Wednesday, February 16th, 2011
Frank and Ernie’s is the restaurant that no one and everyone is talking about.
Situated just outside the carefully manicured bubble of Healdsburg’s downtown tourist zone, there’s no glitzy advertising or chef-driven menus to ponder in the window here. There is no website to consult for mission statements, produce pedigrees or artful photography. In fact, there’s no website at all. As night falls, the restaurant’s bare windows magnify the vehicular paparazzi of car headlights in the parking lot. Inside, harried bussers fold napkins in the entry while confused diners look around in vain for a hostess.
Heresy just blocks away, at Frank & Ernie’s there’s an unmistakable feeling that no one here is trying to impress you. And maybe that’s why locals weary of the nearby gastro-circus seem to love it.
Opened in late 2010, Frank and Ernie’s is, at face value, an old school steakhouse owned by a local guy, Ron Palmieri. Named for his father and uncle, the seemingly unremarkable restaurant has risen from the ashes of the old Western Boot. In the kitchen, Chef A. J. Lockwood (formerly of Safari West) turns out slabs of char-broiled sirloin, hangar, New York strip, rib eye, filet mignon, prime rib (Friday through Sunday) along with a couple of silly chest-beaters that top out at 24 ounces. Without a hint of irony, each comes with a baked potato, pilaf or fries; bbq beans and horseradish cream.
The rest of the menu is presented with an equally straight-face: Shrimp Scampi, Pan-Seared Halibut, Caeasar Salad, Onion Rings, Cheeseburgers, French Dip and Mud Pie. The word “classic” is used a lot. Regulars are honest about managing your expectations. “It’s just a locals place,” they say.
But here’s where unremarkable becomes something very remarkable. Without pretention or pomp, Frank & Ernie’s effortlessly gets right what so many other restaurants work hard to get completely wrong.
Why? First off, service is well-timed and efficient, even when the servers are up to their elbows in customers and balancing five plates on their arms. “I’ll be right with you,” is a mantra they live up to. The food isn’t life-changing, but without exception satisfying. Okay, the onion straws may be a little life-changing. The prices are exactly in line with the quality of the food: Appetizers running between $5 and $8, entrees around $18 and steaks between $16 and $30. The convivial atmosphere of winemakers, townies, shopkeepers makes for plenty of neighborliness and families are welcome. The wine list is local and refreshingly uninflated.
The result: People just seem to like it here. Says a Yelper, “Just what the doctor ordered – a locals joint. Frank and Ernie’s is exactly what Healdsburg needs.” Bottles of coveted wine sit on tables with nachos and ravioli. The ambient noise is from the bustling kitchen rather than a state of the art sound system. The bar is a promising alternative to the historically divey B&B Saloon, which too many Wine Country bachelorette parties seem to have found lately. Off-duty chefs drop by for Hawaiian short ribs and mercifully few picky tourists seem to find their way here.
Exactly what Healdsburg needs. So now that you know about it, do us all a favor and keep it under your hat. Because Frank & Ernie’s is the kind of place insiders already know about. And outsiders don’t need to.
Frank & Ernie’s, 9 Mitchell Lane, Healdsburg, 433-2147. Open for lunch and dinner. Closed Tuesday.