Sondra Bernstein shocked Sonoma 10 years ago with her tiny, Cab-free restaurant, the Girl & the Fig. No Chardonnay even ― just Rhône wines (many locally grown and made) and a gutsy southern French menu fashioned out of the county's bounty.
And at nearby Cafe La Haye, John McReynolds and Saul Gropman had started turning out stellar California-French dishes in a kitchen they could reach across.
Since then, nothing and everything has changed. Chefs here still set trends for the West, and the three guiding principles are still local, local, local.
The difference now is that there's even more to choose from. Sushi, anyone? Or how about Southern-style comfort at the General's Daughter? Let us guide you to the best of Sonoma's top-notch restaurants.
The town of Sonoma is about 45 miles north of San Francisco; take U.S. 101 north to State 37 east, then take State 121 north to State 12 north. From the East Bay, take I-80 north, cross the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge to U.S. 101 north, and follow the preceding directions from San Francisco.
BEST BREAKFAST GOODIES (AND MORE)
El Dorado Kitchen and Kitchenette
The scene The lively bar is a great place to meet for a drink; the long table near the open kitchen is good for groups. The Kitchenette cafe on the corner is the tastiest place in town for a quick pastry, sandwich, or homemade ice cream.
The food Both the executive and pastry chefs emerged from the French Laundry, but their skill with ingredients says Sonoma, not Napa. INFO: Kitchen: $$$; Kitchenette: $; 405 First St. W.; 707/996-3030.
BEST PICNIC FIXINGS
The Fig Pantry
The scene Crowded deli counter behind a coffee bar and shop that's equally crowded with wine, kitchen gear, and fig products.
The food Takeout echoes the Girl & the Fig: flavorful Mediterranean sandwiches (grilled steak, arugula, and artichokes with black-olive aioli) and salads (Provençal potato).
Did you know? The Sonoma Plaza is one of the few places in the West grandfathered past public alcohol-consumption laws. That means you can sip your own wine sans paper bags under the square's grand trees, making the Fig Pantry particularly useful. INFO: $$; 1190 E. Napa St.; 707/933-3000.
BEST FOR A COZY DATE NIGHT
Harvest Moon Cafe
The scene Sweet little stucco-walled dining room right on the square, with patio seating behind.
The food Two Chez Panisse alums get back to basics in a short, fresh Mediterranean menu. Remind yourself how good perfectly cooked beans can be, especially topped with stellar homemade pork sausage. INFO: $$$; 487 First St. W.; 707/933-8160.
BEST FOR A BIG NIGHT OUT
The General's Daughter
The scene Classy black tablecloths and fine-tuned service in the unfussy Victorian once owned by (surprise) General Mariano Vallejo's daughter Natalia.
The food Well-heeled comfort imported from the South ― think gumbo and grits, exquisite seafood, and simple meat dishes. Plus produce from the Benziger family's biodynamic vineyard, and a California wine list as deep as you'll find anywhere. INFO: $$$$; closed Mon; 400 W. Spain St.; 707/938-4004.
BEST (OKAY, ONLY) SUSHI IN TOWN
The scene Sushi bar at the back of a Japanese-serene slip of a space.
The food Yummy nigiri-sushi, including uni (sea urchin) from Fort Bragg, and maki-sushi rolls named for nearby wine regions, like the Howell Mountain ― tuna, tempura shrimp, avocado, and cucumber. Also try the wok-tossed curried mussels and local-veggie tempura. INFO: $$; closed Mon; 522 Broadway; 707/933-9331.
OLDIES BUT GOODIES, WORTH A RETURN
In a food town like this, even the classics reinvent themselves. Here are a few reasons to revisit the places that helped put Sonoma on the food map more than a decade ago.
Cafe La Haye The new chef's menu leans a little more American than French, but the cooking is as solid, the bi-level space as artsy, and the open kitchen as miniscule as ever. INFO: $$; 140 E. Napa St.; 707/935-5994.
LaSalette In its newish location, the cozy Portuguese kitchen is tucked behind shops on the square. But it still serves the same soulful food (if it's available, get the whole fish roasted in the wood-burning oven). INFO: $$$; 452 First St. E., Ste. H; 707/938-1927.
Della Santina Locals' favorite Italian restaurant has just been paired with a wine bar, making it easy to taste wine and pick up some of the restaurant's great house pasta to go. INFO: $$; 133 E. Napa St.; 707/935-0576.