It’s easy to understand why diners in Sonoma County get spoiled, because few restaurants elsewhere use ingredients as fresh as those here, drawn from the beautiful farms, ranches, and orchards nearly in their own backyards.
Which is why “Wine Country cuisine” is defined as recipes celebrating seasonal, locally-sourced ingredients, served pristine fresh, and generally in an uncomplicated American and Mediterranean style. Who needs heavy sauces, loads of butter, and deep fat frying, when the base food itself is so sumptuous?
Because ingredients change with Mother Nature, menus change frequently, too. It all depends on the bounty available at gems like Shone Farm of Santa Rosa, Lovelock Lettuce Laguna Farm of Sebastopol, Rafter Ranch of Santa Rosa, Stemple Creek Ranch of Valley Ford, Green Star Farm of Sebastopol, and many others.
But one thing is consistent. Chefs coax the best flavors through inventive ingredient pairings, interplay of textures, and artful dashes of seasoning. Here are some favorite restaurants that put Wine Country cuisine in its rightful spotlight.
There are just three dozen seats in this rustic café, including a six-seat counter next to the open kitchen. Mismatched wood and schoolroom-style furniture lend charm, as does a retro turntable, and servers who offer you a deck of cards for amusement.
Co-owners Miriam Donaldson and Josh Norwitt source local ingredients, then give comfort food a twist with dishes like bacon-wrapped quail atop strawberry couscous and halved mini artichokes; and a BLT of thick, crisp house-made black pepper bacon stacked high with tomatoes, greens, and house-made mayo on country toast.
841 Petaluma Blvd., Petaluma, 707-763-2663.
Chefs Daniel Kedan and Marianna Gardenhire love their local ranchers, orchards, farms, creameries, and foragers. So much so, that they know the owners personally, visiting them often to see what’s best, and dreaming up new recipes.
The restaurant itself is a rather simple roadhouse and, at first glance, the changing seasonal menu is simple, too — like chicken pot pie, baked in a crock with Green Star Farms poached chicken, carrots, onions, and potatoes, all topped with buttermilk biscuit crust.
But oh my, the flavor. And there are twists, too, like gnocchi made with purple potatoes, king trumpet mushrooms, young onions, Cinderella squash, and fava-hemp seed pesto; or a gorgeous salad of quinoa and watercress tossed with sugar snap peas, Chiogga beets, radish, and mint in preserved lemon vinaigrette.
6566 Front St, Forestville, 707-820-8445
Glen Ellen Star, Glen Ellen
Chef Ari Weiswasser used to work at big name places like the French Laundry in Yountville, and Picholine, Daniel, Gilt, and Corton in New York. His cozy little bistro is all about Sonoma County, though, focused around a wood-burning oven for seasonal delights like wood oven-roasted Globe artichokes finished with local olive oil, parmesan, and wild arugula; blistered shishito peppers decorated with citrus and shabazi pepper; wood-fired pizza topped in mushroom conserva, tomato, cured olive, mozzarella, and oregano; and oven-roasted whole loup de mer with charred lemon and tahini.
Sit at the bar and watch the chefs in action in the tiny open kitchen, or grab one of the 30 seats inside or on the patio. Just be sure to make reservations, or you’ll never get in.
13648 Arnold Drive, Glen Ellen, 707-343-1384
Zazu Kitchen + Farm, Sebastopol
Owners Duskie Estes and John Stewart not only cherish good ingredients, they live for them, growing their own produce and raising their own goats, sheep, pigs, and chickens. They cure their own salumi, and practice a “waste not” philosophy where every bit of an ingredient is used, root-to-fronds and nose-to-tail.
The resulting cooking is stunning enough to attract the attention of the Food Network, which has twice put chef Estes up as a contender for the title of Next Iron Chef.
Meals may (and should) begin with a Bellini, crafted of Sonoma sparkling and fresh-plucked peaches or other seasonal fruit. That salumi is another must, or you can enjoy the signature BLT pizza, loaded with Stewart’s own Black Pig bacon, organic tomatoes, arugula, and cheese on a thin, crispy crust.
The menu changes daily based on what’s fresh from the farm, but favorites include an antipasti of backyard melon, radishes, and avocado in saffron vinaigrette, a cup of spicy tomato soup paired with a Bellwether Carmody grilled cheese sandwich, Liberty duck breast over cider braised cabbage, pork belly, and Klopp Ranch Asian pears, and peanut butter ice cream sandwiches dipped in dark chocolate fondue.
6770 McKinley St., Sebastopol, 707-523-4814
Farmhouse Inn & Restaurant, Forestville
This is one of Sonoma Wine Country’s most celebrated destinations, with chef Steve Litke focusing on the bounty of Sonoma County in a mouthwatering marriage of Italian, French, and Asian, sourced from organic and sustainably farmed seasonal ingredients.
Menus change based on what’s best from local artisan purveyors, but some regular menu standouts include tartar of yellowfin tuna and shrimp noodle with white-soy-citrus chili, avocado mousse, and local asparagus; housemade artichoke ravioli tossed in Parmesan foam with black trumpet mushrooms and garlic toasted breadcrumbs; and the signature Rabbit Rabbit Rabbit of applewood-smoked bacon-wrapped loin, roasted rack, and confit of leg in whole-grain mustard cream sauce with Yukon potato.
7871 River Road, Forestville, 707-887-3300
Vegetarian can be super-stylish, and few do it better than this sleek, chic 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 barbecued 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, and such.
Nearly all 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.
7385 Healdsburg Ave., Sebastopol, 707-829-1077
Chef Ryan Fancher works in a Sonoma Wine Country-style setting, in a mahogany barn with pitchforks on the walls, next door to Barndiva owner Jil Hales's art gallery, Studio Barndiva.
Just a few of the farms it partners with include Bellwether Farms, Early Bird's Place, Mix Garden, The Patch, Philo Apple Farm, and Preston Farm & Winery. That translates into mouthwatering dishes like cauliflower soup with caramelized florets, raisin, fried caper, toasted almond, and sage; and sautéed Pacific swordfish with fregola sarda, green goddess, cracked crab, olive, and tomato confit.
231 Center St., Healdsburg, 707-431-0100
Find all Sonoma County Restaurants here.
Written by Sonoma Insider Carey Sweet