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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Healdsburg, Sonoma County, California, USA

Healdsburg = redneck farm town
Healdsburg = Mayberry with wine

That's the transformation over the past dozen years for this town of 11,000 people surrounded by world-class vineyards. It started with the Hotel Healdsburg containing a Charlie Palmer restaurant opening right on the town plaza in 2001. It was pretty fancy-pants for Healdsburg at the time though now the town has gotten fancier with the likes of the H2 Hotel, many B&Bs and expensive retail shops.

Healdsburg Ave, main street USA

As one of the locals who has been in the grape biz forever, Rich Thomas, proclaimed once in a wine class he was teaching, "I can't even buy a pair of underwear in Healdsburg anymore."

Recently Healdsburg made Fodor's list of "Best Small Towns in America," the Zagat guide listed Healdsburg as one of "Twenty Winter Food Destinations" in the world, and Travel & Leisure magazine named the town plaza as one of "America's Most Beautiful Town Squares."  Whew.

The smallish downtown surrounds a town plaza/park. It's populated with wine tasting rooms, restaurants, hotels, plus various gift and clothing stores. That is, it's geared towards visitors. This is good news for the wine country traveler as you can pretty much park yourself in town for a couple days and never have to drive anywhere.

Town plaza, est 1857

I worked in one of those tasting rooms a few years ago just as The Great Recession hit. Healdsburg was in "full bloom" with about 15 tasting rooms within easy walking distance. It appeared to me, from a business perspective, that was about twice as many as the town could really support. On a recent trip into town I counted 14 tasting rooms within a couple blocks of the square. Most of the ones from four years ago were gone, but new ones have sprung up. It was a weekday in May, but it seemed the tasting rooms right on the square were fairly busy while the ones just a block away and off the main street were not. Good ol' Toad Hollow Vineyards seems to be the oldest survivor. Even Gallo and Kendall-Jackson left their prime spots on the plaza.

Spoonbar - The trendiest place in town
Image from sfgate.com

Signs of resurgence are there. New restaurants are opening. While Charlie Palmer's Dry Creek Kitchen in the Hotel Healdsburg gets credit for starting the fine dining trend the nationally-known Cyrus Restaurant really put Healdsburg on the foodie map. Well, Cyrus is gone, but there's no lack of great food in town with places like Barndiva, Bistro Ralph, Bravas, Campo Fina, Charcuterie, Pizzando, Scopa, Spoonbar, Willi's Seafood, Zin, and lots more. Yeah, good luck getting a weekend reservation at Scopa!

After dinner it's good to know there's something still open in town

The Oakville Grocery has a store there. The Costeaux French Bakery is as popular as ever with the lunch crowd and the baked goods are fantastic. The Flying Goat makes a great cup of coffee. The Bear Republic is a top-notch micro-brewery. And so on.

The newest trendy store for visitors is The Shed. A large retail outlet with an eclectic mix of items including a sit-down coffee bar, local cheeses, kitchenware (I spotted a $285 French cast iron 5.5 qt pot), gardening supplies, and an in-store grain mill.

The Shed

The biggest events in town for the locals are the annual St. Patrick's Day "parade" that consists of folks dressing in green then parading between the bars--this is all early in the morning before anyone goes to work. The other is the Mr. Healdsburg pageant.

Swimwear competition in the Mr. Healdsburg pageant
Image from pressdemocrat.com


During the spring-to-fall season there is a farmer's market on Saturday morning and Wednesday afternoon. There are free concerts in the plaza on Tuesday evening with some pretty good local talent. Andy Griffith's Mayberry was never like this!