With so many top restaurants in Sonoma County, it’s a tough question to ask a restaurant writer — what is your favorite place to eat?
The answer depends on what type of food I’m in the mood for, if I feel like kicking back or keeping my elbows off the table, and how much I want to spend.
Just in Santa Rosa alone, we have endless terrific choices, ranging from classic California to Latin American, Asian, and beyond. Here are 10 selected favorites, sure to satisfy any mood and craving. Click here for a complete list of Santa Rosa restaurants.
Chef Liza Hinman came to Sonoma County diners’ attention at the former Santi in Santa Rosa, and here, in her very own restaurant, her skills soar in salute to Cal-Mediterranean with broad strokes of Italian cuisine.
The big, boxy building on South A Street in Santa Rosa’s SOFA arts district is stylish inside, with a large square redwood bar (this is where the cool kids hang out), a large communal table, and some intimate two tops around the perimeter.
But it’s the food that commands attention, in mouthwatering breakfast, lunch, dinner, and brunch dishes like ricotta and nettle gnocchi with hedgehog and black trumpet mushrooms, prosciutto, green garlic, pine nuts, and parmigiano; breadcrumb fried duck egg with black rice, Calabrian chili and green garlic aioli; and grilled bavette steak with sweet potato-coconut gratin, chimichurri sauce, and crispy spring onions.
401 South A St., Santa Rosa, 707-528-7100
Rosso Pizzeria & Wine Bar
At the entry, there is a bar with a large flat-screen TV showing European soccer, and loud music ranging from “Super Freak” to Rat Pack oldies. There is a selection of high-style magazines plus crayons for the kids.
To say that “everyone” goes here is accurate, and the long waits for a table will prove it.
Think rustic Italian food, with stellar salumi, antipasti, salads, piadine (salad-topped flatbread), and nightly specials like oven-roasted Dungeness crab or risotto. Another showstopper comes in the mozzarella made with real Italian water buffalo milk, which makes a lovely snack paired with an excellent chopped Caesar decorated in mild Gorgonzola, fresh anchovy and thick lemony dressing spiked with hot Calabrian chile paste.
But what everyone really comes for is the pizza, in crisp crust baked in the wood-burning oven to a puffy-edged finish, with toppings such as McEvoy Ranch EVOO, and Sonoma-grown greens and eggs.
53 Montgomery Drive (in Creekside Center), Santa Rosa, 707-544-3221
Willi’s Wine Bar
The servers at Willi’s Wine Bar love it when diners ask for advice on wine or cocktail pairings with dinner. That’s because the menu focuses on some 30 international small plates, ranging from wildly inventive recipes to familiar comfort food, and putting together a meal can be a global adventure.
A creation of acclaimed chef Mark Stark, Willi’s occupies a charming roadhouse on the rural edge of Santa Rosa, artfully capturing the casual, free-style nature of fine dining in Sonoma Wine Country. Under “Surf,” for example, a diner will find curried crab tacos with apple, cucumber, and mint, while under “Turf,” it’s Jones Farm rabbit rillettes with spiced grape chutney.
Flights are an excellent way to sample several wines, and compare how a Pinot Noir can taste differently depending on whether it was grown along the Russian River or in Alexander Valley.
4404 Old Redwood Highway, Santa Rosa, 707-526-3096
Located on Old Courthouse Square, this Cal-American bar and eatery is a see-and-be-seen destination for business folks, politicians, neighborhood regulars, and the occasional very lucky tourist who happens to discover a local (secret) treasure.
Start with elaborate breakfasts, such as the graceful scrambled or poached eggs with three-cheese mousse, bacon, and ham all stuffed in buttery puff pastry. At lunch, it’s big sandwiches, salads, pasta, stone-oven pizzas, and entrees like the luscious chicken ’n’ beans of poultry breast in a stew of homemade sausage, white beans, and veggies in herb jus. For dinner, first peruse the extensive, Sonoma-centric wine list, then decide on an entrée — perhaps pan-roasted quail, center-cut short ribs, or roast duck in honey-balsamic reduction.
96 Old Courthouse Square, Santa Rosa, 707-573-9600
Stark’s Steak & Seafood
Part of the charm of Mark and Teri Stark’s restaurant is that it looks so Mad Men retro, down to the neon sign above the old stucco building. Rich red leather chairs, fireplaces, heavy wood accents, and a huge bar all lend to the beefy mood.
Don’t go cutting edge when ordering, either — classics are so good we care not what year it is, as long as the kitchen keeps sending out crisp-chilled iceberg salad slathered in creamy blue cheese, gooey four-cheese mac ’n’ cheese spiked with Dijon, and Maine lobster dunked in garlic butter.
Steaks absolutely must be on your table, whether they’re choice, prime, or special cuts aged in-house for 28 days. Besides the top-quality meat, the secret is the crust that seals in the deep flavor, so that juices spill out with a slash of your sharp steak knife.
521 Adams Street, Santa Rosa, 707-546-5100
Dierk’s Parkside Café
Chef-owner Mark Dierkhising juggles a lot with two locations for his enormously popular breakfast, lunch, and weekend brunch hangouts — the original Dierk's Parkside Café on Santa Rosa Avenue at Wheeler Street, and Dierk's Midtown Café on 4th Street and Talbot Avenue.
Whichever spot you choose, it means insanely good fried cinnamon-sugar pull-apart bread; Sonoma duck confit with potato hash, scrambled eggs, toast, and warm apples; crispy chicken-fried steak partnered with golden hash browns, eggs and rich gravy; and smoked salmon egg tart smothered in mushrooms, tomatoes, and herbs in a flaky, buttery puff pastry shell … oh, it’s all so good.
Dierk's Parkside Café, 404 Santa Rosa Ave., Santa Rosa, 707-573-5955
Dierk's Midtown Café, 1422 Fourth St., Santa Rosa, 707-545-2233
Sazon brings authentic Peruvian cuisine to an unexpected part of south Santa Rosa, where taco trucks are more at home. But the Michelin bib-rated restaurant is a true jewel, offering an upscale bistro ambience set around an open kitchen, and the chefs send out masterful dishes such as ceviche marinated in leche de tigre (spicy fish juice) and tossed with cancha (toasted Peruvian corn).
Some ingredients are imported from South America, including yucca, plantains, and Inca Kola soda. And don’t miss the mouthwatering aji Amarillo-lime infused potato terrine studded with Dungeness crab, avocado, egg, and tangy botija olive slathered in rocoto pepper-cilantro aioli.
1129 Sebastopol Road, Santa Rosa, 707-523-4346
SEA Thai Bistro
Chef-owner Tony Ounpamornchai's philosophy of modern Thai cooking is to showcase pristine ingredients, letting each shine while bringing them all together to a brilliant whole. (SEA stands for South East Asia, focusing on Thai cuisine and that of neighboring countries.)
The dark, somewhat stark setting belies the beauty of the plates, accented with Japanese, Chinese, and California-influenced fusion. Spicy baby squid salad in peanut vinaigrette dressing shares the table with wild mushroom potstickers, fried squash blossoms with Thai chile sauce, and a rainbow array of curries.
2323 Sonoma Ave., Santa Rosa, 707-528-8333
Ca’Bianca Italian Restaurant
The grand old mansion in old town is home to excellent Italian cuisine, showcasing various regions, crafted by owners and husband-and-wife team Marco Diana and Karin Hoehne.
Recipes draw from Milano in the north to Sicily in the south, for dishes like seared ahi with home-made ravioli in almond sauce; Sardinian semolina gnocchi with porcini and slowly braised beef; or roasted breast of duck served with sautéed spinach and fingerling potatoes.
Dressing up isn’t necessary, but makes the meal more fun, as you’ll feel extra glamorous in the old-school sophisticated setting with chandeliers, white tablecloths, antique furniture, and gracious gardens.
835 2nd St., Santa Rosa, 707-542-5800
John Ash & Co.
Legendary chef John Ash is no longer affiliated with this restaurant, but his statement as the “godfather of Wine Country cooking” is still felt through the recipes supplemented by ingredients plucked from the culinary gardens next to 92 acres of vineyards.
The setting is special occasion, with white tablecloths, ornate fabrics and romantic lighting, but the food is approachable, such as Mary’s brick chicken with creamed garden greens and rosemary-infused smashed potatoes, or sweet potato-Bellwether Farms ricotta gnocchi with garden kale, and shaved Achadinha Capricious cheese.
4350 Barnes Road, Santa Rosa, 707-575-7350
Craving even more? Take a look at the Best Restaurants in Sonoma County.
Written by Sonoma Insider Carey Sweet