Prepare for changes in your dining experience as staffing woes, financial pinches, exhaustion and a quest for something just … different alter the restaurant landscape. Menus, hours, seating and pretty much everything else may change, and there’s also a sudden groundswell of ideas throughout Sonoma County that are introducing the out-of-the-ordinary.
Here are two incredible Santa Rosa restaurants representative of the kinds of changes that have us so excited about what’s next. Expect to hear about more fresh ideas at old haunts (and new spots) as we survey the new, new dining scene.
The Spinster Sisters
While the pandemic was rough for Chef Liza Hinman of The Spinster Sisters restaurant in Santa Rosa, she continued to find other ways to reach her loyal audience. First, with curbside pickup, then with creative, globe-spanning “Family Meal” dinners for two like braised chicken with artichokes, polenta and field greens with green garlic focaccia, salad and a dessert. When restrictions eased slightly, she and her staff built an outdoor garden with casual tables and the restaurant sold wines by the bottle and pantry items. Basically, Hinman did whatever she could to keep the restaurant open and staff working.
Now Hinman and many other chefs are taking stock as dining reopens. Limited staff, pandemic exhaustion and a refocus on what really matters are leading many to change business models, rethink menus and reassess what got them into the food business in the first place.
For Hinman, that’s meant some radical changes. She ended breakfast and lunch service, reformatted her menu to better reflect her cooking style and realized that trying to be everything to everyone just wasn’t sustainable.
“Coming out of the pandemic, I faced a lot of tough decisions about the direction we were going to head as a business when we reopened,” Hinman said.
“After a year of traveling the globe through our Family Meal menus, I wanted to take some time and cook food that was closer to my culinary home. So I looked to New England for some inspiration — where I grew up — and also to my Italian culinary background, the cuisine I spent most of my formative years cooking in San Francisco and Sonoma County,” she said. “I decided to part ways with the menus that had defined Spinster in pre-pandemic times and start fresh — essentially, open a new restaurant highlighting our garden space and these culinary influences.”
That’s not an easy pivot, especially with longtime patrons. But Hinman said she’s ready to focus on dinner service only and that the past few months have reinforced her resolve.
“We can’t please all of the different diners — those looking for pancakes and those looking for a fine-dining dinner. And we are unlikely to go back, because we are really feeling great about our new focus.“
Her New England background is apparent in the “Ocean” section of the new menu, with dishes like baked oysters with garlic herb butter and breadcrumbs ($12); a Wild Gulf Shrimp Salad Roll ($26) and Down East Clam Chowder with bacon, potatoes and homemade oyster crackers ($12) — one of the best-tasting chowders ever, especially with the float of crunchy crackers.
Another big winner from the Ocean section is the Mt. Lassen smoked trout pate ($15) with a piquant horseradish cream, avocado, beets and seeds with adorable endive boats for dipping. Finally, if you miss the Shrimp Salad Roll (lobster has gotten crazy expensive), you’re missing not only the buttery griddled bun but homemade salt and vinegar chips that put a smile on my face ($26). And that’s just one section of the menu that also includes a charming salad with Dry Creek peaches, Akaushi flat iron steak with grilled tomatoes and a divine blueberry bread pudding.
Spend some time perusing the well-curated wine list that includes several “orange” wines, which have nothing to do with actual oranges but an ancient winemaking technique that has been gaining traction in the last several years. The syrupy orange color belies a tart, nutty, often tannin-heavy wine that’s absolutely not like anything you’ve ever had.
Get ready for curves ahead, because The Spinster Sisters is not what it was. Even so, it still has the heart and personality it’s always had in spades. Open from 4 – 9 p.m. Thursday through Saturday for dinner. Family Meal dinners are available to eat in the garden. 401 S. A St., Santa Rosa, 707-528-7100, thespinstersisters.com.
Fourth Street Social
The former Jade Room in downtown Santa Rosa opened as Fourth Street Social just in time for the pandemic to start. It quietly hummed along serving only plant-based food until early 2021, when Chef Jeremy Cabrera decided to throw the whole thing sky high, reinvent the menu and bring a fine-dining feel to this pint-sized dining room.
You pretty much can’t look away from his Instagram feed @4thstreetsocialclub, featuring tweezer-ritfic plating, eye-popping rainbow hues using only plants and, of course, blue strawberries. Cabrera is clearly a tinkerer, using blue pea flower to color strawberries from the owner Melissa Matteson’s gardens and his own foraging.
The food is astounding, but we could do without some of the awkward folderol and pomp surrounding the dining experience. Such as, say, overly precious sections of the menu called “The Daughter” (smaller share plates) and “The Mother” (entrees) and the dishes requiring diners to order the “Penelope” (marinated pork belly) or “Daisy” (seared duck breast). The pre-meal complimentary tea is also slightly cringey (why am I getting tea?). Even the servers seem a bit embarrassed having to explain all the hoopla.
I get past it, however, for one of the best dishes I’ve had in a long, long time — the “Zuke” ($14) with roasted and torched white asparagus, fermented chiles, cherry relish, mint aioli and a shoyu-cured egg yolk topped with ube tuile. It’s tearfully lovely, but cracking the purple yam lace and releasing the salty umami yolk onto perfectly cooked asparagus is just as enjoyable. Eat with fingers for best results. Seriously, this is just so unexpected in downtown Santa Rosa.
We also love the “Lucy,” assorted seasonal housemade pickled fruits and veggies ($12). Pickled veggies are one thing, but adding fiddlehead ferns, blueberries and pickled strawberries makes it even more delightful. It’s this kind of attention that recently won the restaurant the Snail of Approval, a recognition of sustainable, slow food practices and a commitment to the core values of the slow food movement.
The “Daisy“ ($34) is a meaty dish with perfectly cooked duck breast with a bouquet of pickled and fresh cherries, watercress and dehydrated raspberries on a blackberry compote. Poured over tableside is a coconut lavender milk with herb oil. Sumptuous. Finally, don’t miss the “Lacey” ($32), a meat-free dish with roasted parsnips, cauliflower, pear rosettes, white corn succotash and lavender-smoked nectarine syrup with fried parsnip lace. I’m not a parsnip fan, but the roast made them sweet and soft, pairing so nicely with sweet summer corn.
Part of the joy of the meal is the farm-to-glass cocktails ($13), made with low-ABV spirits mixed with fresh fruit, bitters and even edible gold. Fun, without packing too big of a boozy punch.
Reservations highly recommended, 643 Fourth St., Santa Rosa, 707-978-3882, 4thstreetsocialclub.com