Special Feature: Products Sally Recommends
Best Restaurants in Sonoma Valley, CA
The Sonoma Valley or the “Valley of the Moon” is the glorious area of the Sonoma County wine country that’s bordered by tiny Kenwood and meanders through a lush, romantic and hilly countryside (past Glen Ellen and Boyes Hot Springs) to the stylish destination of Sonoma, the Spanish-influenced town where wine first came into California. Expect wine country-chic restaurants with innovative, Mediterranean-inspired menus and extensive Sonoma County oriented wine lists. Also, no-frills, ethnic eateries and landmark bakeries/cafes that simply focus on fresh local produce and classic cooking techniques. Artisan fresh-baked breads star alongside internationally acclaimed Sonoma County wines, so don’t pass up the samples. Definitely call for hours of these ever-changing establishments and make necessary reservations because many are small, fill up quickly, and have “winter” off-tourism hours or even closed seasons. Salud!
Barking Dog Roasters
17999 Sonoma Highway
Breakfast and coffee all day.
This pint-sized roadside java joint is perched on the edge of Sonoma attracting true coffee connoisseurs and early risers. You won’t find much in the way of hot grub, except for some buttery pastries and fruit muffins along with top-notch cappuccino, coffee drinks, and exotic teas (beans and tea are for sale). The interior is warm and cozy with sunny colored walls and a row of giant coffee beans painted on the wall of windows. Regulars sit tight and read newspapers and magazines while savoring the robust coffee and the morning.
Basque Boulangerie Cafe
460 First Street East
Breakfast, lunch and early dinner.
Early to rise, early to close -- get there first for fresh baked sourdough breads, beautiful pastries, cakes, fruit tarts, quiche, biscotti and bread pudding. At mealtime, enjoy pre-made salads, sandwiches, and freshly-made soup. Be prepared for the small amount of indoor seating at this hot plaza spot buzzing with locals and tourists alike. If you can’t take it “to go” grab one of the few indoor seats at the cozy bar.
19101 Hwy. 12
Good ol’ American-style food with sandwiches, stews, and steaks. At this home-town favorite you will also find burgers and swankier entrees (like fish specials) priced right.
Wake up to substantial breakfast dishes like corn beef hash and eggs with toast, cinnamon French toast or buttermilk pancakes with hardwood smoked bacon.
Cafe Citti Italian Trattoria
9049 Sonoma Highway
Lunch and early dinner.
Cozy roadside trattoria on the edge of tiny Kenwood has a rustic patio for alfresco dining and a roaring fireplace to keep you warm during the wet winters. The owners are from Tuscany and it shows in the well-stocked deli case. Think classic Italian: Homemade focaccia sandwiches; frittata by the slice; marinated calamari salad; calamata olives with fresh herbs; tortellini cheese soup. More substantial selections might include polenta with marinara or pesto, or juicy chicken alla Toscana, roasted on the rotisserie stuffed with garlic and fresh herbs. Citti excels with pizzas in the real Italian style and pastas, like the luscious farfalle tossed with tender chunks of salmon and dressed with a beautifully crafted garlic-lemon-brandy-dill cream sauce. Desserts include tiramisu, cannoli, almond biscotti, gelato or granita. Specialty coffee drinks, beer on tap and Italian groceries “to go” (homemade mozzarella cheese, prosciutto de Parma by the pound, sourdough loaves). Wine List: Short and sweet with affordable Italian selections by the tumbler-full.
140 East Napa Street
Lunch and dinner.
Sunny and artsy with an open kitchen, thrown-open windows and Mexican tile floors, Cafe LaHaye has staying power compared to many of the comers-and-goers on the touristy Sonoma square. The cooking is light and eclectic with Mediterranean overtones and California-fresh twists. Start with the exceptional, delicately house-smoked salmon placed on a savory crispy pancake made of shredded spring onions, carrots bits and perfectly correct seasonings and served with a dollop of creme fraiche. Favorite mains include the pan-roasted chicken breast with goat cheese stuffing, or the grilled salmon filet topped with an intense red wine, caper and olive sauce. Dessert stars include the chocolate brownie torte, serious chocolate that’s part brownie, part torte and loaded with whipped cream, or the creme brulee, smooth custard bursting with rich vanilla flavor crowned with a perfectly crinkly crust. Strong Sonoma wine list with many favorites including Landmark, A. Rafanelli, and Kunde, plus some rare reserve wines.
Carneros Bistro and Wine Bar
(in The Lodge at Sonoma)
Breakfast, weekend brunch, lunch and dinner
Expect a fresh selection of classic American dishes with a sophisticated twist. Lunch on wood fired pizzas, a grilled Carneros burger with Point Reyes blue cheese, or grilled lamb skewers. Don’t miss the rich “midnight moon” macaroni and cheese with wild mushrooms or the fresh clams steamed with Racer 5 ale and ham hock. Award winning wine list showcases the bounty of Sonoma County’s fourteen American Viticultural Areas. Spa menu also available in the spa.
8860 Sonoma Highway
Coffee all day.
Common Grounds is the plain-Jane a.m. pit stop as you head into or out of the Sonoma Valley wine country and a mandatory commuter coffee stop for vineyard workers in the area. It specializes in coffee drinks, but also count on a small selection of bagels and flavored cream cheese, pastries and cookies along with smoothies, shakes and Italian sodas. No frills or credit cards but you can count on picking up some fresh roasted java beans or a birthday card in a pinch.
133 East Napa Street
Lunch and dinner
Family-owned trattoria is a favorite among the locals. Regulars seek the scrumptious plump, potato pasta pillows gnoccho della Nonna, a hand-crafted specialty that isn’t replicated easily. Other great pasta choices include the pappardelle alla lepre with wide ribbon noodles in a rabbit meat sauce or penne Contandina with Italian sausage and pear tomatoes. The rotisserie is a highlight with mouth-watering pollo allo spiedo (spit roasted chicken with fresh herbs); spit roasted Petaluma duck with wild rice; or the vitello della casa (weekly veal special). Handy spot to pick up sandwiches, drinks and desserts for a road trip or wine country picnic.
Lunch and dinner
Situated at the sleepy end of Broadway, this 1890's restored farmhouse has an attached gazebo and fabulous, spacious patio. First courses include a beautiful, rich roasted beet salad of vibrant mesclun greens and frisee piled high with orange, pink and purple beets, gorgonzola and candied pecans, tossed with a wine-friendly vinaigrette. Crispy calamari with lemon aioli or warm Laura Chenel goat cheese on a bed of arugula with sundried tomatoes is also notable. Expect about eight entrees with a nice array of choices: Roasted sea bass; fall vegetables with quinoa and ginger-soy sauce; roasted duck confit; grilled flank steak; braised veal rib chop. House-made desserts are a highlight, so save room for the caramelized banana and macadamia nut torte, key lime cheesecake, or the gingersnap cannoli. Award winning wine list offers a mix of Sonoma and Napa wines.
El Dorado Kitchen
(in the El Dorado Hotel)
405 First Street West
Lunch and dinner.
Sleek hotel restaurant off the Sonoma Square dishes out California favorites that thrill visitors and locals alike. Start with the crispy sweetbreads, prince Edward mussels, or the artisanal cheese course served with beet marmalade. Ever-changing entrees from the visible open kitchen might be Niman ranch pork osso bucco with broccolini; beef tenderloin with spinach and feta ravioli; or potato-crusted salmon. Wide selection of wines by the glass featuring up-and-coming artisan vintners from Sonoma.
E-Saan Thai House
18629 Sonoma Highway
Lunch and dinner
Popular, simple and inexpensive, E-Sann is referred to as the “other Thai restaurant,” in a town of just two. Start with an appetizer of vegetarian soft fresh rolls, succulent chicken satay or delicious coconut soup (Tom Kha Gai). For entrees, the classic Pad Thai dish is a highlight -- tender rice noodles are gently stir fried with egg, tofu, shrimp, chicken breast slices, scallions and chili powder, topped with ground peanuts and fresh bean sprouts. The E-Saan pork curry with thin green beans, cabbage and red curry sauce has a nice spicy bite with fresh basil overtones and the beef ginger entree fared just as well.
Wine list: Expect several choice wines from the area, most notable is Buena Vista Sauvignon Blanc and Sonoma Creek Zinfandel. Wines by the glass are affordable but limited as well as a good short list of beers.
400 West Spain Street
Accomplished restaurateur Sondra Bernstein has taken over what used to be The General's Daughter. This was once the home of General M.G. Vallejo’s daughter (the General was a historical figure in the founding of Sonoma). The lovely, circa 1864 Victorian home had been remarkably transformed with a fireplace patio, warm colors and elegant high ceilings. ESTATE serves a blend of contemporary and traditional regional Italian cuisine prepared with fresh, seasonal, locally sourced ingredients. In fact, many of the ingredients will come from the property's own ESTATE gardens. The wine list will focus on interesting Italian varietals, local favorites and of course, food friendly wines. The cozy bar and wrap-around porch is the perfect spot to sip on a house-infused Limoncello cocktail or a Prosecco White Peach Bellini. Ramekins culinary school is next door.
13690 Arnold Dr.
Weekend brunch and dinner
Intimate artsy spot is the original Girl and The Fig location created by owner Sondra Bernstein. Delightful menu surprises include succulent steamed mussels, tender duck confit, zippy chopped salads, and a beautiful lavender crème brulee. Prepare to be surrounded by whimsical art in mind-boggling cheerful colors. Unusual wine list with many French selections and no corkage fee!
Girl and the Fig
110 W. Spain St.
Lunch and dinner
Expect a delightfully healthy menu bursting with flavor and fig accents. Seasonal selections and artful surroundings right on the Sonoma square continue to please the discriminating palates of Sonoma visitors and locals. Specs: Grassfed steak tartare; tuffled mac and cheese; fig salad with arugula and local Laura Chenel chevre, pancetta, fig and port vinaigrette. Awesome cheese cart featuring selections from around the world, including famous northern California artisanal cheeses. Lunch on salmon Nicoise salad; grilled polenta specials or the top sirloin burger with grilled onions and matchstick fries. Find duck confit, free- range roasted chicken with grilled escarole, or flat iron steak for entrees. Fun bar scene. Check out the adorable fig-themed gifts and fabulous cheeses to take home.
Glen Ellen Inn Oyster Grill and Martini Bar Restaurant
(in Glen Ellen Inn)
13670 Arnold Drive
Here’s a wine country classic with a strong following for many years now and getting better every day. Pretty and cozy, it feels like a romantic tree house hideaway with an outdoor deck and plenty of windows for viewing nature. The menu includes superb, fresh interpretations of California-style foods with an emphasis on seafood and oysters. Start with one of the many fresh oyster dishes such as the “wicked awesome oyster trio” featuring oysters prepared every which way. Salads are terrific: try the Sonoma salad with apples, pears, pecans, lettuce greens and blue cheese. Main course musts include the silky and savory artichoke and Stilton ravioli with a roasted pepper cream sauce or the hearty braised lamb shank with white beans and soft polenta. As the name implies, yes, here’s a martini bar smack in the middle of the wine country. Choose from 20 different specialty martinis including the “forget-me-not” with ginseng and apricot liqueur. Wine list: Plenty of fine Sonoma wines including Benziger Imagery Series with unique art labels and other classics like Chalk Hill and Kistler.
Harvest Moon Café
487 First St., West
Harvest Moon beams with its nightly changing menu of wine country cuisine laced with Mediterranean touches. Sit indoors at the counter and watch the chefs perform in the kitchen or bask in the privacy of a secluded garden table. The menu might showcase such lovely choices as the Monterey Bay squid braised in red wine; grilled Sonoma County duck breast with wilted escarole and potato gratin; or a Niman Ranch rib eye with roasted parsnips.
Jack’s Bistro & Wine Bar
14301 Arnold Drive (Jack London Village)
Lunch and dinner
In-the-woods rustic, Jack’s bistro is named after former Glen Ellen resident Jack London, master writer of swift tales, journalist and adventurer who many felt personified what it means to be “of Glen Ellen.” The cozy spot features French provincial cuisine with specialties like roasted duck in an orange ginger sauce and steak au poivre with peppercorn sauce. Enjoy the substantial tri-tip sandwich or shrimp linguine at lunch. Wine list: Expect mostly Sonoma Valley wines as well as a good pick of moderately-priced French wines.
9900 Highway 12
Lunch through the day and dinner.
Kenwood Restaurant defines the quintessential chic, Sonoma wine-country restaurant. The unimposing roadside country house is polished inside with lofty wood-beamed ceilings, pale interiors and expansive walls of windows, ideal for showcasing the dynamite artwork and vineyard views. The pricey California cuisine is peppered with European classics such as roasted duck and escargot. Starters might include plump fresh oysters on the half shell with cilantro vinaigrette; succulent crab cakes with young greens and herb mayo; or grape leaves filled with wild rice and lamb served with yogurt sauce. Winning main courses: Steamed mussels with cream, white wine, shallots; seafood ravioli in creamy tomato sauce with the catch of the day; double lamb chops with crispy risotto. Lunch on the terrific Angus hamburger and crispy fries, or the lighter ceviche of the day. Inviting bar area sporting a handsome fireplace and aromatic, beautiful flower bouquets. Heavy-duty wine list with Sonoma faves like Kunde, Landmark, and B.R. Cohn, plus some international choices.
La Casa Restaurant & Bar
121 East Spain Street
Lunch and dinner
La Casa’s menu boasts that it serves “fine Mexican cuisine…not just a trend, a tradition since 1967.” It’s open and airy with an authentic Mexico-feel, small covered patio for dining and large lounge/bar area. Expect freshly prepared generous servings of tacos, fajitas, Mexican plates of chicken mole, chile verde and chile rellenos with the mandatory rice and bean sides. There are a surprising number of interesting seafood entrees: Salmon Tropical; Snapper Varacruz; Camarones a la Diablo. Children’s menu available.
Wine list: Basic California wines are offered by glass or bottle, but microbrews and the “famous margaritas” pair the best with this multi-flavored, piquant food. Full bar and tequila tastings available for the less timid.
18625 Sonoma Highway
Lunch and dinner
The location, right on bustling Sonoma highway, and the view are certainly not the draw, so the focus is on the chef of this Portugese “contemporary-international” cuisine. Chef/owner Manuel Azevedo was born in Azores but was brought to Sonoma when he was 2 years old. He worked at the Kenwood restaurant under the tutelage of chef Max Schacher who was a big California influence but Azevedo never lost interest in his family connections and cuisine of the world. At LaSalette, his cooking is highly accented with inspiration from familiar cultures like Portugal, Brazil, Madeira and Africa. Rare finds in the appetizer department: House-smoked rabbit with white beans; trout escabeche; seafood consomme. The Mozambique prawn entree is exotic featuring large prawns and baked plantains around coconut flavored white rice, set in a tomato and peanut sauce. Crispy roast Liberty duck would be a good choice for the less adventurous. Stellar desserts include the basmati rice pudding and Valrhona chocolate cake.
Ledson Harmony Restaurant
(Ledson Hotel) 480 First St. East
This elegant eatery is tucked away in the grand Ledson Hotel. Enjoy the Old World style ambiance and classic appetizer menu as you relax to the live jazz and piano music by the roaring fireplace. Delectable bites include the artisan cheese plate; lemon Asiago Caesar salad; smoked Scottish salmon; or beef tenderloin carpaccio. Pear Cabernet tart for dessert.
Lo Spuntino, An Italian Taste of Sonoma
400 First St.
Lunch daily. Dinner weekends only
Lo Spuntino, which means “little tastes” in Italian, is the satellite for the stunning Viansa Winery and Italian Marketplace owned by the Sebastiani family. This busy little replica offers a wider array of Italian fresh foods such as savory tortas, pizzettas, pastas, salads, panini, Italian cheeses and cured meats. The rotisserie emits enticing smells of roasted chicken, turkey, rabbit, duck and lamb. In addition to the extensive wine bar, enjoy micro-brewed beers on tap, an espresso bar and gelateria. In the mood for shopping? You’ll find all of Cucina Viansa’s specialty food products, imported Tuscan pottery and gifts on one side of the store. Wine List: All of Viansa’s Italian style wines are available for tasting or purchase by the glass or bottle. The Enoteca features Viansa’s library and limited release wines for tasting and purchase.
Mary’s Pizza Shack
18636 Highway 12
Boyes Hot Springs
Lunch and dinner
Since 1959, Mary Fazio’s legendary no-frills Sonoma County pizza shack has been famous for it’s intoxicating pizza aromas and yeasty crusts baked to perfection with fresh, interesting toppings. Favorites include the roasted garlic & chicken; pizza di sola with tomato basil sauce, mushrooms, sundried tomatoes, feta and sliced peppers; Anna’s Mediterranean with fresh spinach, eggplant and fresh thyme served on thin crust. Calzones and garlic bread are also popular along with ten different pastas, sandwiches and traditional Italian casseroles like lasagna and eggplant Parmigiana. Kid friendly; outdoor seating; orders to go and catering available.
Olive and Vine
14301 Arnold Dr.
Ever-changing menu is consistently delicious and casual from the terrific French onion soup to the savory sandwiches bursting with fresh local ingredients. The café also serves as a catering company for the area.
529 First St.
Lunch and dinner
Breezy casual café serves pasta, pizza, salads and paninis for lunch and dinner. Pair rosemary flatbread with clam chowder or throw in a Cobb salad with smoked turkey bleu cheese, avocado and applewood smoked bacon and balsamic vinaigrette. Choose from seven or so pastas and several super-thin crust pizzas that even kids will love. Tourists enjoy the extensive local wine list heavy on Sonoma choices.
Rin’s Thai of Sonoma
Lunch and dinner
Rin’s is probably known more for take-out than sit down dining due to its matchbox size and bare-bones atmosphere. Economical and flavorful, the lunch menu offers a variety of specials such as pork or chicken satay grilled on skewers, traditional Pad Thai, curry of the day, garlic prawns or sesame chicken salad. The dinner menu is more extensive including several choices of appetizers; soulful soups (spicy Tom Yum Goong with lemon grass and prawns); vegetarian entrees; noodles and fried rice; seafood dishes (grilled fish of the day with hot lemon sauce); intensely flavored poultry specialties such as the Gai Kra Prow, garlic chicken with mint leaves, chili and sweet basil.
(at MacArthur Place Inn and Spa)
29 E MacArthur St.
This cozy upscale steakhouse is housed in a handsome restored barn. The American menu features fresh oysters on the half shell with house mignonette; chilled roasted artichoke with creamy balsamic dipping sauce; barbecued baby back ribs; classic pot roast and Saddles signature steaks.
13648 Arnold Dr.
This intimate bistro makes for romantic dining. Expect eclectic California cuisine with vibrant Spanish influenced dishes such as paella flavored with saffron, fresh mussels, clams and chorizo. Vegetarians will relish the baby spinach salad with manchego cheese and pomegranate vinaigrette or the Stilton and chard stuffed ravioli. Interesting Spanish wines. Fabulous finales include a luscious Meyer lemon cheesecake.
(at The Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa)
100 Boyes Blvd.
At The Fairmont’s premier restaurant, you can expect pricey, yet regionally exciting contemporary California cuisine in an approachable setting. Only the freshest local produce, meats, poultry and seafood are used to create elegant dishes that speak “Sonoma Wine Country.” A sample menu: terrine of duck; poached Maine lobster with butternut spaghetti; California pheasant. End with Chocolate Fondant. The wine list features over 500 Sonoma and Napa wines and the list has the distinguished honor of “Wine Spectator Award of Excellence 2006.”
Lunch and dinner
Chef Ed Metcalfe features artful modern Asian cuisine by utilizing locally grown, organic products. Expect relaxing surroundings and ultra-fresh sushi. Start with the typical edamame or branch out for a seaweed salad or chilled soba noodles with traditional garnishes. Crisp lettuce cups coddle spicy minced pork with lime, cilantro and hoisin sauce. For dinner, check out the Dry Creek specialty roll with spicy Thai salmon and peanuts topped with sweet chili sauce. Fried soft shell crab and grilled Kobe beef are entrée delicacies. Expect premium sake cocktails and various local wines.
Sonoma Meritage Restaurant and Oyster Bar
165 W. Napa St.
Lunch, brunch and dinner
The daily changing menu features a lovely blend of southern French and northern Italian seafood specialties. Lunch on the fried oyster sandwich with wild mushrooms and goat cheese or the grilled prime hanger steak served over wilted spinach. Grab sweet Dungeness crab when in season or indulge in the chilled seafood platter with a bit of everything. Brunch is extensive featuring just about any dish you could wish for.
Sonoma Cheese Market
2 Spain Street
This delicatessen landmark on Sonoma’s bustling square is the home of Sonoma Jack cheese. Jam-packed with every other kind of cheese, deli meat, dried salami, salad and condiment, it’s popular with the field grape growers and visiting newcomers. The spacious interior also has a small gift area and sells wine by the bottle or glass. Enjoy your lunch on the covered side patio, sunny umbrella tables overlooking the plaza or have a picnic packed to go.
Swiss Hotel Restaurant
18 West Spain Street, Sonoma
Lunch and dinner
Now a California historical landmark, The Swiss Hotel has been in business since 1909.
This Old World, lodge-like restaurant features a blend of Italian and California cuisines with a garden patio complete with fireplace. Choose from myriad pizzas prepared in the wood-burning oven; Italian sausage sandwiches; hamburgers and pastas. Entrees feature a few vegetarian choices along with all the meat varieties: veal chop, grilled lamb, Sonoma rabbit, roasted rosemary chicken, Sonoma duck breast, beef filet. The dessert list is extensive including fried sweet banana topped with chocolate sauce and ginger ice cream. The Swiss hotel is known for it’s booming bar business and generous sized cocktails; also expect a local wine list and a full selection of single malt scotches, cognacs and ports. The popular “Glariffee” is the Swiss Hotel’s Irish coffee developed by the original owners.
Viansa Winery and Italian Marketplace
25200 Arnold Drive
Winery hours only
The Italian marketplace, housed in the stunning tasting room, is replete with assorted cheeses, Italian sliced meats like proscuitto, olive oils, mustards, sauces. The deli includes fresh sandwiches on focaccia, gourmet salads and swell desserts. Load up and venture outside to the one of 35 or more picnic tables under grape trellises and shady trees overlooking Viansa’s 90-acre waterfowl preserve and the south end of Sonoma Valley. From April to November a Tuscan grill is fired up in the center courtyard for barbecue chicken, meat and Italian specialties like spicy grilled sausage providing an excellent way to eat lunch alfresco and soak up the fine, sun-splashed Mediterranean surroundings. During the summer, a gelato cart provides cool treats for warm visitors.
Wine list: Be adventurous and try some of the unfamiliar Italian varietals crafted by Viansa. Wines by the glass that fare well at picnics: Pinot Grigio, Sangiovese, Arneis and Nebbiolo.
8445 Sonoma Highway
Lunch and dinner
Seek out the vine-trellised covered patio next to the vineyards for authentic flavors of Mexico and Spain. The menu is surprisingly ambitious. Start with the tapas -- try the famous fire-broiled artichoke for a real treat or the scallop ceviche; even nachos are special here. For lunch, there are myriad delicious choices including taqueria fresh fish tacos, bay shrimp tostadita, or chicken avocado sandwich. For true Spain, consider the sopa del mar with fresh seafood simmered in bouillabaisse style stew or paella Valenciana, a hard-to-find specialty; asadas (marinated grilled meats); and pastas. For dessert, enjoy homemade flan or the ice cream taco with homemade ice cream in a crisp cinnamon tortilla. Owners of this earthy cafe grow most of its produce at their ranch in Kenwood. Small list of local wines by the bottle or glass are available, but don’t miss the fresh, fantastic top-shelf margaritas!
Wolf House Restaurant
(in Jack London Lodge)
13740 Arnold Dr.
Locals and visitors relish the seasonal wine country cuisine in this rustic yet lovely lodge setting with alfresco seating and expansive views of the creek. Menu favorites include roasted Liberty Farms duckling, local fresh Dungeness crab ravioli, and grilled double-cut pork chop with smoky vegetables, braised wintergreens and apple cider reduction. Well-crafted Sonoma wine list and huge, rich chocolate bread pudding make this a worthy stop in this charming little town.
Robin Barr Sussman is a freelance food, wine and travel writer.