7 Restaurants with Authentic Wine Country Cuisine
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.
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.
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.
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.
Willi's Wine Bar, Santa Rosa
Popular favorites like goat cheese fritters, Tunisian roasted carrots with mint, Moroccan lamb chops, and mushroom soup shooters are once again on the menu at Willi's Wine Bar, an iconic Santa Rosa roadhouse that was one of the casualties of the October 2017 wildfires.
Reborn in an extensively renovated 3,000-square-foot space less than four miles from its original location, Willi's features international small plates, some wildly inventive and others comfortingly familiar. An open floor plan, soaring ceilings, brass lighting, and a 13-seat bar help capture the casual, laid-back nature of Sonoma County Wine Country. You'll find both locals and visitors here, enjoying a quick bite or lingering over a glass of wine.
Farmhouse Inn, 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.
River's End Restaurant & Inn, Jenner
In addition to breathtaking coastal views and an intimate romantic setting, River's End offers eclectic, seasonal menus that are internationally influenced yet take advantage of Sonoma County's abundance. Working with the best local purveyors, chef Martin Recoder crafts amazing dishes featuring King Salmon and Dungeness crab fresh off the boat, local artisan cheeses and dairy products, Valley Ford lamb and poultry, and other tantalizing delights.
The dining room is small and intimate, with views of Goat Rock and the Russian River entering the Pacific Ocean from every table. The wine list features the best Sonoma County wines, and has been awarded Wine Spectator's Award of Excellence since 2003. With his attention to detail, flavors, and integrity of ingredients, bar chef Patrick Keane (trained as a chef at the French Culinary Institute in New York) embodies what artisan bartending is all about.
Gravenstein Grill, Sebastopol
Chef Bob Simontacchi has deep roots in Northern California, and brings his love of the region and its food to the dinner table. Gravenstein Grill serves both familiar and creative dishes using local produce, meat, and seafood alongside world-class local wines, hand-crafted cocktails, and Sonoma County's famous micro-brews.
With a large patio, spacious bar, and unpretentious service, Gravenstein Grill is a perfect venue for sampling Sonoma County's ample bounty of food and drink.
Written by Sonoma Insider Carey Sweet.