spiegel was derailed only a few months after opening. Given high critical praise for its use of local products, fermentation, and stellar Wine Country cuisine, Revival was poised to become Michelin contender. However, owners of the Applewood Inn, where Revival was located, shuttered the restaurant without warning, shocking not only the kitchen staff, but a San Francisco critic who had a review of the restaurant planned for the coming week. Luedtke promised pop-ups of Revival, starting with a NYE party at Big Bottom Market. See the Revival review.
Johnny Garlic’s: Guy Fieri walks away from California restaurants that made him. Flagship Johnny Garlic’s promptly closes.
Seed to Leaf, Flavor Bistro, Torch of India: Ongoing construction on the square may be the straw that broke the restaurants’ back as three restaurants shutter in the busy downtown area.
Brody’s Burgers: Cheap pints and solid burgers seemed a winning combination. But just months after adding fried chicken to the menu, the restaurant closed.
Rossi’s 1906: A valiant effort to revive the former Little Switzerland included solid musical acts and a barbecue menu from Glen Ellen Star’s Ari Weisswasser. Owners are regrouping, with an Asian-style restaurant slated for this spring.
Bistro 100: We were pulling for this little chef-run spot, but after a valiant effort, Chef Garrett Adair pulled the plug to concentrate on his catering biz. The good news: The restaurant was replaced by French comfort bistro Crocodile Cafe, one of our favorite openings of 2016. Also closed, longtime Thai spot, Thai Issan.
Ninebark: After much fanfare about the arrival of NYC chef Matthew Lightner, the restaurant lasted less than a year, despite strong critical praise. Restaurant management group AvroKo was behind both Ninebark and its previous resident, The Thomas. There were hopes to reopen, but so far that hasn’t materialized. Also shuttered Atlas Social.
Ralph’s Bistro: This Healdsburg square institution had revamped to become a martini bar, but owner Ralph Tingle closed the restaurant with plans for another restaurant project in the works. The space has been in construction limbo for months, but the space’s new owner, Bill Foley (Foley Wines, Chalkboard) has plans for a restaurant called Brass Rabbit.
2016 Sonoma County Restaurant Openings
Biggest Opening: Single Thread Farms + Restaurant
The anticipation for this haute Healdsburg dining experience was near frothing in the food world. Chef Kyle Connaughton worked on the concept for this seasonally-inspired omakase-style menu with his staff for more than a year during the build-out. Wife Katina runs the nearby farm, featuring hard-to-find fruits and vegetables that can hit the table just hours after being harvested. With prices of $295 per person and up (not including wine), diners are given a bespoke dining experience that can last hours, with intriguing preparations, beautiful service ware and a luxe kitchen-as-theater evening.131 North St, Healdsburg. Read my First Look at Single Thread Farms here.
Biggest Napa Opening: Two Birds/One Stone
In Napa, every restaurant opening tends to be significant, but Top Chef Master’s winner Douglas Keane and LA celeb chef San Yoon’s new project was high on the Bay Area radar. Like the boisterous but culinarily disciplined Keane, Two Birds/One Stone is a wonderful tangle of contradictions: Flip-flop casual with white napkin service; a menu where creamed corn and soft-serve ice cream happily co-exist with cherry blossom gelee and Wagyu beef short ribs. Solid from the start. 3020 St. Helena Hwy. North, St. Helena, 707-302-3777, twobirdsonestonenapa.com.
Biteclub’s First Look at Two Birds/One Stone
Most Interesting Town for Restaurant Openings in 2016: Petaluma
Some of the most exciting openings have happened in southern Sonoma County, where the restaurant scene just continues to explode. There are several more openings anticipated this spring.
Crocodile Cafe: French comfort classics like steak frites and panisse, along with creative takes like pimento cheese Gourgeres and pumpkin croquettes. One of our favorite stops this year. 140 Second St., Suite 100, Petaluma, 707-981-8159, crocodilepetaluma.com. BiteClub’s First Look at Crocodile Cafe.
Quinua Cocina Peruana: New Peruvian restaurant with solid ceviches and authentic South American cuisine. 500 Petaluma Blvd. South, Petaluma, 707-981-7359. BiteClub’s First Look at Quinua Cocina Peruana.
The Shuckery: A project of the venerable Oyster Girls (sisters Aluxa and Jazmine Lalicker), oysters obviously get top billing here, each hand-shucked behind the bar. But seafood dishes like ceviche and calamari relleno make it destination-worthy. 100 Washington St., Petaluma, 707-981-7891, theshuckeryca.co. Biteclub’s First Look at the Shuckery.
Bright Bear Bakery: The buzz about this incredible little bakery got out fast, as news of cream-filled cronuts (a cross between a croissant and a donut that’s too decadent not to eat), morning buns and fresh breads made the rounds. But when we tried the twice baked croissants? Love in pastry form.2620 Lakeville Hwy., Suite 350, Petaluma, 707-291-10181, facebook.com/brightbearbakery. Biteclub’s First Look at Bright Bear Bakery.
County Bench: A significant opening, with notable local chefs Bruce Frieseke and Ben Davies heading up the kitchen. We’re huge fans of the food and the cocktails, but some service slips and staff turnover (including Frieseke’s departure) have kept the restaurant from really hitting its stride. We hope 2017 is their year. The County Bench Kitchen + Bar, 535 Fourth St., Santa Rosa, 707-535-0700, thecountybench.com. Biteclub’s First Look at County Bench.
Franchetti’s Wood Fire Kitchen: We’ll go out on a limb and say that this is probably the best restaurant success story of the year. Though the restaurant existed as part of the Rosso empire previously, a split let Chef John Franchetti really spread his wings in 2016. A new menu, expanded hours and unfalteringly great food using local ingredients is what has always made us love John and his wife Gesine. Finding success in a rather remote office park location makes it even more impressive. 1229 N. Dutton, Santa Rosa, 707-526-1229, franchettis.com. BiteClub’s First Look at Franchetti’s.
Pharmacy Cafe: Delicious, healthy, intentional food is what’s on the menu at this tiny cafe. The twist: It actually tastes incredible. Chef Jennifer McMurry (formerly of Viola Pastry Cafe) has created a breakfast and lunch menu of food with a conscience. 990 Sonoma Ave. #1, Santa Rosa, 707-978-2801, thepharmacysonomacounty.com. Biteclub’s First Look at Pharmacy.
Tomatina: Though chain-style eateries aren’t usually worthy of much discussion, we’re fans of this fast-casual Italian restaurant with good, approachable Italian-American cuisine at reasonable prices. 2323 Sonoma Ave. in Montgomery Village, Santa Rosa, 707-583-0035, tomatina.com. Biteclub’s First Look at Tomatina
Sonoma Cider Taproom: More than a 5,500 square foot cider taproom, this Healdsburg addition includes a solid cafe of sandwiches, soups and charcuterie perfect for pairing. 44 Mill Street, Healdsburg, 707-723-7018, sonomacider.com. Biteclub’s First Look at Sonoma Cider Taproom.
Duke’s Spirited Cocktails: Keeping up the 90-year tradition of successive bars at the location (it was formerly John & Zeke’s), cocktails are king at this bar, but with a modern twist. Duke’s is all about seasonal craft libations, aka farm-to-glass drinks that include herbs, fruit vinegars, fruit purees and top shelf artisan booze. 1112 Plaza St., Healdsburg, 707-431-1060. Biteclub’s First Look at Duke’s.
Handline: Focused on “Coastal California” cuisine, the owner of Peter Lowell’s in Sebastopol, this is another spectacular opening.You’ll find plenty of seafood ranging from raw and grilled oysters to fried rockfish tacos, fisherman’s stew, halibut ceviche, and a killer salad with house smoked trout, pickled onion, apple and buttermilk dressing. Best of all: Homemade corn tortillas. 935 Gravenstein Hwy. South, Sebastopol, 707-827-3744, handline.com. Biteclub’s First Look at Handline.
Tasca Tasca: The third restaurant for Chef Manuel Azavedo (La Salette, Cafe Lucia), this Portuguese tapas bar is by far one of our favorites. Sit at the casual bar, or grab a table, and order from dozens of authentic small plates. 122 W. Napa St., Sonoma, 707-996-8272, tascatasca.com. Biteclub’s First Look at Tasca Tasca.
New Haven Apizza: Mexican bakery by day, New Haven-style pizzeria by night. Fernando Garcia, whose family owns Garcia Mexican bakery learned about this East Coast style of pizza after working in a New Haven restaurant for 15 years. 555 Fifth St. West, 707-931-4694, newhavenapizzashop.com.
Trading Post: This long-anticipated Cloverdale restaurant is yet another feather in the cap of this emerging dining north county destination. Though the small bakery has been open more than a year, the main dining room officially opened Friday with a hearty Sonoma County-inspired menu that includes a house-ground burger on their own brioche, fried chicken thighs, Liberty Farms duck confit over seaweed, Blue Leg Farms roasted chicken, and porchetta. 102 S. Cloverdale Blvd., Cloverdale, 707-894-6483, thepostcloverdale.com.