Restaurateurs are a brave lot, and few are braver than those who dive head-first into opening a restaurant while the economy continues to slump, raw food costs are higher than ever, diners are spooked by skyrocketing menu prices, staffing shortages are still very real, and negative social media can sink a restaurant in short order. Even in the best possible world, most don’t make it to five years, no matter how good they are.
Despite the barriers to entry, new eateries open almost every week in Sonoma County, and restaurateurs brave the odds despite the very real possibility that their hard work won’t find traction in a saturated market.
That makes successful new restaurants notable and worth celebrating. In what’s become an annual — and very subjective — look at the year’s dining landscape.
More than 50 restaurants opened this year in Sonoma County, and narrowing the list to 10 stand-outs wasn’t easy. But what these ten spots have in common are previous successes (such as chefs moving from pop-ups to brick-and-mortars); a great kitchen crew, serving staff and management team; an interesting, well-executed menu; comfortable atmosphere; and good marketing (the last can be a silent killer if ignored). I have an almost perfect record of knowing if a restaurant will be a success or failure simply by the font they use on their menu. It’s a little detail, but shows whether the owner knows their audience and has aesthetic acuity.
Millennial owners and chefs make up most of this year’s winners. Ranging between their late 20s and early 40s, they’re bringing fresh ideas, taking risks with non-traditional concepts, and attracting younger diners (often from San Francisco and the rest of the Bay Area).
Here are the Best Sonoma County Restaurant Openings of 2023:
Overall Winner: Molti Amici (June)
SingleThread alums Jonny Barr, and Sean McGaughey remained close friends after their stints at the Michelin-starred restaurant. McGaughey and his wife, Melissa Yanc, opened Quail & Condor Bakery, Troubadour and Le Diner in 2021 and 2022, often with Barr helping. Tapping several other friends for the project, the group opened Molti Amici last summer with a stunning bar program, fresh pasta menu, wood-fired pizzas with ever-changing seasonal ingredients and excellent desserts. Their enthusiasm is infectious, and the restaurant has filled a social gap left by the closure of Campo Fina.
Why It Matters: Their luxury dining backgrounds bring cred to this bustling bistro, but there’s nothing stuffy or formal about the food or the atmosphere. A mix of locals and visitors speaks to Molti Amici’s authenticity. 330 Healdsburg Ave., Healdsburg, moltiamici.com
The Redwood (February)
When Khom Loi alums Geneva Melby and Ryan Miller soft-launched The Redwood in late February, I planned to stop in for a glass of cloudy natural wine and maybe a courtesy nibble of charcuterie. Ninety minutes later, I was still eating (and drinking) because once the first dishes came to the table — crisp cubes of potatoes with pimenton aioli and a plate of fresh pita with the best baba ghanoush I’ve ever eaten — had me stuck to my seat, where I settled in for the night.
Why It Matters: A young team passionate about natural wines has created a welcoming space for anyone interested in low-intervention winemaking. Food, however, isn’t an afterthought but a loving pairing to these food-friendly wines. It’s a much-needed fresh take on wine bars. 234 S. Main St., Sebastopol, 707-861-9730, theredwoodwine.com.
Second Story (July)
Last summer, the owners of Little Saint (formerly SHED) quietly opened the doors of their renovated upstairs dining room with a prix-fixe menu that’s surprisingly modest for the quality of food prepared in the state-of-the-art upstairs kitchen. At the helm is Chef Stu Stalker, an alum of Copehagen’s Noma (considered one of the world’s best restaurants). Each dish is meticulously planned and plated, a testament to what can be accomplished without using animal products.
Why It Matters: Plant-based dining gets much-needed inspiration from a world-renowned chef who takes it very seriously. Here, playful experimentation leads to innovation in the evolving realm of meatless cuisine.
Valley Swim Club ( October)
A second, more casual Sonoma restaurant from the Valley Bar + Bottle Team shows how much talent this awesome foursome has to spare. Chefs Emma Lipp and Stephanie Reagor, along with friends Tanner Walle and Lauren Feldman made Bar + Bottle a must-visit through the troubled times of the pandemic. The ultra-casual poolside vibe (there’s actually no pool) explores seafood classics with Asian and Mexican twists. Their passion for natural wines extends to their pairings in both locations.
Why It Matters: The new restaurant is a more approachable extension with broad appeal to the SF crowd and locals. 18709 Arnold Dr., Sonoma, valleyswim.club.
Goose & Fern (August)
It’s not easy to take over a much-loved English pub with another English pub, but Clyde and Brittany Hartwell have won us over with their fish and chips, Guinness beef pie and British desserts. Clyde’s a hale and hearty host, and the food’s as comforting as pulling on your favorite jammies straight from the dryer. Fifth St., Santa Rosa, 707-843-4235, thegooseandfern.com.
Why It Matters: The closure of Toad in the Hole was a loss, but the new owners have kept the fun, pubby atmosphere with a new focus on food.
Mark and Terri Stark’s new restaurant isn’t about fiddly French food and meticulous plating. It’s about hearty onion soup, braised boeuf Bourguignon with creamy potatoes and bowls of steaming mussels swimming in creamy Dijon sauce that’s begging to be soaked up with a crusty baguette. Augie’s is a truffle-buttered bear hug of a restaurant where the Champagne starts flowing at 3 p.m. and the skinny fries come in a gold-handled rondeau pan because they can.
Why It Matters: With eight restaurants and hundreds of employees, the Starks matter in the Sonoma County culinary scene. They’ve taken chances on locations for their restaurants (such as Railroad Square for Stark’s Steak and Seafood), and this downtown Santa Rosa location speaks volumes about their dedication to the revitalization of the Fourth Street corridor. Plus, who doesn’t like French food? 535 Fourth St., Santa Rosa, 707-531-4400, augiesfrench.com.
Marla Bakery (October)
Marla isn’t just a bakery; it’s a community. Owners Amy Brown and Joe Wolf moved their family to Sonoma County in 2020 and have operated out of a small Windsor production kitchen. Opening a retail shop lets them expand their distribution, but more importantly, create a warm and welcoming space for locals to ruminate over coffee and pastries in the former Miracle Plum location.
Why It Matters: Amy isn’t just a baker — she’s a trained chef with serious chops. Her creativity in sweet and savory pastries, bread, and patisserie is one thing, but she’s expanding to include fried chicken and brunch pop-ups along with Thirsty Thursdays with paired bites. 208 Davis St., Santa Rosa, 707-852-4098, marlabakery.com.
Stellina Alimentari (November)
“The best trattoria this side of Rome” is how I’ve described this tiny cafe from the owners of Stellina Pronto. Sandwiches are their bread and butter, with meaty porchetta on rosemary lemon bread and lighter schiaccita (think focaccia) with grilled artichoke relish and roasted mushrooms. The menu extends to include fried snacks, charcuterie and salads. 160 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma, stellinaalimentari.com.
Why It Matters: Almost everything is made in-house, and owner Christian Caiazzo is serious about his passion for Italian cooking. Stellina Pronto has become a staple of Petaluma’s food scene, and Alimentari is headed in the same direction.
Tiki is a lifestyle choice for General Manager Michael Richardson who has been slinging mai tai’s for decades. The bar is a maximalist mashup of faux Polynesian, Pacific pirate, midcentury modern, beachcomber, Indiana Jones, and pinup Americana with Hawaiian and Pacific-rim-inspired eats. Sipping rum drinks tucked into a faux grass shack is a vibe.
Why It Matters: The themed bar is a fun experience, but Richardson takes his drinks seriously (he’s literally written the book on tiki drinks). Chef Mike Lutz brings approachable flavors to dishes that match the island-y adventure. 132 Keller St., Petaluma, 707-559-3665, kapubar.com.
Iggy’s Organic Burgers (June)
One of the best options for a family night on the Healdsburg Plaza is the new Iggy’s Organic Burgers and Angela’s Organic Ice Cream shop housed together in one space. Owned by a mother and son, the casual burger spot is something Healdsburg needed — ultra-casual takeout dining (there are a few tables, but not many). The burgers are absolutely incredible in a fast-food sort of way — the thin patty, the mushy bun, the “Million Island” sauce. Plus, there’s ice cream and cheesecake in the same store!
Why It Matters: Healdsburg needed a break from yet another fine dining establishment.
Bonus Addition, Maison Porcella (March)
Though the charcuterie shop didn’t open in 2023, Chef Marc-Henri and Maude Jean-Baptiste’s cafe-style lunch and dinner program officially launched this spring. Leave any thoughts of a rushed meal at the doorstep because Maude insists you enjoy your meal without racing from one dish to the next. And she’s not afraid to enforce that very continental philosophy through her charm. Some dishes take up to 20 minutes to prepare, and they’re so worth it.
Why It Matters: The food is undeniably French, as is the Sonoma-meets-Lyon atmosphere. The magic of this little bistro makes it a truly special find. 8499 Old Redwood Highway, Windsor. 707-955-5611, maisonporcella.com.