Tried and True Sonoma County Restaurants

Wednesday, April 11th, 2012

Carrie Brown of Jimtown Store (Chad Surmick/PD)

Though the accepted fact that 90 percent of restaurants fail within the first year may be overstated, only about 30 percent of restaurants last for ten years or more, according to research. Here in Sonoma County, especially after the devastation of the recession, there do seem to be fewer and fewer toques still standing.

But what about the restaurants that keep chugging on, year after year, decade after decade? They quietly simmer away becoming our go-tos for weeknight dinners, birthdays and anniversaries, regardless of our momentary dalliances with flashy new eateries. Ingrained in our hearts and communities, they’re comfortable constants. Pity the chef who takes a favorite dish off the menu or tries to reinvent himself.

Ever-present, here are ten restaurants that have stood strong for a decade (or more), weathering ups and downs, reminding us year after year that they’re still around for a reason — and what it’s taken to keep themselves on top.

Jimtown Store, opened 1991
Carrie Brown had to drink a whole lot of inventory before Jimtown found its niche. “We had all these great ideas about what we wanted to do, but we knew from the get go that the customers would figure it out for us,” said Brown, who opened the Alexander Valley outpost with her late husband, John Werner on a warm Memorial Day more than 20 years ago. That meant trying to sell wine from France and fancy cheese — something locals didn’t immediately embrace. “We wound up drinking all the wine. All that beautiful cheese languished,” she said. Transforming from a deli into a cafe and grocery, and ultimately a Wine Country icon, Brown’s most loyal following has always been from the locals who watched as the New York couple renovated the dilapidated grounds and eagerly adopting the store as their “clubhouse”. “They’ve just been overwhelming in the support and love,” said Brown. “They really saved me,” she said of the difficult time after her husband died. Living on the grounds, however, sometimes makes for close quarters and exotic trips make for fresh inspiration. “I like to travel and see the wider world, then bring what I’ve learned back to Jimtown,” she said. 6706 California 128, Healdsburg.

Jeff Mall of Zin (Kent Porter/PD)

Zin Bistro, opened 1999
Chef-owner Jeff Mall was doing farm-to-table long before it had the kind of foodie buzz it gets today. Now a favorite spot for new American comfort food — from grits and fried chicken to Mexican beer-batted green beans — Mall knew early on that a kitchen garden was key to great dining. “I wanted to grow my own food,” said Mall, who owns Eastside Farm, a source for much of the restaurant’s produce. But fans may also find it interesting to know that it was wasabi that first flavored his vision. A former chef at SF’s Asian-fusion powerhouse, Hawthorne Lane, Mall said he used to sprinkle the Japanese horseradish on nearly everything. “We haven’t done that at Zin for ten years,” he laughs. What he learned the hard way? “At 29 you really don’t know anything about running a restaurant,” Mall said, of the tender age he opened Zin. “I would tell myself to listen –listen to what your customers like and don’t like.  Just because you like something, doesn’t mean the public will.” What he’d tell aspiring restaurateurs: “Don’t be intimidated by projects that seem too big or daunting.” Moving from buying bread from bakeries to doing all their bread in-house was a major hurdle he overcame several years ago, but how he says, “It is better than any we had ever bought in the past.” 344 Center Street, Healdsburg.

Zazu, opened 2001
Chef-owners John Stewart and Duskie Estes accidentally hit on three of the biggest trends in food over the last five years: raising their own food, curing meats and making bacon. As trend-setters, they’ve been courted for adverts for California tourism, on the Food Network (multiple times), national morning shows and reigned as The King and Queen of Pork after winning Cochon 555’s pork olympics in 2011. “We got lucky moving to Sonoma County. We had chickens in the backyard, a gateway into urban farming that led to sheep, turkeys and pigs and growing as much as we could to get a better product,” said Stewart. Inspired by those tastes, the couple were inspired to work with local ranchers, using the whole animal and ultimately making their own salumi. Salumi (and a stint with Mario Batali) led Stewart to found Black Pig Bacon — artisanal bacon that ships throughout the West at a rate of 5,000 pounds per month. But it isn’t all luck that keeps their restaurants popular. Instrumental in redefining modern Sonoma County cuisine, they’re respected by the food community for their farm-to-table walk and talk. Plus, there’s never a dull menu at their constantly evolving restaurant. 3535 Guerneville Road, Santa Rosa.

The Girl and the Fig, opened 1997
“Be careful what you wish for,” is the advice of chef-owner Sondra Bernstein, whose small cafe has turned into a mini-empire of three restaurants, a catering operation, two cookbooks and a line of fig condiments. The original cafe in Glen Ellen moved to Sonoma in 2000, but continues to show up on “best of” lists as a top spot for typified Wine Country casual cuisine and Rhone-only wine list. Her newest restaurant, Estate, let’ Bernstein and exec chef John Toulze explore their Italian side with house cured meats, pasta and local produce. Their next adventure: A mixed-used space called Suite D that will offer classes, tastings, coking classes and private dinners. 10 West Spain Street, Sonoma.

La Gare, opened 1979
Roger Praplan relishes the fact that he’s serving the grandchildren of some of La Gare’s early customers. Praplan’s parents were early entrepreneurs in Santa Rosa’s Railroad Square, purchasing their lot for $25,000 in 1977. Though dining trends have come and gone during the restaurant’s 30-plus years, Praplan stays laser-focused on the traditional French cuisine that’s made the restaurant a popular birthday, anniversary and holiday restaurant for decades. “People always want to reinvent. Just readjust, and stick to your vision,” said Praplan. 208 Wilson St., Santa Rosa.

(Petite) Syrah, opened 1999
Last year chef-owner Josh Silvers took a leap of faith, reinventing his longtime restaurant into a small plates eatery. Though critically successful, the public didn’t embrace it. “People were having a hard time understanding the concept of what we were trying to do,” said Silvers. An adept adapter, Silvers is now bringing back his entrees and tasting menus.  “Our job is to make people happy. We’re selling an experience,” he said. For years, that experience was as a spot for rare duck breast, foie gras and Dungeness crab cakes, classic Wine Country fare he felt he just couldn’t take off the menu. The new menu brings together favorites from the new and old menus — duck breast to a 63-degree egg salad. Meanwhile, his wood-fired oven and bar restaurant, Jackson’s, lets Silvers and his staff continue to innovate with more casual cuisine. 205 5th Street, Santa Rosa.

Willi’s Wine Bar, opened 2002
“I was a late bloomer,” said Mark Stark, chef-owner of Willi’s Wine Bar. Working in kitchens large and small for nearly 17 years, including as catering chef for Lulu’s, the potential pitfalls weren’t lost on him. “That’s the scary part. I knew what I was getting into,” said the now-owner of four restaurants (with a fifth in development). His own evolution has been from complicated ingredients to letting the food shine. “Simplicity comes to mind a lot. My style in the beginning was to throw more ingredients at things. But now, the excitement is how simple I can make a plate and make people really enjoy it,” he said. Bravas, opening this summer, exemplifies the move toward simple Spanish flavors. What he’d do if he were starting out today: “Work in a big kitchen and learn the business systems. If you can take the work out of that part,  you can focus on food and the part you love to do.” That, and ignore mean Web chatter about themselves. “Bloggers can cut so deep. People have no idea how hard it is to do what we do.” 4404 Old Redwood Highway, Santa Rosa.

Restaurant at Madrona Manor, opened 1981
As Healdsburg has grown up, so has once-unassuming restaurant inside this Victorian bed and breakfast. In 1999, when Bill and Trudi Konrad purchased the property, they hired Chef Jesse Mallgren. An alum of Gary Danko’s at Chateau Souverain and SF’s legendary Stars, Mallgren grew up in Sonoma County. Though he defines his cuisine as first and foremost local and seasonally-inspired, about 10 years ago Mallgren began pushing boundaries with molecular gastronomy techniques that include using liquid nitrogen to make ice cream. “We use the best techniques with the best products,” he said. What he credits with the restaurant’s continued success: Creative control in the kitchen. Free of financial and time constraints of many other chefs, Mallgren can channel his energy into a showcase tasting menu. 1001 Westside Road, Healdsburg.

John Ash & Co, opened 1980
It’s impossible to talk about Sonoma’s longstanding food scene without paying homage to its patriarch, John Ash. What began as an idea became a revolution — using nearby produce, meats and cheeses to create wholesome, ethical, lush food and pairing it with great local wines. Though it seems almost quaint now, Ash was an early pioneer at his Montgomery Village restaurant. Though Ash is no longer in the kitchen of his eponymous restaurant, some of the top chefs and winemakers (Jeffrey Madura, Dan Kosta, Michael Browne) are alums of the historic eatery. Now headed by Chef Tom Schmidt, the restaurant still holds close its original vision. 4330 Barnes Road, Santa Rosa.

Hana Japanese, opened 1990
Tokyo native Ken Tominaga brings a knowledge of authentic Japanese cuisine to Sonoma County. At his Rohnert Park restaurant, you’ll find fish flown in from Japan, along with native seafood and hard-to-find delicacies. A strict aesthetic precision infuses every dish — from tempura and steamed egg custards to steaming dashi and lush nigiri. Having grown up between Santa Rosa and Tokyo, Tominaga brings aspects of both cultures to his food, making it a favorite of local chefs, visiting Japanese and local foodies. 101 Golf Course Drive, Rohnert Park.

K & L Bistro, opened 2001

Chef-owners Karen and Lucas Martin were among the first Bay Area restaurateurs to receive a Michelin star when the guidebooks made their debut in 2006, then big news for the tiny Sebastopol bistro. Through economic ups an downs, the menu has remained focused on classic French favorites including onion soup gratinee, duck leg confit, sole meuniere and their much-loved French fries. 119 South Main Street, Sebastopol

Underwood/Willow Wood, opened 1995, 2002

Everyone thought Matthew Greenbaum was crazy to open the cozy Willow Wood cafe in sleepy Graton — a town better known for the restaurants that closed there than opened. But the rustic eatery charmed its way into national magazines and critical acclaim serving up hearty country fare (polenta, roast chicken and breakfast scrambles, fresh-baked bread) with big city panache. In 2002, Greenbaum and his partner opened the boho-Parisian cafe, Underwood directly across the street seven years later. The tapas-style menu, paired wines from his Green Valley neighbors, continues to make Graton a food-destination for locals and tourists. 9113 Graton Rd., 9020 Graton Rd., Graton.

Farmhouse Inn, re-opened 2001
Siblings Joe and Catherine Bartolomei began revamping this historic Forestville property more than 10 years ago, and are still at it. Longtime chef Steve Litke made Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit his trademark, but in March 2011 turned the menu on its ear by offering a luxe prix fixe (ie: langoustines with yuzu, miso glazed bone marrow) with wine pairings from master sommelier Geoffrey Kruth. Looking forward, the restaurant is branching out into making its own wine (available in May) with buzzy Ryme Cellars and growing much of their own produce on the property. 7871 River Road, Forestville.


More restaurants that have stood the test of time…
Cafe Europe, 1992
Chef-owner Herbert Zacher, who started his local career at Little Bavaria in 1982, has the market cornered on traditional German food in Santa Rosa. Comforting spatzle, schnitzel and wild boar make for a loyal clientele. 104 Calistoga Road, Santa Rosa.

Bistro Ralph, opened 1992; Cricklewood, opened 1976; Omelette Express, opened 1978; Union Hotel, opened 1879.

Have some old favorites you want to add? Continue the conversation in the comments below…

Author: biteclub

Food Dining and Restaurants in Sonoma County and beyond, is Wine Country dining with Drive-Thru Sensibility.

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  1. i have to agree Sonoma Taco Shop for me and most my friends has been our favorite for many years. I travel a lot on my job and I can find no salsa bar that comes anywhere near it.

  2. Rivers End in Jenner is one of the best restaurants I have been to. The food is out of this world and the view is breathtaking. Also Swiss Hotel in Sonoma has great food and very consistent. You can always count on getting a great meal there.

  3. how about Charcuterie,always good food and Patrick is great!

  4. and the address is?

  5. did you read the article?

  6. I lived in Sonoma Co all my life until my move to Hawaii 8 yrs ago. I come back to visit family and to eat great food…have eaten at every one of the listed resturants and crave them all…you-all need to value the great food inovations and choices….We say lucky to live Hawaii, you, lucky to eat Sonoma!

  7. Mmmm. Pepsi and Dorito tacos.

  8. Round table…? Boston Market…? We also have a great Mexican restaurant called Taco Bell…you’re sure to LOVE it! They serve a beverage called “Pepsi” that you’ll find sublime. And they have REAL paper napkins!

  9. Roberto’s

  10. Checkers has the freshest and best salads in town as well as pasta a pizza…

  11. Coming out to Sonoma County from NYC in July to visit in-laws and want a great dining experience for our anniversary. Don’t really want to travel to French Laundry, and have read a lot of press about Cyrus, but looking for any other recommendations (underground restaurants, pop-ups or new/unique meals). I prefer tasting menus – so that would be a plus.

  12. I cannot believe no one mentioned Cape Fear in Duncan Mills! Soon good! :)

  13. Chelino’s!

  14. You got at least part of that right. I do try to let readers to give place a shout out.

    You might be a little overly paranoid about keeping high end restaurants happy. Uh, really?

    Originally, this was about restaurants that had made the Top 100 on Bauer’s List (or had the potential to) and then got dropped.

    But when it went to the readers, so many “everyday favorites” started cropping up. They’re kind of different things. But I do appreciate that more people tend to go to some of the everyday favorites over the fancy spots. I’m working now to put together a second list.

  15. Dinucci’s

  16. Susan, don’t get so excited! It’s Heather’s job to whip up the readers and, at the same time, get a plug in for all those elite foody places she has to keep happy. If you look closely at her list you will see she names a handful of places that MOST people in Sonoma couldn’t afford to go to more than a couple of times a year. Then, she leaves it up to you folks to give your favorite places a shout-out.

  17. Heather! WillowWood and Underwood literally transformed the small town of Graton…I’ve been a regular since they opened in the mid-90’s and have never had a bad meal…

  18. Sorry Richard, not even close. Salsa bar is fun, bun not unique. I’ve been to at least a half dozen other Mexican food joints within 5 miles that have better food.

  19. Alot of great mentioned places, but don’t forget to get over to Vince and Linda Ghilarrducci’s “Italian Affair” on 4th St., Vince has been putting out the most consistent and tasty food since day one approx. 25 years ago, now with help from their sons Joe and Greg it really is a “Family Affair”, I would try the Tortellini Supreme, New York Pepper Steak and the always great Prawns Bordelaise, also the best Linguini & Clams around!

  20. Mary’s? Sonoma Taco Shop? Johnny Garlic’s? Seriously? They have their place, but it is not on this list. I’d substitute, I don’t know, Round Table for pizza,; even if it is a chain, at least the pizza isn’t soggy and they have some good toppings. There’s probably someplace better but if I want pizza I will always choose Round Table over Mary’s. Mary’s is where you go when all your coworkers have to agree on a single place and everybody figures there is at least one thing that’s ok with them on the menu. Pho Vietnam or Chelino’s are good for cheap eats, or Abyssinia, or a few Thai or Korean joints. I’d go to Wendy’s before I’d go to Johnny Garlic’s (just had stuff from there from their catering arm, but it was never particularly good – just generic chain restaurant food, frankly. Competent, but only that. I’d get excited when this one guy based in SF would bring up stuff from Boston Market – so much better! And that’s pretty much the level of competition. Checkers was also better but in the same vein, at least for catering quality.)

  21. Cafe Citti, Kenwood: heavenly AOP
    Howard’s Cafe, Occidental: breakfast yum
    Jhanthong Banbua aka Motel Thai, Santa Rosa: goong katiem piktai
    Ca’Bianca, Santa Rosa: all good

  22. Also absent… Negris and the Union Hotel in Occidental. Been running for generations.

  23. What about Sonoma Taco Shop at 100 Brookwood Ave. They serve the best Mexican food in the county.
    Very much so worth trying. They also have the best salsa bar in the county.

  24. We are blessed to have so many good, long-standing places to go.

  25. K&L Bistro in downtown Sebastopol. It opened in 2001 and it’s a wonderful place to kick back and enjoy.

  26. I was raised on Mary’s Pizza in the original shack in Boyes Springs YUM YUM !

  27. Talk about “TRIED & TRUE,” how about Cricklewood, Old Redwood Hiway. Good Lord Michael has been dishing up great prime rib and savory steaks for what? 30+ years? Can’t think of a better place to go either before or after an event at the Wells Fargo Center.

  28. what about Willow Wood (1995) and Underwood in Graton?

  29. Kirin is tops on my list too!

  30. The New Yorker Pizza in Petaluma, and I suppose Old Chicago too.

  31. I’m surprised Johnny Garlic’s isn’t on here! They have great food, an amazing staff, and their bartender Davina’s personal cocktails are amazing!!!!

  32. An absolute must on the list in Cucina Paradisio in Petaluma! Some of the best Italian in the county!

  33. HI, Great article. The good news is that Sonoma County provides an additional ten without a lot of stretch. In addition to a couple of those mentioned by others Farmhouse on River Road is one strong candidate. Charcuterie in Healdsburg is another. If we are going to include the Omelet Express category then Max’s and Arigone’s need attention.

  34. No love for Gary Chu’s?

  35. I love the food at Zazu, but maybe it’s just become *too* popular. The last times I’ve eaten there I’ve always had a reservation, and still had to wait 20-30 minutes for a table. My friend went there for a meal a couple months ago and service was so painfully slow she said it took almost three hours to have dinner! The food is so amazing, especially their use of seasonal, local ingredients and pork products, but the overbooking/slow service has just been so bad the last few times I have a hard time going back.

    Really great list, Heather! So many of my faves here. :)

  36. Two Restaurants in Kenwood.Vineyards Inn just turned 30 years old last year and Kenwood Restaurant and bar
    has been in business since1987.Both restaurants are still run by their original owners.

  37. Two restaurants in Kenwood. Vineyards Inn just turned 30 years old last year and Kenwood Restaurant and Bar has been in business since 1987..

  38. Great list, but sad to say I’ve only been to two… Hana & Omelette Express! Now I have a some more great restaurants to add to my must-eat-at list. I would like to add these two long-standing faves to your follower’s restaurant radar:
    1. Fuji (255 N McDowell Blvd, Petaluma, 778-8600) – Unassuming, friendly, quality + quantity; sushi yum! Not sure when they opened (note to – add “Year established” to profile section) but it’s been around *at least* 10 years.
    2. Osake (2446 Patio Ct, Santa Rosa, 542-8282) – Quirky, romantic, unique sushi; established in early ’98.

  39. Superburger moved to its current location in ’78 supplanting Dog-E-Diner which had been serving homemade burgers and pies in Santa Rosa for 30 years before that! So doing that math, 1501 4th Street has been serving burgers for almost 65 years! The only older burger joint in the county that I know of is Picks in Cloverdale.

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