Sonoma’s 10 best restaurants* (*in my opinion/experience)

We went to Wine Country and came away even more in love with the food. The scenery and wineries and people of Sonoma County were everything we had hoped for, but the food truly was a revelation. Insanely fresh ingredients, vibrant flavors and deft touches with the preparation made for many a memorable meal.

Our first night there a dozen years ago, we dined, almost alone, on a lovely May evening on the Dry Creek Kitchen’s patio. “Sublime” doesn’t even begin to cover a meal that included an amuse mushroom soup that I can still taste, the best lamb dish I’ve ever had and a sublime Carol Shelton “Karma” Zin. Countless memorable meals have ensued on several – but not nearly enough – visits to this bounteous region. As great as Sonoma’s juice is, it’s sometimes tempting to call it Food Country rather than Wine Country.

In rough order, my 10 favorite Sonoma eateries, followed by the ones we’re antsy to get to on the next sojourn:

• All Willi’s Wine Bar (4404 Old Redwood Hwy  Santa Rosa, 707-526-3096) has going for it is extraordinary, inventive small-plate dishes, three wonderful rooms (one outdoors) and an amazing revolving selection of wines that are rarely served by the glass in pours as small as 2 ounces. Do not even consider passing on the pork belly pot stickers with shitake mushroom.

• The estimable Charlie Palmer has restaurants around the country, but he’s a Sonoma guy, and the Dry Creek Kitchen (317 Healdsburg Av., Healdsburg, 707-431-0330) reflects those roots. A casually chic indoor space is welcoming and warm, but we prefer the patio even as Healdsburg’s square has become decidedly less tranquil in recent years – whether it’s a lighter meal built around seasonal produce or one of Palmer’s adroit treatments of steak or chops.

• At River’s End (11048 Hwy. 1, Jenner, 707-865-2484), you’re likely to encounter San Francisco couples who drove two-plus hours to celebrate an anniversary, but mostly giddy tourists watching the sun dip into the Pacific. Seafood of all sorts dominates the menu at this cozy enclave overlooking the mouth of the Russian River, and the quality of the food and wine (several hidden Sonoma Coast gems) matches the view. Sit at the bar, like my friend Jason did.

• Small plates are a staple at most Wine Country eateries, but only recently did Sonoma have a first-class tapas restaurant. Bravas Bar de Tapas (420 Center St., Healdsburg, 707-433-7700) offers up a near-endless assortment of tasty, zingy bites (warm and room-temp), to be washed down not only with wine but an array of cocktails and sherries.

• The people-watching alone makes the Underwood Bar & Bistro (9113 Graton Rd., Graton, 707-823-7023) a worthy destination. But this winemaker hangout has the bistro thing down pat, with hearty dishes, spectacular local cheese and oysters that probably were in the water that morning. Oh, and a killer burger and other fab sandwiches.

• Rare is a Wards’ Sonoma trip without a stop at Bistro Ralph (109 Plaza St., Healdsburg, 433-1380), usually for a lamb or ahi tuna burger (and some stellar fries) at lunch. But the compact menu is beautifully executed (confit!), and the daily specials are downright swell. Chef Ralph Tingle has been kicking it for more than two decades and shows no signs of slowing down.

• Don’t go to the Dry Creek General Store (3495 Dry Creek Rd., Healdsburg, 707-433-4171) super-hungry, at least in the middle of the day. There is inevitably a loooong wait for packed-with-goodness sandwiches – hot, cold and breakfast – that can be savored at a table out front or toted to a winery’s picnic are in the ‘hood (the store is in the heart of the fantabulous Dry Creek Valley). Bonus points for the adjacent dive bar.

• Just try to look at the website for Diavola Pizzeria & Salumeria (21021 Geyserville Av., Geyserville, 707-814-0111) and not want to go there. If anything, the food is even more mouth-watering than those photos, with killer pizzas, greens, veggies and fruit that taste like they were picked that morning and some of Sonoma’s best desserts.

Applewood• The Applewood Inn (13555 Hwy. 116, Guerneville, 800-555-8509) fits the mold of Wine Country dining destination almost to the point of cliché, with tony wood paneling and comfy-fancy furniture. But the kitchen churns out seriously tasty stuff, especially the lamb and seafood. It’s not cheap, but you’re paying for a soothing atmosphere and the food, and it delivers on both counts.

• (Tie) Surf and turf from the simply outstanding Stark Reality Restaurant Group (see Willi’s and Bravas above). In the heart of downtown Healdsburg, Willi’s Seafood & Raw Bar (403 Healdsburg Av., 707-433-9191) has fantastic small plates highlighted by crudos and ceviches, skewers and refreshing treatments of calamari, prawns and clams. Stark’s Steak and Seafood (521 Adams St.,
 Santa Rosa, 707-546-5100) is a classic chophouse, with slabs of beef, salmon, tuna, etc. and side dishes big enough to share buttasty enough to hoard.

Next time …
The above list is dominated by the north, west and central portions of the county, which admittedly fit my wheelhouse a lot better than the area around the town of Sonoma. Maybe it’s the two crummy meals we had there on our first visit, lowlighted by a pesto in a color not found in nature at a downtown restaurant whose name I have long since let slip.

It’s time to catch up with that area, if only to finally get to the Girl and the Fig (110 W. Spain St., Sonoma, 707-938-3634)

Other restaurants that people I trust have spoken of quite highly, if not lovingly:

• Rosso (53 Montgomery Dr., Santa Rosa, 707-544-3221), laudtouted by no less an authority of Italian food than Alfonso Cevola for its pizzas and other fare.

• Spoonbar (219 Healdsburg Av., Healdsburg, 707-433-7222), perhaps the trendiest spot in Healdsburg for its local ingredients and global approach.

• Madrona Manor (1001 Westside Rd., Healdsburg, 707-433-4231), a stately Wine Country icon.

• Scopa (109A Plaza St., Healdsburg, 707-433-5282) a David Ramey favorite.

• I’d go to Rocker Oysterfeller’s (14415 Highway 1, Valley Ford; 707-876-1983) for the name alone, but more than one kindred soul has praised the food at this Southern-meets-Sonoma roadhouse.

• My pal Brian had me at “black pig everything” when he extolled the virtues of Zazu (left, 6770 McKinley St., #150, Sebastopol, 707-523-4814).