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Monday, July 2, 2012

Insider's Guide to Santa Rosa and Sonoma County

Recently Wine Spectator magazine ran an article "Insider's Guide to Sonoma County".

 Their guide is pretty much a listing of the usual travel destination spots. They also have a bigger budget than I do as I've never made it to Cyrus in Healdsburg for dinner, for instance. Some of us have to decide to either pay the bills this month or go out to Cyrus as it's about the same amount of money. So instead of some journalists swarming through the area on an expense account how about opinions from an actual insider--someone who's lived here for over three decades?

  If you're visiting the Sonoma wine country chances are you'll be staying in, or at least traveling through, Santa Rosa as it's the biggest city and is in the center of Sonoma County. This list is Santa Rosa-centric as that's where I live. I see this as a list of where the locals go. Not necessarily where all the locals go, but personal preference plus word-of-mouth from other locals.


 There are a number of highly-rated, and often highly-priced, restaurants in Sonoma County. We are really blessed by the amount of good eats we have for the population. You usually hear about places such as Cyrus, The Girl and The Fig, John Ash, Petite Sirah, and Zazu. These are all great places and I've been to most multiple times (except Cyrus), but these aren't the places you'll find most locals. Here are a few local favorites--actually more than a few--I keep thinking of more to add.
Breakfast at Hank's Creekside
Check out the size of those pancakes!
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In Santa Rosa:

Cafe Europe - Run by a German who knows how to do sauerbraten.
Cricklewood - Traditional American steak joint
East West Cafe - Vegetarian and Mediterranean-type foods. If you feel the need to eat a little healthier. Don't be afraid--even us meat-lovers like the food.
Flavor Bistro -Downtown with outside dining. Great wine by the glass offerings.
Flipside Burger - Good basic burger and a beer or glass of wine place. Fairly new so if it's crowded you can go next door to Third Street Aleworks--for a burger and a beer.
Fresh - A deli/cafe run by locally respected chef Lisa Hemenway.
Gary Chu's - More than two decades of providing gourmet Chinese.
Hanks - Always a line for breakfast--for good reason.
In N Out Burger - Really! It's the best fast food.
La Gare - A local favorite since it opened 35 years ago. It hasn't changed a bit so don't look for "California trendy/modern" cuisine. I always leave satisfied and happy.
La Vera Pizza - Second best pizza in town (see Rosso's below)
Mac's Deli - They've been in downtown Santa Rosa for a zillion years. Breakfast or lunch. Corned beef hash or Pastrami.
Omelette Express - Breakfast (if you couldn't guess by the name). Show up hungry. There will be a wait on the weekends.
Rosso - Best pizza in town from their wood-fired oven. Other great choices, too. Interesting wine list.
Viola - Small, hard to find, home-style cooking. I mean, fried chicken on a waffle!


Cafe Citti - An Italian diner in nearby Kenwood. Sit out in the sun with a plate of pasta and a glass of wine--the perfect meal.
Scopa - In Healdsburg. It's small. It's Italian. It's the best. It's difficult to get reservations.
Willi's Seafood - In Healdsburg. Good for lunch.
Polenta at Cafe Citti
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Other Food 

Sonoma County is home to many good bakeries. Costeaux French Bakery in Healdsburg is the best.

Sonoma County has a history of raising dairy cattle and sheep and is known for its cheese. A few of the top quality cheese makers include Vella, Bellwether Farms and Petaluma Creamery. The "cheese trail" also dips south into Marin County.

Sonoma is also home to many small coffee roasters. Flying Goat is the best. 

Wineries in the county

 You can go to Viansa and Buena Vista with the tour groups or you can check out some of the small and out of the way tasting rooms. There are dozens to choose from. Here are a few you probably don't hear much about.

Audelssa - They are about Rhone and Bordeaux-type blends.
David Coffaro - Balanced wine (not to oaky, too alcoholic, etc.) with interesting blends at fair prices. Almost all of the wine is sold directly by the winery.
Dutton-Goldfield - Chardonnay and Pinot Noir at their best.
Inman - High-quality though a bit pricey. Specializes in single vineyard Pinot. Also, has the best Pinot Gris I've had (at $30). A rising star in the Russian River Valley.
Iron Horse - Great bubblies; nice view at their outdoor tasting room.
Paradise Ridge - The best view anywhere. A good picnic spot.
Pedroncelli - Quality wines and great value. If you've just come from Napa the prices will shock you (in a good way). A long-time family operation.
Pellegrini - From Chardonnay to Pinot to Cab well-made wines across the board.
Russian Hill - Pinot, Syrah and a nice view.
Trentadue - Check out the La Storia line of wines. The Zin and the Cuveé are outstanding.

For first-time visitors looking for "the experience:"   Coppola, Korbel, and Ferrari-Carano

Iron Horse "Tasting Room"
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 There are numerous pubs and actual breweries in the county. It's not unusual to find a spot with dozens of local beers on tap. These are some of the best breweries you're likely to ever run across anywhere:

Bear Republic - In Healdsburg. There's nothing better than a burger and a Red Rocket on their deck.
Lagunitas - In Petaluma. Home of the #1 selling IPA in California. They are expanding quickly--must be doing something right.
Russian River - Downtown Santa Rosa. People come from all over the country for their IPAs and Belgian-style beers. Rated as one of the top ten brew pubs in the world that sells a seasonal beer rated as the #1 beer in the world. So, yes, it is crowded.

Happy Hour

Jack and Tony's - Many discounted, high quality appetizers and drinks.
Starks - Not the greasy chicken wings kind of grub, but meatloaf sliders and tuna tacos. It can get crowded.

Portuguese Beach on the Sonoma Coast

Coast - The weather there can be cold, foggy, and windy even when it hot and sunny a few miles inland. But when the sun is out it's magnificent.

Napa Valley - I try to visit every winter when there are no crowds. I stay the heck out May through November.

Redwoods - Armstrong Redwoods in Guerneville. If you've never walked through an old-growth redwood forest you need to do it.

Shopping Sonoma style

Imwalle Gardens - They've been here since the 19th century but are now threatened by development. Top-notch produce plus veggie and flowering plants.

Kozlowski Farms - Shop for apple cider, pies, jellies, BBQ sauce, salad dressing, etc. Ol' Uncle Cal's Sweet and Hot Mustard is the best!

Other things to know

Gravenstein Apples - They don't travel or store well so maybe you've never heard of 'em, but they are probably the best apple in the world for eating, pies or sauce. Their season is late-Aug and early-Sept. They used to be all over western Sonoma County until grapes and housing took over.

Climate - Wear layered clothing or at least bring a jacket. Different parts of the county have different weather. Temps between the coast and inland can easily be 30 degrees apart. Day to night temps will vary by 30 degrees or more. Just because it's chilly with a low cloud cover in mid-morning doesn't mean it won't be 85 degrees in a few hours. This is the kind of weather that produces great wine!
Cooling summer fog is a big factor in the local climate

Where to take the kids

Food: Mary's Pizza Shack, Old Mexico, Rosso's.
Indoor: Charles Schulz Museum and Snoopy Ice Arena
Outdoor: The Sonoma Mission, Armstrong Redwoods, plus coastal beaches such as Doran Beach or Salmon Creek (too cold to swim, but the beaches are nice and the surf relatively gentle). Canoeing on the Russian River. Morton's Warm Springs near Kenwood is a good picnic and swimming spot with the kids as is Spring Lake Park in Santa Rosa.

Disclosure: I'm employed by one of the establishments listed here