Top 25 Restaurants: Destination-worthy dining

Top 25 Restaurants in Sonoma County 2009

best25a.jpgWhat 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.

Farmhouse Inn
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,

Madrona Manor
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.

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.

Carneros Bistro
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.

Central Market
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

Applewood Inn
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.

Bistro 29
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,

K&L Bistro
Michelin-rated, Sebastopol’s
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.
(707) 838-0162.

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.

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.

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.
Forestville, 707.887.7503

(Honorably mentioned: Cucina Paradiso (Petaluma), Bistro Ralph (Healdsburg), Ravenous (Healdsburg)C


53 thoughts on “Top 25 Restaurants: Destination-worthy dining

  1. This is a great list! One of my very favorite places to go is Sally Tomatoes- they have great food, and an awesome comedy night. Lots of fun!

  2. It’s actually a cool and helpful piece of information. I’m satisfied that you
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  3. You need to check out the restaurant Sazón in Santa Rosa. It’s a fairly new Peruvian restaurant but it’s definitely my favorite restaurant in the region. It’s 4 1/2 stars and 120+ reviews on yelp are there to back me up 😉

  4. Good Morning
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  5. I just ate at An Italian affair on 4th street in Santa Rosa. I think everyone should try it. the best Italian food I have had at a restaurant in a long long time.

  6. Sushi is one of my favorite meals. Osake, Shogan and Sushi to dai for, are my favorite places. Osake with Gary Chu behind the sushi bar comes up with some very creative forms of sushi, but his prices are on the high side. A usual dinner there for two run’s about $125.
    Shogan’s with their fabulous guys behind the sushi bar, you know who you are, always make excellent sushi. Dinner for two around $75.00
    Sushi to dai for, has some great creations, it is a small building so the noise level gets pretty loud. Dinner for two $60.00. They all have great food. Which one to choose depends on your budget that evening.

  7. A lot of restaurants I should have been to, but haven’t. Among the ones listed, I am a regular at Riviera, go to Willi’s when the mood strikes (it’s not only the first, but IMO the best, of the Stark empire), and have heard great things about Sugo.
    Speaking of Petaluma, I have to say that Dempsey’s, on the river, has amazingly good food. It’s more in the brewpub than the fine dining category, but I am always delighted there.
    And yes, Applewood is one of Sonoma County’s gems, and seems to stay that way no matter who owns it or who is cooking.

  8. good list!! underwood and mosaic are my absolute favorite restaurants for an amazing sonoma county experience and top notch food…but if you want great LOCAL food at very resonable prices try flavor in santa rosa on 4th street!! soooo delicious and great service!!

  9. Help! I heard about this restaurant about a week before T-Day last year. All guests were seated at the same time and the waiters/waitresses were in costume. I wasn’t able to make reservations and forgot to write down the same of the restaurant. Does this sound familiar to anyone?

  10. You forgot a great Mexican restaurant in Rohnert Park! Tonayan Mexican Restaurant located in the Raley’s shopping center has great food and very reasonable prices. This very friendly family owned restaurant offers a variety of menu choices and caters to special requests when they can. Great value for families!

  11. If you like Mexican Food and are tired of the same ole stuff being served at all the same Taco Shops, then you gotta try Taco Mexico. It’s where the old Domino’s Pizza was next to Subway off Piner Rd. I think the street name is Bay Village, not to sure of that. Well they are hoppin there. If you can’t read spanish then go with someone who can or ask questions. They have all kinds of meat there. And if you’re not afraid to try something new..this is the place to do it. You have to be there to know what I’m talking about. Be prepared to look for a parking pace. It’s woth it.

  12. Catherine, you are so correct and I am truly sorry.. I got confused with the place on the way to Napa, I think called The Farm? Sorry..I will try the Farmhouse Inn and report back.

  13. I think this reviewer is confused. Farmhouse doesn’t have a bar, or any place to just have drinks. Could they be thinking of another property?

  14. ho hum… another “Best #” list filled with relatively over-priced and inconsistent restaurants. Sea Thai and Rosso should be embarrassed to be listed here, and I’m glad to see Cucina Paradiso is not. Restaurants such as these three are what good eats are about. Too bad Stark’s didn’t make the list- would have fit right in.

  15. I agree about the Farmhouse…overrated but great place for drinks. I also agree about Cucina Paridiso. My wife and I love this place..especially the new location. May have to visit Eloise..thanks for doing this.

  16. I was wondering about the Duck Club Restaurant with the new chef, any comments on the food or service?

  17. Just now stumbled on this list. Needs to be updated due to some stars on the list now closed. This makes room for Cucina Paridiso in Petaluma..great Italian.
    Farmhouse overrated never go back for dinner, just drinks outside by the fire pits is nice..

    THE DRIVE!!! D/J

    THE DRIVE!!! D/J

  20. cena luna is much better and more established than scopa. cena luna is some of the best food around. corkage is the only dissapointing cost $20. I think all resturants should take notes from dry creek kitchen and wave corkage on sonoma county wines. at least a discount.

  21. Gosh, I really loved reading your top 25 list; however, you left out some of my favorites–
    Ravenous, Kenwood Bar and Restaurant and my number 1, Monti’s.

  22. Are the “wanna be restauranteers” of this county paying advertising fees for this worthless bit of nonsense?
    Sonoma County is like in the dark ages when it comes to restaurants.

  23. Following the comments about corkage fees, I was happy to find out that my favorite restaurant, Eloise, is no longer charging a corkage fee. And I agree, the scones with clotted cream are the best I have ever had (including the west country of England)!

  24. I finally tried the Farmhouse Inn several weeks ago. Many people sang its praises to us, however we were not overly impressed. There were very few selections for wine by the glass, maybe 5. For a wine country restaurant this seems on the low side. And I agree with Brian, they were priced on the high side. None were priced under $10. I have the opportunity to frequently dine at Murray Circle, a two Michelin star restaurant in Sausalito, and they always have a glass for $8 or $9 on their more extensive list. We were the first sitting, 5:30, for that reason I believe it felt like the wait staff had not hit their stride yet. The butter came out hard and the bread was not memorable. When I did get my glass of wine, the server poured my glass without showing me the bottle or letting me taste it. When the bill came, there was a more expensive glass on the bill. After struggling to order a $13 glass of wine, having it show up on the bill for $14 was not pleasant. My companion had the Foie Gras to start and that was the best we had ever had! My salad of heirloom tomatoes was just okay. We both had the Rabbit Rabbit Rabbit, the chef’s specialty, and we both were not impressed. In fact the dish included a trilogy of fresh vegetables and my plate only had two vegetables and my companion had three different kinds of vegetables, perhaps a small oversight, but just another in a series of disappointments. My chocolate soufflé dessert was good, but ordinary, but my companion’s selection of a fruit dessert was very good. The waiter was just cordial and not what I expect in a restaurant of this stature. After we completed our entrees our dishes sat for a time in front of us. I noticed a bus person look at our table and empty dishes and walk past empty handed. Several minutes later he returned to clear our table. With all of that said, and more than I thought I would write, we do plan on trying the Farmhouse Inn again, perhaps in the fall. We walked the beautiful grounds after our dinner which was a joy. Locally, I think Madrona Manor continues to be our favorite place to splurge. When you spend $200 on dinner for two, one should expect a lot, and in this case, we were disappointed.

  25. Just as a correction, the wine markups at the Farmhouse are not 3 to 4 times as you mentioned. In fact, our prices are generally lower than more casual restaurants and we pride ourselves in a very fair markup. On the high-end our wines are actually priced lower than retail in many situations. You will find the same wines priced dramatically higher in other fine dining restaurants.
    You are correct about the corkage price. We encourage people to explore our diverse and well priced list. With only 15 tables, and an extensive investment in our wine program, a lower corkage is not feasible without raising our wine prices, which we prefer to keep fair.
    Geoff Kruth

  26. Great job on the LIST, Heather. Not an easy task, I am sure. Just one comment tho’ (It does say “Leave a comment” at the top of the page). After eating at Cena Luna beaucoup times and calling it my fave in my hometown, I had a birthday dinner at Scopa, and I must say, Cena Luna is hands-down better food, atmosphere and service. Maybe it was an “off” night and I should probably try it again but nothing NOTHING can beat Yvette’s home-made pasta dishes, so fresh, so flavoful. I have NEVER had a bad meal there, ever!

  27. Sorry, I typed Barndiva too fast. There’s no question Ryan is extremely talented. I’m just waiting to see how he settles in at Barndiva.
    I can second guess this thing to death. Clearly Barndiva has some killer food and with Ryan at the helm, a great chef.

  28. I am glad you think Healdsburg’s Barndiva (and it’s Barndiva, not Bardiva- the restaurant is in a fabulous Barn!) is worthy of next year’s list but your reason for keeping them off this year’s list is silly! Although Chef Ryan Fancher is relatively new in their kitchen, he did spend 3 years at the French Laundry- isn’t that cred enough???

  29. CYRUS is definitely a shining star in our neck of the woods. The food was wonderful but the service was not up to par. We have been to FRENCH LAUNDRY and other great restaurants and at this time CYRUS is not their equal.
    I think some folks who don’t get out much might be won over by the RELAIS & CHATEAUX affiliation and the ambience.

  30. I was wrong on the Farmhouse corkage. It is $35 not $25. Zazu is $25. These guys need to get real and stop the madness of trying gouge customers for corkage. Most wines on their lists are at least 300-400% markup. Note: Rutherford Grill has a free corkage and is one of the best places to dine in the Napa/Sonoma area.

  31. What about Le Bistro in Petaluma? I’ll put Cory(CHEF/OWNER) up against any of these places except for Cyrus, that restaraunt is in a league of its own

  32. Great list…no moral outrage yet….a good sign. I concur about Restaurant Eloise, although I’ve only had brunch there. We splurged and ordered the strawberry scone with clotted cream and jam as a starter. I was very hesitant to pay $8,00 for a scone when I can get really excellent scones at Pearson and Co for 2.75…although, granted, it is different when you’re ordering one in a nice restaurant. But, I have to tell you – it was SO WORTH IT, the best scone I’ve ever tasted. We even ordered another one at the end of the meal. I’d forgo a full breakfast elsewhere for a scone at Eloise.. My British husband, who is quite discerning about scones, was equally blown away by the fabulousness of the scone. I think brunch was great too, but all I can remember right now is mmmmm…..the scone.

  33. Love the list. I’m not too sure about Applewood which has just not been the same since the ownership change a couple years ago. Used to be one our favorites in West County. The last 2 visits were unimpressive and we have not returned. Mosaic has taken its’ place on our top ten.

    1. Well, a lot has happened in the past year. New album currently being mixed and available end of summer. Remember how I said I’d never go solo? Well, I haven’t. You may have seen the biog on the J.P,Chrissie and the Fairground Boys my space.

  34. What a ho-hum boring list. Nothing defines the “wine country experience” more than the taco trucks that feed the laborers, grape pickers, and vineyardists in the field. Without those workers, there’s no “wine country”!

  35. Nice list…How about a best vegetarian/vegan dish list for non-meat eaters…just an idea:)

  36. What a great list!! thank you so much.
    It is always good to have some new places to try and the ones you have on your list that I know are great.

  37. good job!!!!
    Restaurant Eloise as RISING STAR might need a new category for it’s self next year!

  38. Yeah Scopa…you must go….make reservations and enjoy a one of a kind Italian experience…
    You wont be disapointed.

  39. Thank you for putting Santi and Diavola on the list. Santi has become a family favorite in the 10 years that we have lived in California. We take my mom there every year for Mother’s Day brunch and it is always divine. I recently ate at Diavola after passing by a few times and then seeing the restaurant featured in an article in the AAA members magazine. It was one of the best meals I have had in a long time. The pizza was like a religious experience and I tell everyone I know about it. I long for it. I wish Geyserville was closer to Santa Rosa, because I think I would go there once a week. Enough waxing poetic; if you are serious about pizza (and I am) you need to check out Diavola. (Disclaimer: I promise I am not shilling for either restaurant, I am just a “true believer.” If I like something, I get really enthusiastic!)

  40. Great work.It’s not easy putting your opinion in front of your public but I think the selections were thoughtful, well researched and most of all delicious. You gave me some additional restaurants to try and confirmed my opinion of Restaurant Eloise. Thanks for all the hard work.

  41. Well, I really like Osake, but I certainly wouldn’t put it at the top of the list by any stretch of the imagination. I know that when they’ve been up for similar “People’s Choice” type awards, they have campaigned (putting flyers on the tables, etc.) so they may have done that in this case- but nothing stopping them, I guess.

  42. I am girding my loins as we speak. I haven’t let loose on the mailing lists yet (i’m technically on vacation), but i expect it to hit the fan shortly.’
    Just try to be courteous people. This took me a ton of time to put together…mostly during the middle of the night. I don’t get paid extra to do it, and its purely out of a sense of fun and community that I do this…That’s all I ask. Human decency.

  43. great list and great job. I thought it was going to be solely based on the poll and the comments– my faith in the Bite Club Universe has been restored.
    Now let the “what about +++” moral outrage comment thread commence!

  44. Kudos to you young lady for putting together a list that would please the wariest traveler and local alike. There will be plenty of detractors complaining about the selection, but phooey. This list has a few places I am not aware of and look forward to trying. They better be good or else! Thanks for tolerating the stinky attitudes and persevering for those of us that value your work.

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