Here are the stats on Graton in west Sonoma County: population 1,707. Size of the town: 1.56 square miles. Number of destination restaurants that attract diners from everywhere, even day-trippers driving all the way from San Francisco for a single meal: Two, but two outstanding ones!
The Underwood Bar & Bistro and Willow Wood Market Café are right across the street from each other on Graton Road. They’re easily visible, from the oversized signage, to the music often emanating from the open doors, to the crowds thronging in and out. The restaurants have been reviewed by Food & Wine, Wine Spectator, and the San Francisco Chronicle, and have “Best of” awards into the double digits.
And the ideas behind them are simple genius. At Underwood, chef and co-owner Matthew Greenbaum sends out European-style food from tapas to an excellent Niman Ranch hamburger gooey with Gruyere, while at Willow Wood, the order of the day is breakfast, lunch, dinner, and Sunday brunch, from omelets to grilled steaks.
Uniting the two is a delightful small-town vibe, where locals mingle with tourists, and you can almost always count on seeing a nationally recognized winemaker taking a break from his or her vineyards for a cold beer.
For a bit fancier time, Underwood Bar & Bistro (9113 Graton Road, 707-823-7023) purrs with relaxed sophistication, from the milk-glass pendant lights, to a nickel-topped saloon-style bar, red vinyl banquettes, and zinc accented tables. It’s a taste of big city style in what used to be a simple little apple cannery town and is now the gateway to some of Sonoma County’s best vineyard areas.
On every table you’ll likely see something different, selected from the broad menu with temptations like roasted local beets tossed with endive, walnuts and feta cheese; a small plate of Korean barbecued beef dressed in lettuce leaves, shiso, housemade kimchi, Napa cabbage and Asian pear slaw; a pizzetta topped in Serrano ham, arugula, Manchego cheese and farm-fresh egg; or Catalan fish stew brimming with prawns, clams, mussels and calamari.
Pair your meal with a classic Negroni, a lively pisco sour, or a glass of Frei Brothers Reserve Pinot Noir – and you might even see winery proprietor Gina Gallo enjoying a glass of her own at the next table.
Every town needs a gathering spot, and for Graton it’s Willow Wood Market Café (9020 Graton Road, 707-823-0233), which doubles as a general store and a café/soda fountain, catering to visitors, families, and anyone looking for an honest roast chicken and garlic mashed potatoes dinner.
As owner, Greenbaum does cute, stocking the market with local food items, Sonoma County wines, and souvenirs like novelty toys and knickknacks. As chef, he rivals mom, for big breakfasts of eggs Benedict and Monte Cristo sandwiches, to lunches of a hot Black Forest ham and Brie sandwich, or smoked trout and spinach salad studded with walnuts, apples and blue cheese.
Part of the trick here is keeping the nostalgia old, but the menu fresh, such as huevos rancheros in a traditional recipe of two corn tortillas topped with black beans, poached eggs, Manchego cheese, avocado salsa and sour cream, but tricked up with creamy polenta.
Final stats: Dining in Graton is a 10.