There’s an undeniable charm to eating in a railway car. Chummy quarters, dim lighting and feeling transported to a slower, more romantic time when travel didn’t include pat-downs and families in sweat pants.
Captivated by romantic visions of the past (if not the long-term practicality of having a an entire restaurant, bar and kitchen in a space not much larger than a tour bus) SoCal transplants Ted and Heather Van Doorn have been fronting Sebastopol’s funky Starlight Cafe & Wine Bar for the better part of three years. The cafe is a former Southern Pacific lounge car parked permanently in Gravenstein Station. And though he was never intended to be their permanent chef, New Orleans’ Thaddeus Palmese has taken over the helm (literally), transforming it into a functional kitchen.
The restaurant has flown mostly under the radar despite an enthusiastic local fan-base. With hard times hitting many eateries around the North Bay, It didn’t escape BiteClub’s attention that the trio have recently been plugging the space, garnering a Best Of nod from the Bohemian and KSRO radio time. Honestly, you can’t help but want to cheer for this hard-working, hipster crew who’ve had their share of uphill battles since opening.
Now settled in, there’s a lot to like about the haute homey-ness of Palmese’s food, a clever but compact wine list, the Van Doorn’s constant presence and unforced cross-table discussion with pretty much anyone within fork-shot. Meaning that chances are good you might get a bite or a sip of your neighbor’s homemade pot pie, penne macaroni or BBQ shrimp if you play your cards right.
Much of the menu nods to Palmese’s New Orleans culinary roots, making it one of only a handful of southern-influenced restaurants in the region. (They keep disappearing.) Starlight also prides itself on adopting the Slow Food mantra, using local produce and meats when possible. Daily specials don’t disappoint — a luscious cut of pork belly on creamy (creamy!) polenta with peach jus and grilled fennel or seared scallops atop a bed of corn and bacon relish, topped with a nest of fried sweet potatoes. Presentation is spot-on and impressive for the small kitchen.
There are also misfires. The restaurant doesn’t have a liquor license, so cocktails (though tasty) are made with Soju (rice wine) rather than hard alcohol. The 40’s swing vibe just cries out for martinis and Manhattans. On a recent visit, Chef Thad veered into croc-infested waters when deconstructing a Caprese salad. The texture and flavor of olive oil ice cream — though a noble idea — just didn’t work, especially when sitting atop a tasteless tomato (no excuses this time of year). I truly wanted this dish to be summer on a plate, which it just couldn’t be with the inclusion of sharp Parmesan and pine nut flavors and crumbly ice cream. It’s a dish that could work beautifully with a few changes.
The price tag at Starlight can also get steep rather quickly, with the majority of dishes in the $15-20 range. Wine flights — a fun way to taste a variety of wines with dinner — range from $16 to $18 with three generous 3oz pours. Cocktails and desserts run about $7. Expect to hit triple digits if you indulge. To keep things reasonable for the less-indulgent among us, Starlight offers a three-course $25 prix fixe early-bird menu until 7pm on weekends. There’s also brunch on Sunday.
Dessert redeems dinner’s hiccups and sometimes painfully slow service: Banana’s foster, a banana creme brulee or a bourbon-soaked brownie slathered with caramel and a scoop of homemade vanilla ice cream (much better than the olive oil). Again, here’s where making friends with nearby tablemates comes in handy, seeing what looks best and getting an honest thumbs-up or down before sharing a rousing round of multi-table singing wineglasses.
You’ll be hard-pressed to leave Starlight’s platform without at least a few goodbyes and well-wishes from your new pals. And the bon-temps go on until late on the weekends and raised tables and a four-person bar make for comfortable eating (or just sipping) if you’re on your own. All aboard.
Starlight Cafe & Wine Bar, open Tuesday through Thursday noon to 10pm; Friday noon to 11pm, Saturday 5:30pm to 11pm, Sunday brunch 10am to 2pm. Closed Monday. 6761 Sebastopol Ave., Sebastopol, 707.823.1943. Check out the website for upcoming winemaker dinners and other events at www.starlightwinebar.com.