What sounded like a ridiculously simple task turns out to be nothing of the sort. Like choosing a favorite child, I’ve struggled with who to include and not include on this list — adding names, taking away names, re-adding names. And I’m sure I’ll be taken to task for many of my choices.
There are so many factors to include: Innovative menus, use of local ingredients, consistently good cooking, wine lists and the restaurant’s staying power. But when it came right down to having to put together a final list of names, what I came back to again and again were restaurants with a guiding forces in the kitchen. Chef-driven restaurants with a clear point of view.
In order to keep the list to 25, I’ve had to make some other qualifications. For the purpose of this list, I’ve excluded restaurants (like Chloe’s French Cafe and Dierk’s Parkside) that have limited hours though they’re clearly worthy of note.
Ethnic and cheap-eats restaurants are also in short-supply, which I’ll explain by saying that this list is primarily focused on restaurants with classic French or Italian influences that have define the California Wine Country culinary experience.
That leaves a whole lot of restaurants off the list. Restaurants like Rocker Oysterfeller’s (which I love for oysters and brunch), Peter Lowell’s (amazing pizzas, veggie-centri, conscious eating), Humble Pie (homemade pies and comfort food), Pamposh (top-notch Indian) and Bruno’s (a favorite neighborhood spot) have so much to offer, as do local taquerias like Las Palmas. These are among the restaurants that defy conventional wisdom and are re-invigorating the local culinary scene. So stay tuned for another list…
There are others that have had recent chef changes (French Garden, Barndiva) that are also worthy of attention but still need settling-in time (maybe next year!)
But at some point, I had to put a stake in the ground. Some were easy picks. Others harder. But ultimately the list has been chosen. Here are BiteClub’s 25 Top Sonoma County Restaurants for 2009…
(Just want to see YOUR votes for Top 25? Click here…)
Restaurant Eloise CLOSED
With a passion and talent for oft-overlooked cuts of meat (head cheese, bone marrow and other offal) along with more everyday eats (rack of lamb, housemade pasta) on their ever-changing French-Mediterranean menu, husband-and-wife chefs Eric Korsh and Ginevra Iverson have created a comforting mix of old-meets-new school dishes. The New York transplants have the restaurant to watch in 2009, making continued appearances on the national culinary radar. 2295 Gravenstein Hwy South, Sebastopol, 707.823.6300.
This restaurant has single-handedly elevated the status of Sonoma County’s culinary prestige in the eyes of the world — a serious contender with the esteemed French Laundry in Napa, oft-named the number one eatery in the US. Though locals sometimes scoff at the nosebleed prices, Chef Douglas Keane continues to do us proud with critical kudos and Michelin stars. 29 North St., Healdburg, 707.433.3311.
almost to a fault, this Forestville gem is cozy and homey, with snappy
service, one of the county’s top sommeliers and a Cal-French menu
overseen by Chef Steve Litke that plays to the flavors of many regional
wines on their extraordinary list. 7871 River Road, Forestville,
Chef Jesse Mallgren continues to impress
critics and the romance-minded at the stately Victorian bed and
breakfast in the heart of Dry Creek. The $89 chef’s tasting menu is
still a relative value for one of the hautest dining experiences in
Sonoma. Tableside ice-cream service is a must-do. 1001 Westside Road,
Healdsburg, (800) 258-4003.
CALIFORNIA/WINE COUNTRY CUISINE
Willi’s Wine Bar
Willi’s doesn’t have to keep trying as hard as it does. Folks would probably keep going, just out of habit. But Chef Mark Stark and his crew do keep trying, cranking out sure-fire crowd pleasers day after day, season after season, year after year, at this the cozy Santa Rosa bistro. Unfailing. 4404 Old Redwood Hwy., Santa Rosa, 707.526.3096.
Cafe Saint Rose (CLOSED )
What’s so predictable about Cafe Saint Rose is the unpredicatablility of patron saint, chef and owner Mark Malicki. Suffice to say he’s not afraid of change — from his move from downtown Santa Rosa to the outskirts of Sebastopol, to his ever-morphing menu. The Soho-meets-Mendo vibe works at his roadhouse retreat. 9890 Bodega Hwy (a few miles west of downtown Sebastopol), 829.5898.
more than ten years in Railroad Square, Syrah still gets it. Chef Josh
Silvers and his crew have their menu down to a science serving up
killer burgers at lunch, signature crabcakes and Liberty Duck to die
for. 205 5th St, Santa Rosa, (707) 568-3167
Jeff Mall lives the farm-to-table lifestyle, rather than just talking
about it, incorporating his produce into the restaurant’s
California-meets-New Orleans comfort food menu. 344 Center St
Healdsburg, (707) 473-0946
Underwood Bar & Bistro
You know that funky little bistro with just enough urban cred to be cool, but stuck far enough out in the boondocks to keep away the the riff-raff? Yeah, that’s Underwood Bar & Bistro. A perennial favorite of night owls and winemakers, it’s a meet and eat rendezvous in the tiny hamlet of Graton. 9113 Graton Road, Graton, 823,7023
Girl and the fig
Sondra Bernstein’s sunny Sonoma bistro marries the best of country French and fresh California flavors. In addition to figs (which you’ll find on both the menu and in a must-try collection of bottled compotes), don’t miss the cheese course, mussels, the signature arugula and goat cheese salad, selection of Rhone-only wines or secluded outdoor patio. 110 West Spain Street, Sonoma, CA 95476, (707) 938-3634.
out three meals a day, plus brunch isn’t an easy task for a chef.
Janine Falvo makes it look easy, weaving in fun, innovation and an eye
for seasonal local foods into her menus at the house restaurant for The
Lodge at Sonoma. Unlike other wine programs, which seem like an
afterthought, Falvo works closely with house sommelier Chris Sawyer to
make meaningful pairings. 1325 Broadway, Sonoma, (707) 931-2042.
more than just lip-service to Slow Food, husband and wife chefs John
Stewart and Duskie Estes have redefined the roadhouse experience. Their
oft-changing local, seasonal menu showcases their own restaurant
garden, nearby farms, John’s own Black Pig charcuterie and bacon, and
rising-star local wines. 3535 Guerneville Road, Santa Rosa, (707)
Duck Club Restaurant
focus on local purveyors and creative seasonal cooking to the
once-stuffy Duck Club at the Bodega Bay Lodge and Spa in Bodega Bay.
Spectacular views of the bay now have a menu that is equally
swoon-worthy. 103 Coast Highway One, Bodega Bay, 707-875-3525.
Chef Tony Najiola is the force behind this
popular Petaluma restaurant focused on Mediterranean and California
cuisines. 42 Petaluma Blvd. North, Petaluma, 707.778.9900
quiet country inn lays claim to hosting some serious Wine Country chef
talent at various points in its history, including current chef Bruce
Frieseke, who honed his skills in Paris and was most recently executive
chef of Manzanita in Healdsburg. 13555 Highway 116, Guerneville,
Bistro Des Copains
It’s worth a jaunt to Occidental for classic French country dining. This is hearty, rustic cuisine — rabbit, duck, braised beef and terrines — that stick to the ribs and leave you wanting for nothing. 3782 Bohemian Hwy, Occidental, 707.874.2436. Dinner Sunday-Thursday 5pm to 9pm, Friday and Saturday until 10pm.
crepes, both sweet and savory, are the heart and soul of this downtown
Santa Rosa bistro. But Chef Brian Anderson has proven adept at cafe
classics from french onion soup, steak frites, escargot and steamed
mussels to Croque Madames and cassoulet. 620 Fifth St., Santa Rosa,
home of French soul food has long been a favorite of Francophiles. Best
bets include duck confit, rich onion soup, skate wing and steak frites.
119 S Main St, Sebastopol, 823-6614.
Like a Chanel suit, this Windsor bistro coquettishly
beckons rather than begs for your attention. Daily bistro specials
range from beef bourguignon to duck confit, along with the expected
steak frites and steamed mussels. 275 Windsor River Road, Windsor.
an infectious enthusiasm for true Sicillian pizza, Chef John Franchetti
brought Sonoma County into the wood-fired pizza age. Sure, there were
others before and there will be others after. But Franchetti’s
cracker-crisp crust and all-around attention to detail (housemade
burrata, salumi, solid salads and impressive daily specials) make him
the total package. Rosso Pizzeria & Wine Bar, Creekside Center, 53
Montgomery Dr., Santa Rosa, 707.544.3221.
Santi (CLOSED UNTIL SPRING 2010)
Santa Rosa is poised to be the new home of this regional Italian outpost that’s called Geyserville home for years. Rustic dishes (beef tripe is a house specialty), braised meats and house-made salumi are main attractions at the upscale Wine country trattoria. Nearby Diavola is the casual little sister restaurant serving up top-rated wood-fired pizzas, charcuterie and smaller plates. 21047 Geyserville Avenue, Geyserville, 857.1790.
Former Santi chef Ari Rosen heads up this shoebox-sized Italian eatery focused on small-plate antipasti (fresh burrata, sardines, charcuterie, ciabatta), fresh pastas, braised meats and simple pizzas. 109A Plaza St, Healdsburg, 707.433.5282. Open for dinner Tuesday through Sunday from 5:30 to 10 pm.
OTHER ETHNIC/WORLD CUISINE
Ken Tominaga works with fresh fish flown in from Japan (along with
closer-by catches) each day, and staff know how to handle it with
artistry and care. This is the real deal, when it comes to Wine Country
sushi — no wacky rolls or silly sauces. The key here: Ask questions
and show your enthusiasm. Your interest will be returned in kind. 101
Golf Course Drive, Rohnert Park, 707.586.0270.
Sea Thai Bistro
Chef Tony Ounpamornchai marries Wine Country culinary sensibilities and the exotic flavors of Thailand for a unique fusion of flavors. 2323 Sonoma Ave @ Montgomery Village, Santa Rosa, 707.528.8333 and in Petaluma.
Tai Olesky has a devoted following of fans who staunchly claim that this Forestville sleeper is too-oft overlooked. He’s a wildly creative chef as easy with filet mignon as fried chicken, uncontent to focus on any single cuisine the menu spans the globw tied together by local, seasonal ingredients. 6675 Front St.
(Honorably mentioned: Cucina Paradiso (Petaluma), Bistro Ralph (Healdsburg), Ravenous (Healdsburg)C