When someone says ‘Sonoma County,’ word associations usually pop up. Wine. Food. Gorgeous landscapes. Food. Wine. The ocean, the vineyards, the redwoods, the mountains and meadows. Food and wine.
We’re smart in Sonoma County. We’ve put a lot of these pleasures together, with restaurants showcasing outdoor dining and tasting rooms celebrating outdoor wining. From fancy suppers and sips splashed with a bit of ocean spray to casual picnics amid the forest, a visitor here could easily spend a month eating and drinking their way through local menus.
But for ease, let’s hit some highlights in a three-day adventure, shall we? Here is your guide to a most delicious al fresco culinary tour. And here are travel tips on how to get to Sonoma County.
Occidental – Bodega Bay – Guerneville – Sebastopol
Western Sonoma County is well known for its proud agricultural roots, and treasure trove of farm-to-fork dining options showcasing ingredients quite literally harvested from its own backyard.
Start in the charming town of Occidental, with breakfast on the porch at Howard Station Café, a lovely Victorian home-turned-restaurant featuring views of the tiny downtown bustle. The cozy, wood trimmed farm-style dining room fills up fast for breakfast, bringing signatures like tofu rancheros with soy cheese, a hearty platter of corned beef hash and homemade biscuits, pumpkin waffles, smoked salmon Florentine omelets, and crab Benedict.
For a “real trail” to go with your “culinary trail,” head over to the 805-acre Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve in nearby Guerneville. This oasis is a quiet place for a leisurely stroll among towering coastal redwood trees, on the mile-and-a-half long round trip Pioneer Nature Trail. Keep your eyes peeled for the Icicle Tree, with its mysterious “burl” formations, the Colonel Armstrong Tree, estimated to be over 1,400 years old, and the Parson Jones Tree, towering to 350 feet tall.
It’s time for lunch, and Rio Nido Roadhouse will feed you well. The restaurant is in a refurbished doublewide trailer, but the food is really good, like homemade French onion soup, juicy half-pound burgers, a Reuben, thin-crust pizza, and delicious slow-roasted pulled pork with Boont Amber Ale slaw. The surrounding land is gorgeous open space, too, dating back to 1860 when it was a redwood milling site that grew into a community of bungalows and cabins in 1907. There’s even a swimming pool onsite for an après-lunch splash.
Wine tasting calls, so it’s off to Bodega Bay you go, to sip oceanside at Gourmet au Bay. With waterfront views both indoors and outdoors and a menu of wood-fired coastal cuisine, the little shop charms with Sonoma County-only, 1,000 case-or-less boutique wine flights served on a little wooden surfboard.
Be sure to savor a glass at Drakes Fireside Lounge, too, adjacent to the luxury Drakes Sonoma Coast restaurant at the Bodega Bay Lodge. The pretty retreat woos with a large stone fireplace framed by gorgeous views of Bodega Head, Doran Beach, and the Pacific Ocean.
Valley Ford is just around the corner, and well worth a visit for its little shops and old-fashioned mercantiles. Savor an ice-cold Pimms’ Cup in Rocker Oysterfeller’s restaurant and inn deck garden out back — the space is prettily planted, and the refreshing drink is served in a big Ball jar with Pimm’s No. 1, ginger beer, and a rainbow array of chunky chopped and sliced cucumber plus seasonal fruit like apple and citrus. It’s not too sweet, just a bit tart, and reflects the area’s rich history of orchards and farms.
Sebastopol – Petaluma – Santa Rosa
You’ll get a delicious kick-off to your day at Fork Roadhouse in Sebastopol, with a big, warm bowl of organic polenta, Laura Chenel chevre, braised greens, poached egg, bacon, avocado, and gomasio Japanese sesame salt; or a kale and mushroom scramble laced with cheddar, pistou, and salsa alongside potatoes and Full Circle Bakery seven-grain toast. Stretch out on the charming cottage patio set with rosemary and olive trees, and soak up the shade-filtered sun of this countryside hideaway.
Then, hop in the car and take a quick drive over Florence Avenue toward Bodega Avenue, to see the neighborhoodwide outdoor gallery of the wacky and inspired sculptures fashioned by local artists Patrick Amiot and Brigitte Laurent out of junk. Florence Avenue is lined their work.
Sebastopol boasts world-class wineries, like Furthermore Wines for amazing Pinot Noir and a game of bocce on the flower-framed patio. Don’t miss the blanc de blancs at Iron Horse Vineyards nearby, either — the sparkling wine is considered some of the best in the nation, and the winery resides in a cluster of rustic, redwood barn-style buildings at the end of a meandering, one-lane road on a hill overlooking undulating hills of grape vines. The tasting room is outdoors, offering a stunning view and, on Mondays, winemaker David Munksgard offers a truck tour through the vineyards (tastings and tours by appointment only).
A short jaunt south finds you in Petaluma, a foodie haven. The Sonoma-style Italian cuisine at Risibisi earned a Michelin Bib Gourmand ranking (for restaurants that serve two courses and a glass of wine or dessert for $40 or less), with signature dishes like grilled asparagus paired with duck egg, Calabrian chili-pancetta vinaigrette, and crispy shallot, or seared duck breast in a mélange of carrot fregola, braised radish, roasted baby carrot, and cardamom-duck sauce. The mood is comfortable trattoria, cocooned within brick walls, warm wood, a big welcoming bar, and a clientele of regulars who know to ask about the pasta of the day.
Motor up to Santa Rosa now, and shop some more in the Railroad Square historic district, centered around the restored 1870 Northwestern Pacific Railroad train depot, made of locally quarried stone. There are lots of antique shores here (Whistlestop is a favorite), novelty felt-wrapped soaps from Cast Away Yarn Shop, and vintage ball gowns and men’s wear from Hot Couture.
It’s hard to believe, but you’re hungry again. Ca’Bianca Italian Restaurant is your solution. The grand old Santa Rosa mansion in old town is home to excellent Italian cuisine, showcasing various regions, crafted by owners and husband-and-wife 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. The best seats for al fresco flair are on the porch overlooking the fountain garden framed in flowering trees.
Begin with the gourmet three-course breakfast included with your stay at Gables Wine Country Inn — it might feature the light-as-air cheddar tomato soufflé, poached pears, and scones.
Zip north towards Healdsburg, home to Bravas Bar de Tapas and Willi’s Seafood & Raw Bar. But stop first at Chalk Hill Estate Vineyards & Winery to tour one of Healdsburg’s most spectacular winery properties, spanning 1,477-acres and topped with a hilltop chateau tasting room offering stunning views over the natural amphitheater of mountains that is the eastern edge of the Russian River Valley. One of the most popular tour choices includes a stroll through the estate’s organic garden, the vineyards, and terraces.
Then spin by the Medlock-Ames tasting room in Alexander Valley. Set on two acres of lush organic gardens, the market-style wine room features a patio surrounded by licorice, cassis, and other fresh, edible plants.
Off to downtown Healdsburg, where you can wander the many boutiques and shop around the historic Plaza. Thumbprint Cellars offers a bit of both in one spot, doubling as an art gallery with for-sale works on nearly every inch of wall. For extra insight, book a three-hour walking session with Savor Healdsburg Food Tours, which offers a behind the scenes experience including personal access to chefs and winemakers during multiple stops for bites and sips.
Chef Ryan Fancher sources the best ingredients from boutique places like Preston Farm & Winery, Bellwether Farms, Mix Gardens, Earlybird’s Place, and Daniel’s Flats, producing fantastic dishes such as “the farmers market” of puff pastry, ricotta, summer vegetables, tomato, pickled chiles, and olives, or wild Pacific sea bass with Sardinian couscous, avocado, blistered cherry tomato, olives, and local Dungeness crab.
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