There are two distinct personalities to the town of Sonoma. One is the tourist face, with a carefully cultivated shabby-chic, gentleman farmer vibe that matches its historic mission, wineries and Old West past. Charm abounds, and there are plenty of white tablecloth, high dollar restaurants to accommodate luxe tastes.
But simmering just below is the true Sonoma, a tight-knit community that includes the rest of us — the people who work in the tasting rooms and restaurants, at the Sonoma Speedway, behind desks and in firehouses. This diverse gathering of native Californians, immigrants, retirees, artisans and small business owners makes for a vibrant, (mostly) affordable food scene that most visitors breeze past.
We’re pulling back the cover on the Sonoma restaurants where townies really eat: From favorite happy hours and taco trucks to insiders-only recommendations for where to get a great cup of coffee or a family breakfast. We’re also including a few tips on getting some great bites at the higher-end spots, whether that’s a happy hour special, or a dish that won’t cost a mint.
So, forget the stars and hype. We’ve got the real guide to eating in Sonoma.
Tacos at Juanita Juanita: There’s no shortage of great taco trucks and taquerias around town but we can’t help but love the locals-only vibe at this offbeat cantina where you can grab a cold one and stuff you face al pastor and carne asada tacos. Going solo tonight? Feel free to try their Garlic Garlic Burrito with a pungent garlic-walnut paste and all the other fixings. 19114 Arnold Drive, Sonoma, (707)935-3981. Of course, if you need a late-night gordita or burrito, hit up La Bamba Taco Truck at the Larbre Automotive Lot in Boyes Hot Springs (but expect a wait).
Black Walnut Manhattan at Starling: This new craft cocktail bar in the former Blue Moon is everything a neighborhood bar should be, but with really good cocktails. Their Black Walnut Manhattan is made with their own nocino (a walnut liqueur), along with bourbon, vermouth and a brandied cherry. We also like the Bacon Bourbon Sour with a mix of bacon-infused bourbon, Madeira, maple syrup, fresh citrus juice, cherry, lime and sriracha bacon. 19380 Hwy. 12, Sonoma, (707) 938-7442, starlingsonoma.com.
Clam Pizza at New Haven Apizza Shop: 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. Locals say the crispy crust and traditional clam, garlic and white sauce pizza is as real as it gets…at least on the West Coast. Pies run from $14 (small) to $31 for a large. Don’t miss the homemade espresso tiramisu $6 made daily. Beginning at 3p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. 555 Fifth St. West, 931-4694, newhavenapizzashop.com.
Seafood Pasta at Mamma Tanino’s Ristorante: Way off the square, Mamma Tanino’s is rustic, Italian cuisine straight from a Sicilian. The menu is simple, but authentic, with spaghetti all Carbonara, linguine, fettuccine with sausage, pappardelle Bolognese and classics like Chicken Marsala and Veal Scaloppini. Early birds flock to the $15 daily dinner specials from 5-5:30p.m. The location, near the Sonoma Market, isn’t swanky, and there can be a wait on busy nights, but this is solid Italian at an attainable price. Open 5-9p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 500 W. Napa St., Suite 512, 933-8826, mammataninos.com.
A Tiny (or big) Scoop at Sweet Scoops: Mid-afternoons during the week tend to be the best time to get a scoop from these mad scientists of ice cream. Though there’s Rocky Road, Chocolate, Strawberry and vanilla for the traditionalists, we come for flavors like jalapeno cucumber sorbet, Mare Island Brewery chocolate stout, horchata, pear crisp, salted caramel corn and seasonal strawberry basil. The flavors change daily and are made in small batches, so there’s always a new flavor to try. Tiny scoops are $3, but we love the flight of four for $6.75. 408 First St. East, 721-1187, sweetscoopsicecream.com.
Nachos and Margaritas at Maya: Not just nachos, but “Really Good Nachos,” are part of this Yucatecan menu, along with specially priced tacos, sliders and margaritas from 4-6 p.m. Monday through Friday. If you want something a little more special, ask for the fresh-squeezed margarita or taste your way through Maya’s 100+ tequila list. 101 E. Napa St., Sonoma, 935-3500, mayarestaurant.com.
Tapas At Tasca Tasca: The more casual little sister to Chef Manuel Azevedo’s La Salette, this small plates (true tapas) includes everything from fried piri piri potatoes with saffron aioli to goat stew, salt cod cakes and Portuguese mac and cheese in nibble-sized portions. The idea is to order between three and seven items at a time, presented on beautiful butcher boards, to share with the table. Or, you can just hog it all for yourself. With so many choices, feel free to go out on a culinary limb, and try ceviche, blood sausage, escargot in garlic butter or Portugal’s national soup, Caldo Verde. Priced at $15 for three plates, $24 for five and $32 for seven. 122 W. Napa St., Sonoma, (707) 996-8272, tascatasca.com.
Charcuterie at Girl and the Fig’s Seat 99: We don’t usually suggest specific seats, but this spot at the end of the bar is such a perfect spot to perch. The housemade charcuterie is a passion for Executive Chef John Toulze, who started making prosciutto, coppa, bacon and other cured meats for the restaurant several years ago. The platter comes with several meats, pate and terrine, along with grilled toast and house pickles for $16. 110 West Spain St., Sonoma (707) 933-3000, thegirlandthefig.com.
Ribs at Rossi’s 1906: Barbecue is a thing here, with some of the best in the North Bay. You’ll know by the scent of smoked meat wafting from behind the restaurant. The beer garden has a great happy hour to warm up (4-6p.m. Wednesday through Saturday) with $5 burgers, pulled pork slides, twice baked potatoes and pimento cheese toast. But you’re really here for the smoker plates with chicken, ribs, tri tip and pulled pork. 401 Grove St., Sonoma, (707) 303-0044, rossis1906.com.
Between Time at Oso: There’s that awkward time between 2:30 and 5p.m. for restaurants when it’s well past lunch but too early for dinner. Many just close up for those few hours, but Oso keeps a light menu rolling for “linner” eaters. Our fave: Mole pork tacos and deviled eggs. Chef David Bush’s critically-acclaimed restaurant can be bustling for dinner, so we like getting a leg up when the kitchen and the bar are quieter. 9 East Napa St., Sonoma, (707) 931-6926, ososonoma.com.
Fresh Tortillas at Tortilleria Jalisco: Locals takeaway still-warm bags of homemade flour and corn tortillas by the pound and swear by the posole. Run by a group of women, most mornings you can watch as they roll the dough and lineup stacks of balls for pressing and griddle-cooking. They’ll cost you just a few dollars for a stack of 10, in flour, wheat or spinach flavors. 897 W. Napa St., Sonoma, (707) 935-7396). We’d be remiss in not mentioning El Molino Central (11 Central Ave., Boyes Hot Springs, elmolinocentral.com), where you can buy corn tortillas made with freshly-ground masa, for a truly authentic experience.
Truffle Fries at El Dorado Kitchen: More than one local suggested the addictive truffle oil and Parmesan fries here, which you can get at lunch or dinner, best paired on the outdoor patio with a cocktail. Either way, they’re great alone, or with a signature EDK burger.405 First St. West, Sonoma, (707)996-3030, eldoradosonoma.com.
Breakfast at Breakaway Cafe: This cafe is one of the most under-rated spots in the Valley, and we’re happy to keep it under the radar. They’ve got plenty of the usual suspects on the menu (scrambles, Huevos Rancheros, hash) but we love extra delicious buttermilk pancakes and banana walnut waffles. 19101 Sonoma Hwy., Sonoma, (707) 996-5949, breakawaycafe.com. We also have to mention, however, the Community Cafe’s lemon flaxseed pancakes with warm raspberry honey butter syrup and truffled eggs and toast with eggs, fontina, mushrooms and asparagus, topped with truffle oil. (875 West Napa St., Sonoma, (707) 938-7779, ccsonoma.com) Decisions, decisions!
A Beer at Murphy’s Irish Pub: We love a pub you have to hunt for. Located at the end of one of the Square’s hidden alleyways, Murphy’s is a favorite Irish pub with plenty of Guinness, Harp and Smithwick’s on tap. They’ve also got some solid Irish pub food like bangers and mash, mushy peas, colcannon and meat pies. Just don’t ask for a Bud, because they don’t sell ‘em. Time it right and there’s live music several times a week. 464 First St. East, Sonoma, (707) 935-0660, facebook.com/SonomaPub.
Coffee at, well, hmmm: No one can seem to agree on the best place for coffee in Sonoma because everyone has a favorite. If you’re grabbing a pastry and want to take it to go, it has to be Basque Boulangerie. If you’re wanting to sit outside and just have a slow moment, it’s Sunflower Caffe. If you’re looking for a local roastery for some freshly ground coffee, Barking Dog Roasters is tops.
Of course, we’ve probably missed many more favorites. Want to shout out the ones we’ve missed? Have your say below…