The hills up and down California are greening: March, the emerald month, is around the corner. It’s time to start thinking about short hops to Sonoma—before the tourists arrive. Though current room rates are a steal, you don’t have to stay overnight. It’s only 45 minutes from the city. Go for the day. (But not this weekend: plan San Francisco rainy-day activities instead.)
Build your afternoon road trip around a good meal. You can leave at noon, drive through sublime electric-green landscapes, maybe hit a winery, then kick back over an early dinner and be home in time to catch a movie. Trust me: you’ll feel like you’ve had a mini-vacation. Here’s my short list of favorite dining rooms, along with some good cheap eats for budgeteers.
Tops on every foodie’s list is dinner at Cafe La Haye ($$$), where the hearty cooking has marvelous depth of flavor. Standouts include a succulently sweet house-smoked trout with red-onion relish; pork ‘two ways’ (order the pork medium; the kitchen undercooks it otherwise); and hanger steak with potato-bacon pie. A new chef took the helm last year, and attention to detail is sometimes lacking—to wit, an impotent, wilted-lettuce garnish served with the trout—but the important elements are rock solid. The room is tiny—only 35 seats—with an open-truss ceiling, corrugated metal roof, and cool contemporary art adoring the walls. Reservations essential. No lunch.
When I want a guaranteed-festive evening, I head to the girl & the fig. The earthy flavors of southern French cooking inform the menu, which runs the gamut from steamed mussels with matchstick fries (a house specialty), and a rich Provençale fish stew, redolent with saffron and fennel; to pan-roasted chicken, and a deliciously simple grilled flat-iron steak-frites. Burnt-orange walls and polished woodwork cast a warm glow to the big, always-busy dining room, but the cartoon paintings of Rubenesque women are disturbing; better to sit outside on the expansive patio under strings of colored lights and pretend you’re in Provence. Reservations essential.
The latest addition to the town’s high-end-dining scene, El Dorado Kitchen ($$$–$$$$) is Sonoma’s new face of chic, with a sexy, monochromatic dining room: wear denim and cashmere and blend right in. Exec chef Ryan Fancher hails from the French Laundry, evident in his elegant, sure-handed use of traditional elements with contemporary ingredients, as in the housemade tortellini with moscarpone, duck confit, and parsley salad. Some dishes disappoint for their lack of depth (especially the pork osso bucco), but El Dorado is an important new stop on the culinary circuit, totally worth checking out. If it’s warm enough, sit outside in the big courtyard for maximum romance. Reservations essential.
Modern Japanese and sushi are the focus at Shiso ($$). It looks strangely like a diner, with booths lining the walls, but no diner I know has such a fabulous paint job. The chef-owner is passionate about raw fish, but does great things with hot food too, particularly the wok-tossed mussels and braised ribs with butternut squash and shiso.
For big plates of pasta, rotisseried chicken, and veal parmesan, head to Della Santina’s ($$). Nothing ever changes—the ’specials’ have been the same for years—but it’s consistently good (if not great), and the flower-lined brick patio is perfect for date night on a warm evening.
Sonoma Valley Restaurants: Near the Wineries
My favorite up-valley lunch spot is Caffe Citti ($$) in Kenwood, a mom-and-pop roadside Italian trattoria where you order at the counter, then snag a seat on the big deck outside (alas, there’s no longer a vineyard view over the new high fence around the patio, but at least it blocks road noise). There’s no fuss or pretense here; the focus is on the food. Order the homemade pizzas, sandwiches on homemade foccacia bread, or raviloi with marinara sauce, made with Grandma’s secret recipe. Okay, so it’s American-Italian, but damn, it sure tastes great. Stop here if you failed to pack a picnic basket in town.
The top pick for dinner or weekend brunch in Sonoma Valley is the fig cafe & wine bar ($$), a soulful bistro that lives up to the real French definition of the term: a relaxed restaurant serving comfort food for weary travelers. Among the standouts, rich, savory pot roast, tarragon-steamed mussels, and hearty cassoulet made with duck confit. No glass of wine costs more then $8, and every bottle is under $40. Weekend brunch ($) is a bargain, an ideal stopover before wine-tasting in the valley.
Sonoma Restaurants: Cheap Eats
My favorite breakfasts are at locals-only Pearl’s Homestyle Cooking. Try the thin, crêpe-like pancakes; on Fridays, go for the chili huevos rancheros. And keep an eye out for Pearl, the oh-so-cute kitty cat for whom the restaurant is named.
For superior Mexican, skip the places around the Plaza, and instead drive to Juanita Juanita, a tiny roadside joint that makes good tostadas and killer ‘garlic-garlic burritos.’ Kick it with cold brew on tap on the (dog-friendly) patio. Arrive before 8pm. Service is hit or miss, probably a miss if they don’t recognize you as a local. Dig the super-cool freehand spray-paint mural outside. Awesome.
When you’re jonesing for a late-night snack, head north of town on Hwy 12 and find the taco trucks between Boyes Blvd and Agua Caliente. The best of ‘em is the Jesus Taco Truck: look for the garish painting of the Christ on the back of the truck. (He hasn’t been around much lately. The secular trucks are satisfactory in a pinch—and taste even better if you’ve been pounding tequila all night.)