Summertime tourists have overrun Wine Country’s most famous destinations, but not West County Sonoma. Consider a trip to Occidental, that magical small town in the shadow of the redwoods south of the Russian River. Leave work early on Friday to catch the way-cool organic farmers market, and be sure to book a table at West County Grill, Sonoma’s newest destination restaurant. Leave time in your itinerary to get lost on Sonoma’s back roads and discover hidden wineries and u-pick-em apple orchards.
Now that Gravenstein-apple season has begun, plan to attend the Occidental Farmers Market. Meet the locals while you stock up on wildflower honey, jams, and the season’s best produce from some of West County’s top organic growers—show up promptly at 4pm for the best selection. Artisans sell crafts and hand-made soaps, and musicians set the mood with toe-tappin’ live tunes.
Be sure to wander into Renga Arts —my favorite shop in Sonoma County—to check out the affordable, functional art gifts, all made from reclaimed or recycled materials.
The market’s star attraction is Gerard’s Paella. The merry chef cooks two enormous pans of paella, rich with saffron, sausage, chicken, giant mussels, and jumbo prawns. And boy, oh boy, is he in demand. When not here, he sets up his portable paella stoves at private parties for the glitterati, most recently at the Bohemian Grove.
While you’re out exploring West County during the daytime, stop at Real Barbecue, in the parking lot of Bill’s Farm Basket market. The menu rotates, but expect new variations on classic barbecue, like brined chicken with fragrant lavender, black pepper, and lemon; or hangar steak rubbed with spices, charred over hot coals, and served with guacamole. The grill fires up Friday through Sunday, from noon to 5pm, but arrive by 3pm for the best selection.
The new big name on the Sonoma County culinary scene is West County Grill ($$$–$$$$). Stephen Singer (Alice Waters’ ex-husband) and New York star chef Jonathan Waxman are partial owners, and they bring a big-city sensibility to Sonoma’s ag country. The look is industrial, with a vast open kitchen, enormous wood-fired ovens, and a sleek stainless-steel oyster bar. Contemporary art hangs on the two-story-high brick walls—check out the fabulous political-satire piece in the hallway by the bathrooms—and the long bar gets packed with the area’s bon vivants.
Roasted chicken is the measure of a good chef, and here it’s done right, with crispy skin, juicy breast meat, and thighs cooked through (though mine bled ever so slightly). Alas, though they were hand cut, the French fries came out soggy. But a summer succotash, ordered as a side from the specials menu, was spot-on, with the season’s first sugary-sweet corn, tender white beans, and a rich basil perfume. Pastas are properly cooked al dente, though the chef is light on the expensive elements, like sausage in the orecchiete pasta. Certain dishes fall flat, like the lackluster pizzas and the way-overpriced ‘large’ salumi plate ($19), which came with 15 paper-thin slices of salami that couldn’t have weighed more than three ounces. Service is erratic: lots of managers zip around the dining room, but they are not of the dining room—expect long waits for refills of your iced tea. Would I go back? Absolutely, but I’d stick to the menu’s core dishes: oysters, salads, and roasted-meat dishes. Plan 15 minutes for the trip east from Occidental to Sebastopol.