New Survey Results: Best Restaurants in the North Bay

October 16, 2013
by Meesha Halm

There’s a reason why Yountville is jokingly referred to as Kellerville. Between overseeing the kitchens at The French Laundry, Bouchon Bistro, Bouchon Bakery, Ad Hoc and the seasonal BBQ spot Addendum, chef Thomas Keller heads up five of the most sought-after restaurants in the tiny Napa Valley town. But savvy insiders know that there are plenty more great food options North of the Golden Gate Bridge to be had. From killer patisseries in Marin County and ramshackle roadhouses along the Sonoma coast shucking fresh oysters, to vaunted sushi shops and fancy steakhouses in Napa Valley hawking $2,000 bottles of Screaming Eagle, the 2014 San Francisco Bay Area Restaurants Survey covers the best dining options north of San Francisco Bay. So before you head out on a road trip up to the wine country, cruise through our slideshow below for the biggest winners in the North Bay. And don’t miss all of our 2014 Restaurant Survey coverage highlighting the top restaurants in the city of San Francisco, the East Bay, the South and more.

Top Food North of San Francisco

“The best French restaurant isn’t in Paris, it’s in Yountville,” declare 2014 Zagat surveyors, referring to The French Laundry, Thomas Keller’s iconic stone farmhouse in Yountville, which once again reigns supreme, snatching up the number one spot in the North Bay for Food Overall (as well as Top American) for presenting “astounding” French-American tasting menus that “merge art and science.” Coming in a close second, and a far easier reservation to score (natch), is Hiro Sone’s Terra, which proffers “distinctive” and downright “amazing” New American menus (infused with Sone's native Japanese sensibilities) up the road in St. Helena. The other top-ranking winners for Food are Madrona Manor in Healdsburg, Cucina Paradiso in Petaluma, and Cole’s Chop House in Napa.

Top Decor North of San Francisco

No place in Napa Valley seems to capture the sense of place better than Auberge du Soleil, the Provencal-inspired restaurant and inn nestled into the hillside above Rutherford, which retained its previous title for Top Decor in the North Bay, delighting diners with oversized fireplaces, chic wine-country ambiance and breathtaking valley floor views afforded from the dining room and outdoor deck. Rounding out the top five in the most desirable decor category are The French LaundryThe Restaurant at Meadowood, Étoile and Madrona Manor.

Top Service North of San Francisco

“No urge or whim goes unattended” by the “impeccable” if not “over the top” formal service staff at The French Laundry, which in addition to Top Food, continues to take the Survey’s top honors for service. If you’re lucky enough to score the next-to-impossible reservation, make the most of it and ask for a tour of the kitchen during your stay. The other top-ranking restaurants for service in the wine country remain unchanged from last year: Terra, Madrona Manor, The Restaurant at Meadowood and Auberge du Soleil also get the nod.

Top Californian North of San Francisco

“Unforgettable” is how surveyors describe a meal at The Restaurant at Meadowood, where Christopher Kostow just keeps getting better, presenting “innovative” and fancifully-presented bespoke tasting menus inspired by a local and seasonal larder, much of it sourced from the restaurant’s own gardens. The restaurant, tucked away in the tony Meadowood Resort outside of St. Helena, jumped from #8 to the top spot in this year’s guide for Californian, edging out last year’s winner Redd, which dipped to the #3 spot. The aforementioned Auberge du Soleil, romantic Farmhouse Inn in Forestville and wine-centric Étoile at the Domaine Chandon Winery also took top honors for their renditions of California cuisine.

Top French North of San Francisco

Although fine-dining restaurants in the wine country seem to hog all the media attention, when it comes to voting for their favorite French restaurants, Zagat surveyors tend to gravitate to the more homespun variety. For the second year in a row, the title of Top French went to Bistro des Copains, the low-key locavore bistro tucked way in the hinterlands of West Sonoma. Ken Frank’s high-end prix-fixery La Toque in Napa was the exception, coming in second, but the remaining winners rounding out the top five were the Philippe Jeanty’s convivial Bistro Jeanty in Yountville, Santa Rosa’s old-school La Gare and Sondra Bernstein’s casual Glen Ellen outpost, Fig Cafe & Wine Bar.

Top Restaurants with Winning Wine Lists North of San Francisco

Let’s face it. The primary reason that day trippers head to wine country is to drink wine. It’s impossible to drink poorly in Napa and Sonoma, but according to our surveyors, die-hard oenophiles should seek out these top five restaurants that boast enviable wine cellars. If price is not an issue, The French Laundry is in a league of its own. Under the direction of head sommelier Dennis Kelly, the wine list features a coveted collection of more than 15,000 bottles (nearly 2,500 selections, including 250 options in the half-bottle format) that showcase some of the finest producers from around the world, with a special focus on the classics from Burgundy, Bordeaux and Napa Valley. Meanwhile, fans of cult Californian cabs will find plenty to swoon over at Terra and Cole’s Chop House, which ranked #2 and #3 for winning wine lists respectively. And for sheer comprehensiveness, oenophiles will find a quaffer’s delight at the Restaurant at Meadowood, Auberge du Soleil and La Toque, where the long-time staffers at the latter have elevated food and wine paring to an art form.

Top Restaurants with Views North of San Francisco

For four years in a row, Auberge du Soleil prevails as the primo view restaurant in Napa Valley, landing in first place for both top views and the best outdoor dining spots in the North Bay. Other top-ranking restaurants up North where you can soak up the gorgeous wine country views (both indoors and outdoors) are the Farmhouse Inn, Étoile and Brix. Closer to home, Murray Circle offers diners postcard-worthy vistas of the Golden Gate and the San Francisco skyline. Other transporting outdoor dining options that got the nod include Madrona Manor, Bistro Don Giovanni and Tra Vigne.

Top Trendy Restaurants North of San Francisco

Just because you’re in wine country doesn’t mean that you need to submit yourself to formal service and buttoned-up ambiance. If you’ve got younger, more adventurous diners in your group, consider hitting up one of the Valley's hipper spots such as Redd for a fun night out on the town. Offering “serious fine dining” in Yountville “without being pretentious” (and nary a vineyard motif in sight), Richard Reddington’s namesake restaurant notched an enviable 27 for his “eye-catching” eclectic Californian cuisine, but equally tantalizing is its sleek minimalist decor, late-night bar hours and a to-die-for Sunday brunch service that makes it a refreshing change of pace. You’ll also find trendy design and a good-looking young crowd knocking back star-quality food and craft cocktails at Calistoga’s Solbar (pictured), Masaharu Morimoto’s Japanese riverside boite in Napa, the farm-chic Barndiva in Healdsburg and the bocce-tossing Underwood Bar & Bistro in Graton.

Top Small Plates/Tapas North of San Francisco

Not everyone is enamored of small plates and tapas, but we think good things come in small packages. Luckily for us, some of the best restaurants in the North Bay have embraced this style of communal, pass-the-plate eating. At the top of the heap in this year’s guide is Picco, Bruce Hill’s convivial Cal-Italian in Larkspur that offers an eclectic array of small plates including risotto made from scratch every half hour. Other top-ranking restaurants designed for sharing are JoLe in Calistoga (where small plates are available a la carte or as part of a tasting menu), Willi’s Wine Bar in Santa Rosa, Willi’s Seafood and Raw Bar in Healdsburg and the traditional Spanish tapas bar Zuzu in Downtown Napa.

Best-Buy Restaurants North of San Francisco

When it comes to grabbing a quick and affordable bite in the North Bay, carbs rule. Downtown Bakery & Creamery on the Healdsburg Square is known for its “seriously good sticky buns,” seasonal ice creams and “don’t miss" baked goods, but the cafe’s wholesome breakfasts and lunches helped earn it this year's Best Buy nod. Other great bang-for-your-buck spots singled out in the North Bay where diners can score a delicious meal for under $25 include the artisanal charcuterie shop Fatted Calf in Napa (pulled pork sandwich, anyone?), the award-wining bread bakery Della Fattoria Downtown Cafe in Petaluma (home to “amazing, fresh country”-style breakfast, lunch and Friday dinners), the “awesome” veggie pizza-slinging at Arizmendi Bakery and Pizzeria in San Rafael and the quick-service, sustainably-sourced deli Blue Barn Gourmet in Corte Madera.

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