There’s an undeniable charm to eating in a railway car.
Chummy quarters, dim lighting and feeling transported to a slower, more
romantic time when travel didn’t include pat-downs and families in
Captivated by romantic visions of the past (if not
the long-term practicality of having a an entire restaurant, bar and
kitchen in a space not much larger than a tour bus) SoCal transplants
Ted and Heather Van Doorn have been fronting Sebastopol’s funky Starlight Cafe & Wine Bar for the better part of three years. The cafe is a former Southern Pacific lounge car parked permanently in Gravenstein Station.
And though he was never intended to be their permanent chef, New
Orleans’ Thaddeus Palmese has taken over the helm (literally),
transforming it into a functional kitchen.
The restaurant has flown mostly under the radar despite an enthusiastic local fan-base. With
hard times hitting many eateries around the North Bay, It didn’t escape
BiteClub’s attention that the trio have recently been plugging the
space, garnering a Best Of nod from the Bohemian and KGO radio time.
Honestly, you can’t help but want to cheer for this hard-working,
hipster crew who’ve had their share of uphill battles since opening.
Now settled in, there’s a lot to like about the haute homey-ness of Palmese’s food,
a clever but compact wine list, the Van Doorn’s constant presence and
unforced cross-table discussion with pretty much anyone within
fork-shot. Meaning that chances are good you might get a bite or a sip
of your neighbor’s homemade pot pie, penne macaroni or BBQ shrimp if
you play your cards right.
Much of the menu nods to Palmese’s
New Orleans culinary roots, making it one of only a handful of
southern-influenced restaurants in the region. (They keep
disappearing.) Starlight also prides itself on adopting the Slow Food mantra, using local produce and meats when possible. Daily specials don’t disappoint — a luscious cut of pork belly on creamy (creamy!) polenta with peach jus and grilled fennel or seared scallops atop a bed of corn and bacon relish, topped with a nest of fried sweet potatoes. Presentation is spot-on and impressive for the small kitchen.
are also misfires. The restaurant doesn’t have a liquor license, so
cocktails (though tasty) are made with Soju (rice wine) rather than
hard alcohol. The 40’s swing vibe just cries out for martinis and
Manhattans. On a recent visit, Chef Thad veered into croc-infested
waters when deconstructing a Caprese salad. The texture and
flavor of olive oil ice cream — though a noble idea — just didn’t
work, especially when sitting atop a tasteless tomato (no excuses this
time of year). I truly wanted this dish to be summer on a plate, which
it just couldn’t be with the inclusion of sharp Parmesan and pine nut
flavors and crumbly ice cream. It’s a dish that could work beautifully
with a few changes.
The price tag at Starlight can also get
steep rather quickly, with the majority of dishes in the $15-20 range.
Wine flights — a fun way to taste a variety of wines with dinner —
range from $16 to $18 with three generous 3oz pours. Cocktails and
desserts run about $7. Expect to hit triple digits if you indulge. To
keep things reasonable for the less-indulgent among us, Starlight
offers a three-course $25 prix fixe early-bird menu until 7pm on weekends. There’s also brunch on Sunday.
Dessert redeems dinner’s hiccups and sometimes painfully slow service: Banana’s foster, a banana creme brulee or a bourbon-soaked brownie slathered
with caramel and a scoop of homemade vanilla ice cream (much better
than the olive oil). Again, here’s where making friends with nearby
tablemates comes in handy, seeing what looks best and getting an honest
thumbs-up or down before sharing a rousing round of multi-table singing
You’ll be hard-pressed to leave Starlight’s
platform without at least a few goodbyes and well-wishes from your new
pals. And the bon-temps go on until late on the weekends and raised
tables and a four-person bar make for comfortable eating (or just
sipping) if you’re on your own. All aboard.
& Wine Bar, open Tuesday through Thursday noon to 10pm; Friday noon
to 11pm, Saturday 5:30pm to 11pm, Sunday brunch 10am to 2pm. Closed
Monday. 6761 Sebastopol Ave., Sebastopol, 707.823.1943. Check out the
website for upcoming winemaker dinners and other events at