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Vegetarian Food Adventures in West Sonoma County

Not so long ago, being vegetarian meant limited choices for dining out. The bland, steamed vegetable plates or dry, pre-fab mock meatloaves that many restaurants would foist on their unfortunate customers? No thanks.

Modern chefs consider vegetarian and vegan recipes to be fine cuisine, celebrating meatless flavors, textures, and visual appeal as a fun challenge to their talents. In Sonoma County, in particular, the art of eschewing meat is a joy, since so much magical produce grows here. With the freshest, most flavorful ingredients on hand, a chef need merely add a bit of seasoning and style, to draw out the beauty of something as simple as a brussels sprout.

Enjoying a vegetarian/vegan travel adventure in Sonoma County Wine Country offers extra pleasures, too. Visitors can hike the great outdoors, take an insider’s look at where some of the food is grown and produced, and sip vegan wines.

Just pack your satchel, and head to this spotlight destination, the West County, for a taste of one the region’s most productive food regions.

 

Guerneville

In the 1860s, the riverside town of Guerneville was known as the Big Bottom, because it rests upon an alluvial flood plain. In later years, it came to be called Stumptown, in reference to its abundant redwood logging. Today, it’s evolving into a hip dining and shopping destination that’s still hideaway-enough so it feels like a secret discovery.

Spectacular natural wonders span the 5,683-acre Austin Creek State Recreation Area (17000 Armstrong Woods Road, Guerneville, 707-869-9177), and Guerneville is home to just 4,534 souls, mostly arts, food, wine, and nature types. The half-mile long downtown a boasts an eclectic mix of dark but convivial bars, so-tacky-they’re-fun souvenir shops, and more recently, notable restaurants and wine tasting salons.

Start your day with breakfast at Big Bottom Market (16228 Main St., Guerneville, 707-604-7295), a marvy, modern day general store from owner/style guru Michael Volpatt and local chef legend Crista Luedtke. You sit back amid a delicious mix of gourmet grocery, upscale deli complete with curated wines, and cherished community hangout for local musicians and artists, while watching passersby on the street through the giant front windows.

The signature biscuits are a must, dense yet flaky and demanding to be smothered in rich creamery butter and jam. The Veggie Sando breakfast is another mouthwatering choice, layered with hard-boiled egg, garden-fresh spinach, crispy grilled peppers and onions, havarti, and homemade pesto and garlic aioli on a crunchy toasted ciabatta. Whatever you order, splurge with an early morning mimosa, made with organic orange juice and local sparking wine.

Next, work off that mimosa with a hike through Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve (17000 Armstrong Woods Road, Guerneville, 707-869-2015). Thos 805-acre forest sprawls in groves of 500 to 2,000 year-old trees towering to 350 feet and often shrouded in mystical fog. Pioneer Nature Trail is an easy mosey, over a mostly flat, mile-and-a-half long round trip path.

One of West County’s most marvelous, off-the-radar wineries awaits just a few minutes away over the Russian River Bridge, at Porter-Bass Winery (11750 Mays Canyon Road, Guerneville, 707-869-1475). Here, winemaker Luke Bass bottles and corks all 1,000 cases of his excellent Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Zinfandel by hand, working out of a groovy wine cave dug into a hillside.

He leads the by-appointment-only, hour-long tours personally, sharing details on his certified biodynamic vineyard practices, his earth-friendly produce and orchard farming, and his pasture-raised chickens. In good weather, tastings are held under a walnut tree next to the vines, with the wines displayed on a wood plank balanced on two wine barrels.

Drive five minutes back to downtown for lunch at boon eat + drink (16248 Main St., Guerneville, 707-869-0780), owned by chef-entrepreneur Crista Luedtke. The cool, casual concept showcases organic ingredients, home grown vegetables and herbs, and a Cal-Ital menu that’s knock-your-socks off delicious. The brief menu offers a full section of green plates, like a sweet-peppery salad of arugula, cress, red flame grapes, Redwood Hill goat cheese, and Marcona almonds in sherry vinaigrette, or a beautiful bowl of flash fried brussels sprouts doctored with chili flakes, fresh squeezed lemon, garlic and olive oil.

For an entrée, the polenta lasagna is a lavish feast, layered with spicy seasonal veggies, ricotta salata and spicy marinara served over a bed of sautéed garlicky greens. “Boon,” by the way, is Luedtke’s rescue puppy, which explains the mural of dogs catching Frisbees on the wall next to the two dozen seats, and the dog friendly sidewalk tables outside.

It wouldn’t be right to visit this laid-back river town with lazing on the river, and Johnson's Beach & Resort (16241 1st St., Guerneville, 707-869-2022) offers the best access, tucked just beneath Guerneville’s entryway bridge. You can lounge on the spotlessly clean river sandbar on rentable beach chairs beneath umbrellas, or on the gently flowing water, with by-the-hour canoes, kayaks, and pedal boats that take you a leisurely ride past river homes and forests.

The beach puts you just steps away from Sonoma Nesting Co. (16151 Main St., Guerneville, 707-869-3434) – okay, everything in Guerneville is just steps away – but this is a great excuse to stop in and meet shop owners Dax Berg and “Smitty.” Browse their delightful vintage shop stocked with offbeat treasures like reinvented furniture (Smitty is a painter), collectable clutter, and garden art. 

Dinner beckons right next door at Dick Blomster's Korean Diner (16236 Main St., Guerneville, 707-869-8006). Your taste buds are in for an awakening at this funky little eatery that used to be a circa-50s American diner and shares liquor service with an adjacent dive bar. Your meal might begin with fried pickles dunked in kimchee aioli, or a bowl of hand-cut Seoul fries sprinkled with garlic, Korean chiles, green onions, seaweed, and sesame seeds. For larger plates, inventive choices feature silky braised chrysanthemum leaves tossed with hot chile peppers, maitake mushrooms, and black garlic, or a big, steaming bowl of kale and shiitake mushrooms over soba, udon, or rice noodles – you can add in market vegetables and/or tofu, too.

Now, it’s time to check in for the night. How about boon hotel + spa (14711 Armstrong Woods Road, Guerneville, 707-869-2721), also owned by chef-entrepreneur Crista Luedtke. This tiny retreat commands just 14 rooms in old miner's cabins tucked against the redwoods on Armstrong park’s entry road. Other great accommodation options in Guerneville include Sonoma Orchid Inn (12850 River Road, Guerneville, 707-869-4466), Applewood Inn (13555 Highway 116, Guerneville, 707-869-9093), Dawn Ranch Lodge (16467 Highway 116, Guerneville, 707-869-0656), Fern Grove Cottages (16650 Highway 116, Guerneville, 888-243-2674), and more.

For more from mother nature, you will also feel happy at one of the Russian River Valley's campgrounds.

Sebastopol

After a restful night  drive toward Santa Rosa to small, charming SebastopolThis dynamic community offers a small-town vibe blended with an international consciousness, creating a sophisticated rural atmosphere.

This is an important food and wine region, with dozens of small farms and boutique wineries. On Sundays year-round, the Sebastopol Farmers Market (in the downtown plaza) draws shoppers from all across Sonoma County. Here some of region’s best growers offer the finest produce of the season, from juicy summer peaches to crisp, winter kale, and there are also artisan breads, cheeses, and an array of vegetarian picnic meals like wood-oven Margherita pizza.

Start the day with breakfast at East West Café (128 N. Main St., Sebastopol, 707-829-2822). Since 1989, this friendly, family-owned Mediterranean spot has lured food lovers in for its generous portions of honest, satisfying veggie and vegan options. The menu goes on for several pages, and all is good, but regulars swear by the Organic Macro Plate of braised tofu or grilled tempeh with vegetables, arame seaweed, black beans, brown rice, hummus and tahini; the Thai tofu stir fry in spicy Thai peanut sauce; and the veggie Benedict, bringing a toasted English muffin topped with avocado, tomato, sautéed shiitake mushrooms, poached eggs and homemade hollandaise alongside country potatoes and salsa.  

Next, discover what all the buzz is about at The Barlow (6770 McKinley St., Suite 120, Sebastopol, 707-824-5600), a thriving culinary and arts center featuring more than two dozen shopping boutiques, art galleries, restaurants, and tasting rooms in a former apple factory site. More than just a shopping center, Barlow customers enjoy products directly from the people who make them, and from where the products are made. That means Spirit Works Distillery (6790 McKinley St., Suite 100, Sebastopol, 707-634-4793) mills, mashes, ferments, distills and bottles its own small-batch gin, sloe gin and whiskey. Village Bakery (6760 McKinley St., Sebastopol, 707-829-8101) crafts its artisan breads right in front of your eyes. And Bronze Plus Art Foundry (6790 Depot St., Sebastopol, 707-829-0716) creates its art live. Even the landscaping is edible, framing sidewalks and filling planter boxes with pomegranates, oranges, artichokes, and basil.

Then, hop in the car and head to three-block-long Florence Avenue in Sebastopol to view the outdoor sculpture gallery of wacky and inspired sculptures fashioned by local artist Patrick Amiot and his wife, Brigitte Laurent. Amiot creates the sculptures from found objects — old cars, cookware, discarded pipes, aluminum trash cans, and more — and Laurent bestows their bright-hued paint jobs. 

Sebastopol boasts world-class wineries, like Merry Edwards Winery (2959 Gravenstein Highway N., Sebastopol, 888-388-9050), renowned for its Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc. After sipping there, visit Graton Ridge Cellars (3561 Gravenstein Highway N., Sebastopol, 707-823-3040) for boutique Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Zinfandel, and a game of bocce. You would also do well to sample the blanc de blancs at nearby Iron Horse Vineyards (9786 Ross Station Road, Sebastopol, 707-887-1507) – the sparkling wine is considered some of the best in the nation.

The dinner bell is ringing at Peter Lowell's (7385 Healdsburg Ave., Suite 101, Sebastopol, 707-829-1077), a sleek, chic Italian café that tempts with contemporary bites so well crafted that meat most likely will never be missed. These are full flavored recipes, from a simple bagel sandwich stuffed with BBQ tempeh and caramelized onion (fried egg optional), to a beautiful “gemischter salat” of Bohemian Farm Collective winter greens, root vegetables, toasted pepitas and goat cheese in balsamic vinaigrette. The pizzas are positively addictive, fired to a crisp-chewy bubbled edge crust on an 800-degree fire deck pizza hearth, topped with a choice of artisan cheeses including soy-based, and finished with green goodies like marinara, wild arugula, exotic mushrooms, Calabrian chiles, escarole, tofu and seitan.

Nearly all the ingredients are sourced from Sonoma County, and many are so fresh they come from Sebastopol-based boutique farmers, ranchers, cheesemakers, and foragers. Dishes change often, but look for delights like Laguna Farms mixed greens tossed with shaved radishes and sweet carrots in Nana Mae’s Organics apple cider vinegar; and Rainbow’s End goat milk vanilla panna cotta topped in cherries.

It’s time to check into your hotel, so head to Sebastopol Inn (6751 Sebastopol Ave., Sebastopol, 800-653-1082). Right across from The Barlow, it’s a quiet retreat in the heart of the town, with garden courtyard, balcony, and private patio rooms decorated in country-chic with kitchenettes and pot-bellied stoves. Other cozy hotels or inns in Sebastopol include Avalon Bed & Breakfast (11910 Graton Road, Sebastopol, 707-824-0880), Fairfield Inn and Suites (1101 Gravenstein Highway S., Sebastopol, 707-829-6677), and Pearlessence Vineyard Inn (4097 Hessel Road, Sebastopol, 707-823-5092).

For other options, check our list of itineraries around Sonoma County.

Written by Sonoma Insider Carey Sweet