Hidden worlds are coming to life in Sonoma County as restaurateurs reimagine the possibilities of outdoor dining. Nestled behind gates or hidden in plain sight, popping up overnight or temporarily transporting us to other countries, the al fresco experience has become more than simply eating under an umbrella.
With re-tooled menus, destination locations and a socially distanced party atmosphere, these three adventurous dining excursions are perfect for cooped-up bodies and bored brains in need of a little fresh air and sunshine.
Secret Garden: Kivelstadt Cellars
Ignore the construction detritus and parking lot mayhem at the former Schellville Grill. Just look for the colorful koi painted on the sidewalk to direct you to your destination — a looking glass-like eating adventure that’s still mostly unknown to outsiders.
Owner and winemaker Jordan Kivelstadt has created a breezy outdoor cafe that’s enclosed and separated from speeding traffic and the drudgery of the outside world. It’s shaded by leafy trees and offers well-spaced tables for a personalized dining experience. Featured are approachable wines along with local beers, cider, mimosas, Bloody Marys and an outstanding brunch and lunch menu from Chef Oscar Bendeck (Sonoma Raceway).
Describing the cafe as a “Wine Garden,” Kivelstadt said he wanted a casual spot for his friends and local families to hang out and just enjoy the outdoor space. And though the play area is temporarily off-limits, there’s plenty of room for tots to roam, small family groups to spread out and solo diners or couples to have a relaxing grown-up experience.
Brunch, which started in late July, is a best bet. Start with Oscar’s French omelet ($14), a deceptively challenging dish to get right, stuffed with Brie cheese and fresh local herbs. The Sonoma Benny ($16) is surprisingly complex, with roasted tomato, eggplant and squash topped with hollandaise. We also couldn’t resist a hearty bowl of KC-quiles ($14), a riff on chilaquiles with smoked tomatillo salsa, cojita cheese and avocado crema.
There are a few “secret” off-menu items like the “Gone Fishing,” their ode to the former Ford’s diner, which operated in the space until 2002. It’s a plate-sized pancake with two over-easy eggs, bacon and hash browns or the lunch banh mi with tri-tip instead of shiitake mushrooms.
Guided tastings are available as well, and it’s worth trying their super-unconventional wines like the crisp, summery KC Labs Pinot Blanc.
Reservations highly recommended. 22900 Broadway, Sonoma, kivelstadtcellars.com
Churascarria: Stark’s Brazilian BBQ Pop-Up
The scent of mesquite charcoal and grilled meat greets you upon entering the parking lot pop-up cafe outside the Starks’ flagship steakhouse. It’s an impromptu all-you-can eat outdoor experience that’s both casual and upscale, with filet mignon and pork belly, tamarind shrimp and several of their signature dishes like potato skin fondue, fresh rolls bathed in dill butter and seasonal Early Girl tomato salad with sweet onions and blue cheese.
You’ll be tempted to load up on apps, but save some space for platters of perfectly grilled New York and ribeye steaks, lemon herb chicken and smoky barbecue salmon.
For dessert, there’s a sweet-tart berry crisp with whipped cream and s’mores pie with dark chocolate and campfire marshmallows. Have it all for $49 per person. The one drawback: No doggie bags for you or Fido. Weekly featured wines, along with a full cocktail and wine menu. The dinners are already selling out, so make a reservation if you’ve got your heart set on a table.
521 Adams St., Santa Rosa, starkrealityrestaurants.com
Roadhouse Roadshow: Single Thread
Kyle and Katina Connaughton’s carefully curated dining experience will go entirely al fresco at the sprawling 60-acre Kistler Vineyards near Forestville. While overlooking the property’s pond and vineyards, guests will be served a 10-course menu with of-the-moment ingredients befitting a three-Michelin star restaurant. It’s a dreamy, bespoke experience only offered through the end of September. Thursday through Monday evenings. $375 per person, reservations required, singlethreadfarms.com
We’ll continue seeking out amazing outdoor dining experiences, but if you’ve got a special one we should consider, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org