Visit this laid-back land of vineyard-rich valleys, from Sonoma to Dry Creek to Alexander, for fresh, organic cuisine, a thriving farm community—and a distinctly non-Napa vibe
– September 23, 2013
1 of10Eric Wolfinger
At Single Thread, the restaurant and inn near Healdsburg’s main square, you begin in a rooftop garden lit by the setting sun, with cocktails and a first course that itself looks like a garden—delicate bites laid atop petals, leaves, and river stones. Down in the main restaurant, with its sofas and soft lighting, the vibe is anything but fine-dining-stuffy. Chef Kyle Connaughton spent three years in Japan with his wife, farmer Katina Connaughton—whose vegetables supply his kaiseki-style menu—and seamlessly blends Japanese hospitality and warm, California-style ease. Even though each plate is lovelier than the last, produced by a kitchen with insane skills and served in luminous Japanese ceramics you can’t help but cradle, your overwhelming sensation is of being comforted. “We want everyone to feel like they’re in our living room,” says Kyle. Your last bite might be a small blue-and-gold chocolate egg in a handwoven nest, or a swirl of roasted-tea ice cream and warm cherries, in a dish as light as a feather. Don’t be surprised if you see it in your dreams.
A shed for locavores
Belly up to the Fermentation Bar at the Healdsburg Shed, Sonoma’s locavore answer to Napa’s Dean & DeLuca, and you know you’re in a unique spot. Bright-colored fruit infusions steep in beakers, and bacteria and grains ferment in jars, waiting to be alchemized into nose-tickling kombuchas. Try a glass, then browse Shed for local fruits, charcturerie, and breads made from the store’s freshly milled wheat.
The girl of the girl & the fig is whirlwind Sondra Bernstein, who shocked Sonoma more than 19 years ago with her tiny, Cab-free restaurant on the ground floor of the Sonoma Hotel. You won’t even find Chardonnay ― just Rhône wines (many locally grown and made) and a gutsy southern French menu fashioned out of the county's bounty.
Two killer kitchens
Both the executive and pastry chefs at El Dorado Kitchen emerged from the French Laundry, but their skill with ingredients says Sonoma, not Napa. The lively bar at the Kitchen is a great place to meet for a drink and taste your way through chef Armando Navarro’s farm-to-table menu, while the Kitchenette cafe on the corner is the tastiest place in town for a quick pastry, sandwich, or homemade ice cream.
Shiso, a Japanese-serene slip of a space with a sushi bar in back, is just as farm-fresh as neighbors like the Girl and the Fig. There’s 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, plus specials like wok-tossed curried mussels and local-veggie tempura.
At the Harvest Moon Café, two Chez Panisse alums get back to basics in a short, fresh Mediterranean menu. There’s a sweet little stucco-walled dining room right on Sonoma Plaza, with patio seating behind, and deceptively simple specials like perfectly cooked beans topped with stellar homemade pork sausage.
The winery-as-theme-park trend hits its stride at Sonoma County’s Francis Ford Coppola Winery, which has a pool, cabanas, two full bars, and a museum’s worth of movie memorabilia. Nab a table on the terrace for lunch and then—yes—hit the bocce court.
The Barlow, a 13-acre retail park in Sebastopol, packs a week’s worth of West Sonoma County destinations—cafes, community markets, tasting rooms—under 17 farmhouse-style roofs. Some two dozen shops are set up in the former apple factory, with more to come, as well as an outdoor stage for concerts. Learn how to pull the perfect espresso at Taylor Lane, or sample first-batch gin at Spirit Works Distillery, where every drop has been milled, mashed, fermented, and bottled on-site. Tasting breaks are best spent cozying up by the outdoor firepits at sunset.
Lagunitas Brewing Company, tucked away in a Petaluma industrial park, is a sudsy destination for beer geeks and beer neophytes. The free brewery tour, led by brewer Ron Lindenbusch, starts with a tasting and details of its 80-barrel system (for the geeks) and ends in the taproom for live music—founder Tony Magee even hops on the mic for an occasional acoustic performance (for the rest of us). Best bet for local flavor: A Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ Ale, a “wheatish” beer with a huge hop finish.
Winemaker Luke Bass of the Porter-Bass Winery in Guerneville bottles all 1,000 cases of his Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Zinfandel by hand in a wine cave behind his home near downtown. Also on-site: A biodynamic, organic vineyard; a small wagon that Luke and his wife, Elena, live in; and winery tours that include tasting under a walnut tree and introductions to the resident chickens.