Counter Culture: Great Sonoma Restaurants With a Casual Vibe

Fine dining goes fast-casual at Sonoma County’s best order-at-the-counter joints. Click through the above gallery for the (drool-inducing) details. 

You’ve been dreaming of your sophisticated supper all day. And now, it’s before you, in all its locally sourced, handcrafted glory. First is a platter laden with Sonoma Rosso Old World-style dry salame flecked with red wine, pepper, and fennel; black and white truffle salame; and heritage breed pork sausage laced with creamy ribbons of Sonoma County cheeses. The polished wood board is finished with assorted homemade pickles, boutique cheeses, and a just-picked rosemary sprig from the eatery’s own bushes.

Next up is a wood-fired, bubbly crust pizza smothered in roasted leeks, handcrafted honey-chile bacon, and farm egg. That’s followed by a juicy steak presented on a fancy wood plate with peppery arugula, Parmigano-Reggiano, grilled bread, and oven-roasted organic vegetables plucked from the garden that morning. The estate Angus beef, the menu explains, was open-pasture-raised on a Sonoma County family farm.

Wow, wonderful, you tell the cashier. Then you hand over your credit card and take your food to a low-slung, stone and metal table — because you’re dining at Journeyman Meat Company, a tiny meat shop, cafe, and wine tasting bar in downtown Healdsburg.

It may seem surprising, but increasingly in Wine Country, fine dining is no longer restricted to white-tablecloth, posh-service restaurants. Instead, we’re flocking to order-at-the-counter destinations like Journeyman where every ingredient is meticulously sourced and the decor is chic — with rich wood walls, white marble counters, and just a handful of tables in the charcoal-paint and animal-print-accented lounge.

And why not? Most of us know the difference between artisanal and mass-produced foods, and we expect the best whenever we eat out. Yet time-pressed, especially during the holiday season, we’re not able — or willing — to spend three hours on a meal. For that, we’ve become happy giving up luxuries like table service.

The trend first sprouted in 2010, when Karen Taylor Waikiki opened her El Molino Central in Boyes Hot Springs near downtown Sonoma. We immediately converged on the teal-tin-and-red-tile-trimmed taqueria, for top chef-caliber signatures like tortillas made from hand-ground organic heirloom corn masa, local halibut ceviche, and Mary’s chicken enchiladas with homemade Oaxacan red mole and Rancho Gordo heritage beans. We happily marched our plates through the kitchen to the parking lot picnic tables, grabbing beer or wine from the fridge on the way.

The same year welcomed the French-themed and still enormously popular fine-casual Water Street Bistro in Petaluma, followed the next year by Healdsburg’s The Wurst artisanal sausage bar. The Italian-themed counter-service Pizzando debuted in Hotel Healdsburg in 2012, and then we welcomed the Cal-Med-themed Franchetti’s in Santa Rosa in 2016, from classically European trained chefs John and Gesine Franchetti.

The list has boomed over the past year or so, as talented chefs look for greater simplicity in their operations. The common thread among all the successes are top-notch ingredients, chef-driven menus with seasonal salutes, food-savvy staff behind the counter, striking decor, and, in most cases, boutique wine and beer offerings.

Affordable prices make the equation even more attractive. So let’s dig in.

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