It’s easy to get caught up in the rush of restaurant debuts throughout the year, bouncing from one grand opening to the next without really having time to fully digest each experience.
Only through the lens of time can we understand a new local restaurant’s importance to Sonoma County, whether through what’s on the table, who’s in the kitchen or how the restaurant impacts the greater community.
My list of 2021’s most notable restaurant openings is a look at what’s garnered special attention this year — small pop-ups becoming permanent restaurants, a new generation of immigrants opening their own restaurants, experienced chefs taking considerable risks in a challenging time or new ideas for old spaces.
No doubt, there are restaurants I’ve overlooked or some that didn’t fit the framework of this article. (You can read about all the restaurants that opened this year on pressdemocrat.com and sonomamag.com.)
In no particular order, here are my picks for this year’s biggest restaurant openings. Click through the above gallery for a peek inside the restaurants and suggestions on what to order.
Quail and Condor: Bakery superstars Melissa Yanc and Sean McGaughey opened their small storefront in January and the rave reviews have continued since. The couple is known for their wild yeast sourdough and hearty dark loaves, but their sweet pastries — croissants and filled Danishes, also made with sourdough — alone are worth the trip. Yanc, a former chef at Single Thread, won $25,000 on the 2019 Food Network “Holiday Baking Championship” show and the couple raised more than $20,000 for their bakery build-out in 2020 through crowdsourcing. 149 Healdsburg Ave., Healdsburg, 707-473-8254, quailandcondor.com
Why it matters: This scrappy young couple have not only launched their own bakery but have hosted frequent dinner pop-ups to support their friends’ culinary enterprises, from burgers to bao. Yanc and McGaughey plan to open a sandwich shop, Troubadour, in downtown Healdsburg at the former Moustache Baked Goods (381 Healdsburg Ave.).
The Matheson and Roof 106: Chef Dustin Valette’s much-hyped new dining experience includes a reservation-only downstairs restaurant and a more casual upstairs lounge.
Why it matters: The rehab of the 106 Matheson building, where Valette’s grandfather once had a bakery, was a massive undertaking, resulting in a modern three-story wonder that’s dominating the Healdsburg restaurant scene. An approachable menu, a self-serve wine wall, a separate sushi menu inspired by Hana’s Ken Tominaga and Valette’s boundless energy (and sizable personal investment) have The Matheson well on its way to becoming a Healdsburg institution, for good reason. 106 Matheson St., Healdsburg, 707-723-1106, thematheson.com
Hazel Hill at Montage: This multimillion dollar resort has had its ups and downs, and its swanky restaurant has followed suit. The Olive Terrace dining area features an outdoor dining patio, fire pits and lounge areas to sip cocktails or enjoy fine dining. An expansive view of the Alexander Valley is spread out like a quilt with more than 200 acres of land surrounding the terrace. 100 Montage Way, Healdsburg, 707-979-9000, montagehotels.com
Why it matters: The French-ish opening menu at Hazel Hill was way out of step with the unmistakable sense of place (the Alexander Valley) that the resort cultivates. Frankly, it was a disappointment, with poorly thought-out dishes and awkward service. The kitchen has since settled in, with comfortable and family-friendly breakfast, brunch and lunch menus. The dinner lineup is impressive, although the prices are mile-high.
Altamont General Store: Jenay and Andzia Hofftin spent nearly four years rehabbing Occidental’s iconic 1876 hotel, housed in the west county hamlet’s oldest building. Hailing from pioneering stock, Jenay’s family has been part of the town since the two-story way station was built. This buzzy general store is a breath of fresh air, with an Instagram-worthy interior and plenty of grab-and-go dishes. 3703 Main St., Occidental, 707-874-6053, altamontgeneralstore.com
Why it matters: This wife-and-wife team are part of the fabric of this sleepy coastal hamlet that’s been slow to attract millennial tourists. Nourishing veggie-and-grain bowls and sweet ice cream, along with small-production wines by women, make this a starting point for more exploration of the artisan food scene happening in west county.
Khom Loi: Inspired by their many travels to Thailand, chefs Matthew Williams and Moishe Hahn-Schuman dreamed of bringing the flavors of Thailand to Sebastopol for years. After several pop-ups at their nearby Ramen Gaijin restaurant, the duo honed the dishes that pay homage to the cuisine of Laos and Chiang Mai, Thailand, with nods to central and southern Thailand. 7385 Healdsburg Ave., No. 101, Sebastopol, 707-329-6917, khomloisonoma.com
Why it matters: Two white chefs opening a Thai restaurant made San Francisco Chronicle writer Soliel Ho cry foul, calling the venture “cultural appropriation.” But Ho’s criticism was an errant missile in this case, as Williams and Hahn-Schuman have always been clear that their food is not “authentic” but inspired by, or a tribute to, cuisine they love. (Their other restaurant, Ramen Gaijin, points out their “otherness” in the name; “gaijin” translates as “foreigner”.)
Ho’s inquiry raises the bigger question, however, about where passion for a foreign culture leaves off and exploitation begins in the culinary world and beyond. For many food writers, woke or unwoke, 2021 was a year of rethinking words like “authentic” and “exotic” that no longer seem appropriate or inclusive.
Sonoma Burger: After finding success with his pandemic burger pop-up at Gravenstein Grill, Chef Bob Simontacchi decided to take over a nearby restaurant space for a casual burger spot that’s top-notch. 173 Pleasant Hill Ave. N., Sebastopol, sonomaburger.com
Why it matters: Adept restaurateurs who have tried pop-ups and special takeout menus are finding a following with customers adapting to a different style of dining. Sonoma Burger has a touch-screen ordering kiosk and outdoor seating that’s well-spaced.
Stellina Pronto: This Italian-inspired bakery turns out incredible lacquered pastries, focaccia sandwiches, salads and espresso drinks, with plans to expand the menu to wood-fired pizzas, piadine and meatball subs. 23 Kentucky St., Petaluma, stellinapronto.com
Why it matters: Chef Christian Caiazzo and wife Katrina Fried are among the millions of restaurateurs urgently trying to figure out how to run a restaurant in a world that no longer supports traditional restaurant business models. When their critically-acclaimed Point Reyes restaurant, Osteria Stellina, closed during the pandemic, they pivoted to a more financially lean fast-casual bakery without table service or a large kitchen staff. While Caiazzo didn’t spend 35 years behind the stoves of Michelin-starred restaurants to become a barista slinging cappuccinos and lattes, he’s enjoying the new adventure with his family at his side.
Lazeaway Club: The total remodel of the midcentury Flamingo Hotel is as hipster-slick as a pompadour with a mid-fade. The restaurant has a Palm Springs vibe with island-inspired dishes that aren’t overly complicated but perfectly enjoyable. A great drink menu and summer poolside dining make it destination-worthy even if you’re not a tourist.
Why it matters: The revamp of this historic icon revived the sagging old hotel. A thematic restaurant that doesn’t take the joke too far and offers plenty of beachy drinks brings the ’60s party palace back to life. 2777 Fourth St., Santa Rosa, flamingoresort.com
Old Possum Brewing: The large commercial kitchen at Old Possum has launched several new food businesses that operate in conjunction with the brewery. Over the summer, Sebastopol’s Barrio led the charge with creative Mexican cuisine, followed by Austin’s Southern Smoke BBQ and Bayou on the Bay. 357 Sutton Place, Santa Rosa, 707-303-7177, oldpossumbrewing.com
Why it matters: Commercial kitchens for startup food businesses are few and far between in Sonoma County and, if they can be found, they’re expensive. Partnering with a brewery creates a win-win for everyone, with food to pair with the beer. Food trucks pulling up to breweries also have become an important trend as the often-eschewed trucks find great partnerships at breweries that don’t offer food.
Tony’s Galley: Chef Tony Ounpamornchai of SEA Thai Bistro, SEA Thai Noodle Bar and Raku Ramen and Rolls opened a fifth restaurant in 2021. Montgomery Village former owners David and Melissa Codding, longtime fans of Ounpamornchai, gave the Thai restaurateur the financial backing he needed to make Tony’s Galley a reality. In a time when so many restaurants are closing, it’s heartening to see a success story. 722 Village Court, Santa Rosa, 707-303-7007, tonysgalley.com
Why it matters: The Coddings, who recently sold the outdoor shopping mall to a Boston-based developer, have long been champions of local businesses. In 2007, they invited Ounpamornchai to move his original restaurant, SEA Thai Bistro in Petaluma, to a small corner space now occupied by Tomatina. With their financial support, Ounpamornchai was able to grow his following and later move the restaurant to its current location, which seats 120. Will the new out-of-state owners continue to support local small businesses in the same way?
Pezcow: The former Tu Mole Madre has been transformed into an elevated Mexican restaurant centered around its wood-fired oven and the talents of owner Damian Zuniga and his extended family. 8465 Old Redwood Highway, No. 510, Windsor, 707-393-8370.
Why it matters: Zuniga has worked in restaurants since he was 15, many of them owned by the Diaz family, successful Sonoma County restaurateurs who own Agave, El Gallo Negro, El Faralito and a bottled mole company. Now 32, with three food businesses to his name, Zuniga is hoping to replicate the success of the Diazes with a food empire of his own. He’s part of a new generation of local immigrants who are launching off the shoulders of those who came before them, the immigrant business owners who gave them a start. 8465 Old Redwood Highway, Windsor, 707-393, 8370. bit.ly/31k9I9X
Peruvian openings: A slate of Peruvian restaurants have suddenly opened in Sonoma County, including Inca’s Peruvian Cuisine (799 Gravenstein Highway S., Sebastopol, 707-861-9057), Warike Restobar (527 Fourth St., Santa Rosa, 707-536-9201) and Bistro 201 (613 E. Washington St., Petaluma, 707-559-5130).
Why it matters: Why does Sonoma County suddenly have six Peruvian restaurants? The cuisine is approachable and existing restaurants like Sazon have proven popular. There’s some grumbling about who’s authentic and who’s not, but at the end of the day it all comes down to a good Pisco sour and the best leche de tigre.
Dino’s Greek, Zimi Pizza, Zimi on Mission, Taverna Lithi: Passionate about bringing the Old World flavors of Greece to Sonoma County, Chef Dino Moniodis is building a little restaurant empire. Starting with his tiny food trailer (Dino’s Greek Food), he’s opened two brick-and-mortar restaurants — Zimi Pizza at The Block in Petaluma (20 Grey St.) and now, Zimi on Mission (500 Mission Blvd., Santa Rosa, eatzimionmission.com). He’s developing another restaurant, Taverna Lithi, at the forthcoming Livery food hall in Sebastopol.
Why it matters: Moniodis is an energetic entrepreneur, whose risk-taking seems to be paying off in the challenging restaurant landscape of 2021. Fast-casual dining with good prices and hard-to-find Greek flavors have made him one to watch.
Jam’s Joy Bugalow: Chef Jamilah Nixon-Mathis’ new restaurant and kitchen is a weird, wonderful, jungle-y hodgepodge of fun. Here you can explore her expanded menu of Southeast Asian-inspired dishes with all the spicy, sweet, aromatic flavors we’ve come to expect from Jam’s Joy Bungalow. 101 E. Cotati Ave., Cotati, jamsjoybungalow.com
Why it matters: Female chefs are a rare breed, and this entrepreneur and mom has expanded her business from a food truck to a small takeout window to a full-fledged restaurant.
Il Fuoco: Chef Rob Larman has pivoted many times in his career, and Il Fuoco is the latest transformation. The former Cochon Volant, which focused on barbecue, has become a wood-fired pizza oven spot. 18350 Sonoma Highway, Sonoma, 707-522-7778.
Why it matters: Adaptation was the name of the game for restaurants in 2021. Moving to a new concept brings new interest and new customers when done right.