Plan a trip to California wine country, and one of the first things you'll hear is that Napa Valley is second only to Disneyland in terms of state tourism. For many years, Napa has received the bulk of attention for its glitzy scene, celebrity chef restaurants, fancy hotels, and well-known wineries. Sonoma, meanwhile, was considered more of the "country" region, most appropriate for serious wine drinkers, low-key travelers, or those on a tight budget. But that is quickly changing.
Nowhere was this difference more apparent than in the fine dining scene — Napa always boasted a higher number of Michelin-starred restaurants, nationally recognized openings, and of course, the mother of all renowned chefs — Thomas Keller and his iconic institution, the French Laundry. In the past couple of years, though, the Sonoma food scene has been making quite a name for itself.
As of last December, the Sonoma region now hosts one of the country's most buzzed-about new fine dining establishments, SingleThread Farms and Inn, which just won the James Beard Award for its restaurant design. The restaurant is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, delivering 11 courses of masterfully conceptualized food in a tailor-made, artisanal-heavy setting. (Napa’s French Laundry, meanwhile, has been in the midst of a four-year renovation, which has arguably resulted in a bit of tarnish on its luster).
Part of the growth in Sonoma is due to the national obsession over where food comes from. The locavore and farm-to-table movements have resulted in an educated clientele with a keen eye (and palate) for local and well-sourced dishes. On a nuanced front, Napa's produce simply can't compare to Sonoma's. Here, hyper-local food and produce is not a gimmick; it's a religion.
"The quality of products around us, including ducks, lambs, and birds, are exceptional and diverse and is the reason for Sonoma’s dynamic dining scene,” says Single Thread’s owner, Kyle Connaughton. “Everyone shares a maker’s spirit, be it in cheese-making, winemaking, as well as farming. This is exactly what attracted Katina and I to move here and establish SingleThread." (In addition to their award-winning restaurant and inn, Connaughton and wife Katina opened a five-acre farm with a greenhouse, chicken coops, an heirloom fruit orchard, olive trees, bee hives, and a cattle paddock.)
Todd Knoll, executive chef at Jordan Winery (which serves food at all of its wine tastings), echoes a similar sentiment. "Sonoma, independent of the wine industry, is a historically successful agricultural region." Thanks to diverse soil types and the three coastal climate zones, Knoll says, "there is good reason that the prolific botanist and agriculturalist [Luther Burbank] chose Sebastopol for his experimental farm, 'Gold Ridge.'" Knoll adds: "There is a farming heritage here, going successfully about its business, not entirely dependent upon the transient nature of wine tourism."
Ironically, it is exactly that authenticity that tourists have now responded to. Chef Shane McNally of Healdsburg hot-spot Chalkboard has earned a serious name for himself delivering technique-driven fare while sourcing from local purveyors, including the restaurant’s own three-acre vegetable and herb garden. (On a recent visit, our server explained that our asparagus came from a local farmer who is considered the 'godfather' of asparagus.) McNally's methods have been so successful, in fact, that he's now opening a second nearby restaurant this month called the Brass Rabbit. (This kind of occurrence likely would not have happened in Sonoma ten years ago.)
Similarly, downtown Healdsburg sensation Barndiva lives by the philosophy, "Eat the View" — the meaning of which becomes clear as you dig into their modern country cuisine. Recently, the restaurant had to open additional space next door, Studio Barndiva, to accommodate the overflow of guests. This gallery and bistro, decorated with quirky art and a valuable stamp collection, serves sophisticated dishes like foie gras with huckleberry and perfectly executed fried duck — a far cry from "country bumpkin" fare.
Sonoma's dining progression extends well beyond its literal produce; it is the overall mindset of the area that has changed — visitors still love the genuineness and individuality here, but an excitement and currency accompanies it as well. Visitors from all over the country as well as influential San Francisco day-trippers are contributing to an explosion of hip new eateries from north to south.
Sondra Bernstein, owner of one of the area's first fine-dining hotspots (and it's still hot), Sonoma's The Girl and The Fig, has seen quite a bit of change in the 20 years she's been serving the region her signature French country food.
“I love that the world has ‘discovered’ Sonoma and everything that it offers agriculturally as well as in the food and wine scene,” Bernstein says. “Has Sonoma come into its own in the fine dining arena? Yes, we've definitely had some really talented and innovative chefs arrive on the scene, and it’s awesome to see them be recognized for their accomplishments. But I feel like what people appreciate here is that it has retained a lot of the authenticity that makes it feel genuine and warm and not like everywhere else.” For her part, Bernstein has been able to leverage this growth with additional businesses, including the Fig Café in Glen Ellen, a bustling catering business and food truck, and a new wine studio and lounge called the Rhône Room opening this summer.
In Santa Rosa, the new Flower & Bone (from the owners of cult favorite The Naked Pig) has tapped into two major trends — broths and fermentation (they call it a "preserve-centric" menu). Dishes like tandoor chicken with lime pickle, rice pilaf, and wild foraged weeds are targeted to a knowledgeable, contemporary diner.
The historic and ever-quirky boutique Hotel Petaluma, which is currently being renovated, is now home to the first brick-and-mortar outpost for the famed Oyster Girls called The Shuckery. The seafood-friendly restaurant, already a hit, taps into a different source of fresh ingredients — San Francisco oysters and West Coast seafood.
In neighboring Sebastopol, Handline Restaurant — from the same team as the much-loved Peter Lowell — is serving up amazing fish dishes and Baja-style Mexican food, and the talk has already reached fever-pitch over this casual joint.
In case these openings didn't elicit enough star power, Hollywood legend Francis Ford Coppola, whose Sonoma winery has long been a major draw, recently launched Werowocomoco, a Native American-themed eatery. Coppola is actually the restaurant’s chef; he composed the menu himself, following a philosophy that "celebrates our country’s indigenous foods" such as venison, fry bread, and bison.
Bottom line: If you're someone who loves great wine, star chefs, and creative, delicious, hyper-local food but you prefer more of an artisanal, intimate, small-town feel, then Sonoma is for you. You can always visit Disneyland later.