You’ll eat well in Healdsburg – really well. The town is fast emerging as Sonoma County’s new gastronomic capital, with everything from artisinal cheeses and locally roasted coffee to white-tablecloth restaurants on par with San Francisco’s best.
Bovolo ($$) imports the clean, bright flavors of rustic Italian cooking to Healdsburg. Bovolo means snail in Italian, and chef-owner John Stewart calls the cuisine ’slow food fast.’ His passion is salumi (the generic term for smoked pork, such as salami), and the charcuterie plates are out of this world. The boldly spiced meats come served on a board with roasted garlic, tapenade, canellini beans, and hunks of Italian cheeses; paired with a peppery zinfandel and crusty bread, they make a damn good meal. Also consider one of the crispy, thin-crusted pizzas, with toppings like in Italy, such as arugula and fontina. Save room for the stellar house-made gelato. There’s nothing fussy about the place – no waiters, no tablecloths. Order at the counter, then snag a table in the outdoor courtyard beneath olive trees, and pretend you’re lunching in Lucca. Bovolo serves all day, making it perfect for a late-afternoon bite if you get stuck in traffic leaving the city.
Mention Cyrus ($$$$) and nearly everyone draws comparisons with Napa’s venerable French Laundry. It’s hard not to. From the ballet-like service to the superb artistry on the plate, this is one meal you’ll remember for a long time. Theatrics are a big deal at Cyrus, but they’re done with a refreshing levity – to wit, the princess phone that the hostess picks up to alert the kitchen that you’ve arrived. But this gesture is more than fanfare: the phone call triggers the kitchen to send several amuse-geueles to your table so you’ve something to munch on tout de suite while perusing the menu. Owner and maitre d’ Nick Peyton shows up at the table in over-the-top style, wheeling a caviar cart with several exceptional bottles of champagne splaying out of a silver bowl like a bouquet of peonies. Fabulous. Chef Doug Keane’s menu is firmly rooted in French technique, but has a smart California sensibility that lightens up the heavy edges. Create your own prix-fixe menu, from three-to-five, mix-and-match courses. Among the standouts, torchon of foie gras, and Thai-marinated lobster. If you’re feeling flush, let sommelier Jim Rollston pair wines: his palette is impeccable. For the caliber of the food and service, the menu is fairly well priced; three courses cost $75, four $87, and five $99. Add another $30 to $60 for wine pairings. Don’t even think of coming without reservations.
Locals couldn’t be happier that Ravenette ($$) has again opened its doors. Little sister to the ever-popular Ravenous (originally housed here), Ravenette serves up stellar Euro-Cal comfort foods, all sensibly priced. For $16 you can get hearty, soul-warming dishes like braised beef ribs melting off the bone onto a bed of celery root puree. All the wines are local, as is the clientele – which is why the prices are so good. There’s only one waiter and six tables so expect to wait, but wow, is it worth it! If you’re around on Sunday, come for brunch.
Zin ($$–$$$) is the spot for down-to-earth preparations of American-inspired classics – think pot roast or pork chops and applesauce – all designed to pair well with the local wineries’ specialty, Zinfandel. The approachable menu is well priced – entrees range $17 to $24 – and nightly blue-plate specials are a bargain: for under $20 you’ll get a huge one-dish meal (except on Saturday, when the price spikes to $29 for veal chops). The open-truss ceiling and concrete floors give the place a warehouse-y look, and the exposed cork wood tables and denim dress code make Zin a good spot for kids. If you’re feeling gluttonous, leave room for the ever-popular chocolate-brownie sundae. Detractors label the cooking inconsistent, but if chef-owner Jeff is at the stove, all is well; call ahead.
And now the bad news: Willi’s Seafood and Raw Bar was for years one of town’s most happening spots, but on two recent visits, the food had slipped – significantly – with unimaginative recipes, amateurish execution, and abysmal service. Unacceptable at this price point. Manzanita recently changed hands and has lost its luster. Local foodies are predicting it won’t be around much longer. Too bad – it used to be great. Though Michelin awarded Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen one star, they did so on food alone, not service. Frankly I find the front-of-the-house reception and service so bad that I haven’t yet gotten past the door. Stay tuned for a review in the future, once I get over my frustration with the haughty maitre d’ and agro reservations staff. For now, if you want a night of high heels and French champagne, choose Cyrus instead.
Related: The Perfect Picnic