Sonoma’s Mint & Liberty Diner to Close 13 Weeks After Opening

Stepping into big shoes can be deadly in a small town.

Oh, Mint and Liberty Diner, we barely knew you. Open just 13 weeks, the Sonoma newcomer is shuttering on Feb. 10.

So what exactly happened? Stepping into big shoes can be deadly in a small town.

Longtime Sunflower Caffe owners James Hahn and Mila Chaname, along with Aaron Mills and Melissa Cameron, took over the iconic Breakaway Cafe in 2016 after longtime owner Bob Rice retired. They kept with the Cafe’s general formula, though grumbling about menu changes and corkage began almost immediately.

Wanting a fresh concept, the team reopened the cafe after a brief renovation in Nov. 2018. Mint & Liberty, a bright, cheery diner with an ambitious menu from former SF Chef Michael Stein, also got grumbles early on about the name, the mint green color, the new menu, and the service.

Yelpers were especially rough on Mint & Liberty.

“We had a good first month, but we got a lot of pushback from the community,” said Thomas Painter, GM for Mint & Liberty.

Which is unfortunate, because, in my First Look, I found the menu — which admittedly was immense — pretty charming. I loved the Jewish dishes that Stein brought from his time at Shorty’s in SF. The enchiladas were exquisite.

Painter explained the menu, saying, “We purposely made it big and broad and diner-esque with local food done well.”  Most of us figured the menu would settle after a few months, leaving the most popular dishes behind.

Thirteen weeks hardly seems like enough time to do that.

In a press release, Hahn acknowledged criticism and their desire to make changes, saying, “Upon opening, we received some excellent response and many fans of what we were doing, as well as some heartfelt criticism. We listened to the feedback and tried to make changes as quickly as possible to appease our guests. Some ideas were quick and easy to make, other ideas would take longer and require greater expense,” he added in a press release.

That, along with a rough winter season sounded the death knell.

But in the end, sometimes change is difficult in Wine Country.

“Change is difficult and people that are comfortable with something for a long time that needs change…it’s difficult,” said Painter. “We were continually treated like outsiders,” he added, saying that the ownership and staff were primarily locals. Chef Stein recently relocated to Sonoma with his family.

The good news: Chef Michael Stein and several longtime staff will be absorbed into Sunflower staff, according to GM Thomas Painter. “We love him and his food,” said Hahn.

The medium news: The future of Honey & The Moon Bakery is temporarily uncertain as owners look for a new commissary kitchen. The bakery had been operating from Mint & Liberty. Also, gift cards from Mint & Liberty will be honored at the Sunflower Caffe.

The bad news: The restaurant is on the market for just under $600,000. Hopefully, someone else will have better luck.