Winter Warmers: Hot Chocolate, Fondue and Fireplaces

Warm up to cozy hearths, hot chocolate and fondue around the North Bay

Potato Skin Fondue at Stark's Steakhouse
Potato Skin Fondue at Stark's Steakhouse

If there’s nothing else we’ve learned over the last few weeks, it’s that the weather in Wine Country is unpredictable and the mercury can be, well, mercurial.

Even if it starts to feel like spring again, there’s an 80 percent chance of needing to snuggle by the fire in February. Because whether there’s a rainy chill settling into your bones or you just want to capture the winter apres-ski vibe, Sonoma County has plenty of spots to cozy up, chow down and let the braised, steamy or sweater-wrapped feeling melt away your mid-winter blues.

Hot Chocolate
The standard-bearer for liquid warmth, it’s impossible not to become a kid again as you sport the inevitable whipped cream mustache and cup icy fingers around a steaming mug of cocoa. One marshmallow or two?

The Peppermint Patty, Warm Puppy Cafe: Sure, there may be fancier cups of hot chocolate in Sonoma County, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better one. Pull up a rink-side seat at Snoopy’s Home Ice and wrap your lips around one of these tasty concoctions. For a little added spice, order a Peppermint Patty, a hot chocolate with a splash of peppermint and peppermint sprinkles. Plus, staff are used to tiny tykes and get the temp just right for eager young sippers. 1667 West Steele Lane, Santa Rosa, 546-7147.

Aztec Hot Chocolate, Flying Goat: While coffee is their main game, The Flying Goat makes a mean Aztec Hot Chocolate. Spiced with cinnamon and chili this sweet-hot drink harkens back to chocolate’s Mexican origins as xocoatl, a bitter brew served to kings.10 Fourth St., Santa Rosa, 575.1202; 324 Center St., Healdsburg, 433.3599.

Mexican Hot Chocolate Ice Cream, Screaming Mimi’s: Like the Aztec hot chocolate, this ice cream has some sweet heat, cinnamon and spices to dress up plain old cocoa. 6902 Sebastopol Ave., Sebastopol, 823-5902.

Mexican Hot Chocolate and Savory Hand Pies, Petaluma Pie Shop: What could possibly be more warming on a cold and rainy day than a steaming cup of cocoa and a freshly baked hand-pie filled with mushrooms and cheese? The newly opened Petaluma Pie beckons with warm scent of buttery crusts and spice-dusted fruits. To wash it all down, a freshly-brewed cup of cocoa made from cacao paste, sugar and spice.

You can learn a lot about a person by sharing a pot of fondue. Do they yield generously, stab blindly or rudely leave behind chunks in the pot? Cheese to chocolate, it’s an exercise in communal communication.

Classic Swiss, Henweigh Cafe: Melted Gruyere and Emmentaler cheese for two with bread cubes and veggies to dip, and pineapple sausage a la carte, $28. 4550 Gravenstein Hwy North, Sebastopol, 829-7500.

Potato Skin “Fondue”, Stark’s Steakhouse: Grab your Lipitor, or you may not make it out of this one alive. A mound of fried, bite-sized potato pieces surround a molten pot of cheese. Topped with bacon. 521 Adams St., Santa Rosa, 546-5100.

Viva Cocolat, Chocolate Fondue: On Friday and Saturday nights, this Petaluma chocolatier offers fondue for two in milk, dark or white with an assortment of delectable dippables including strawberries, bananas, cake, marshmallows and more. Reservations suggested. 110 Petaluma Blvd, North, Petaluma, 778-9888.

A Warm Start
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and coffee isn’t the best way to get those fires lit.

Polenta Porridge with Brown Sugar, Zazu: Saturday and Sunday brunch at this roadhouse restaurant start your morning right with tummy warmers like hearty polenta (a sort of cornmeal) porridge, freshly made donuts and cornmeal waffles with strawberries and maple cream. Pair with the world’s best affogato, a coffee-drenched dessert with cardamom gelato. 9am to 2:30pm, 3535 Guerneville Road
Santa Rosa, 523-4814.

Jeffrey’s Favorite, Jeffery’s Hillside Cafe: Former John Ash & Co. Chef Jeffrey Madura has switched gears, running a breakfast, brunch and lunchery with some of the best morning munches in Sonoma. Don’t miss his sauteed chicken livers with onions, mushrooms and pancetta, served with creamy chive scrambled eggs and county potatoes. 2901 Fourth St., Santa Rosa, 546-6317.

Gather round the hearth at these winter warming spots. Cricklewood may be best known for its steaks, but the cozy fireplace lounge is a top pick for grabbing a cocktail (4618 Old Redwood Hwy, Santa Rosa, 527-7768). John Ash & Company’s Front Room Bar and Lounge is a stellar spot for happy hour cocktails, around the stone-cut fireplace. don’t miss Chef Thomas Schmidt’s nacho french fries; cheese burger and veal sausage dogs with housemade ketchup.4350 Barnes Rd., Santa Rosa, 575-7350.

Franco’s Ristorante: We’re huge fans of Franco’s for the home made focaccia bread, wood-fired pizzas and cozy backroom fireplace. This under-the-radar pizza and pasta spot rarely fails when it comes to warming pasta and braised-meat dishes. 505 Mendocino Ave, Santa Rosa, 523-4800.