Ultimate Food Weekend: Sonoma

By Kathleen Squires  |  December 4, 2013
Credit: Benovia

Though it often plays second-fiddle to its big brother, the Napa Valley, Sonoma is not a second-rate eating and drinking destination. The entire county, about the size of Rhode Island, was actually California’s first wine-making region, with its earliest grapes planted by Russian immigrants in 1812--nearly three decades before Napa got in the game. Known for its rustic atmosphere, lack of pretension and for often having fewer crowds than its neighbor, Sonoma makes a great year-round destination. Here are our highlights.

  • Credit: Harvest Moon Cafe

    Must-Try Restaurants
    At the 16 year-old The Girl and the Fig, the girl is proprietor Sondra Bernstein; John Toulze is her partner and executive chef, turning out French-inspired gems such as duck confit with torpedo onions, savoy cabbage, crispy fingerlings and mustard seed jus. At Zazu, husband-and-wife team John Stewart and Duskie Estes are known for snout-to-tail cooking and creative fare such as black pig bacon caramel popcorn. Dry Creek Kitchen is the labor of love from the area’s most notable chef, Charlie Palmer. The seven-course tasting menu is particularly popular and may feature such Palmer seasonal signatures such as the roasted sugar pie pumpkin soup. 

    Farmhouse Restaurant is one of the highest-regarded in the area for its first-class service and food sourced from the owner’s ranch and local farms. Spoonbar is the destination for modernist fare from chef Louis Maldonado. Harvest Moon Café, right in Sonoma Plaza, is a favorite of Zagat Survey voters for dishes such as Moroccan-style braised lamb shoulder with saffron basmati rice, sautéed collard greens, harissa and charmoula.

  • Credit: Benovia

    Sonoma’s Signatures
    Let’s start with the obvious: Sonoma is known primarily for its Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon. A great way to get an overview of the area’s main industry is to take the Sonoma Plaza Wine Walk , which guides visitors through 18 tasting rooms, all situated right around the town of Sonoma's main square.

    The appointment-only Benovia and Hanzell are among the best boutique wineries in the area, while the organic Bartholomew Park Winery includes lush and lovely picnic grounds and bucolic hiking trails. There is also a Sonoma wine history museum onsite. Gundlach Bundschu offers refreshing tastes of the German varietal Gewürztraminer, and is also a lovely spot to park for a picnic and mesmerizing sunsets. Francis Ford Coppola Winery founded by the famous director, has a lovely pool and sundeck, complete with cabins for daily rental. There is also a popular restaurant on site as well as a gallery of movie memorabilia. The transporting Ferrari Carano is worth a visit for simply for its Italian villa and gardens.

  • Markets
    Since 1985, The Sonoma Valley Certified Farmers Market has been serving the community year round, right in the town of Sonoma, with nearly 50 vendors every Friday morning from 9 AM-12:30 PM. The most popular seasonal market, during May through November, is the Healdsburg Farmers Market, since 1978. It is one of the area’s largest, with dozens of vendors turning out on Saturday mornings and Wednesday afternoons. Epicurean Connection is great one-stop shopping for local gourmet items.

  • Credit: Fremont Diner

    The retro Fremont Diner satisfies every morning craving from huevos rancheros to fried chicken with waffles. Humble Singletree Café serves breakfast all day, from fluffy omelets to hearty pancakes, and the Creekside Café is open only for breakfast and brunch, serving 14 kinds of benedicts and “malted” waffles. You can also grab a killer sandwich with top notch ingredients at Healdsburg's Dry Creek General Store.

  • Credit: Basque Boulangerie Cafe

    Basque Boulangerie Café is the bakery of choice for bread, pastries, cakes and pies; the owner's family were also bakers in French Basque country. La Michoacana Natural Ice Cream offers over three dozen homemade frozen treats daily, from fruit pops to tequila-flavored ice cream. The Chocolate Cow has been making artisanal chocolates, right in the center of Sonoma’s Plaza, for almost a quarter a century. Their homemade peanut butter cups earn raves. The dessert menu at Jackson’s Bar and Oven in Santa Rosa has some diners skipping out on the savory for delights such as Nutella pizza and adult dessert drinks like the Belushi’s Breakfast, a mix of bourbon, oatmeal stout, espresso and simple syrup with a peanut butter rim.

  • Credit: Buena Vista

    Old School
    Buena Vista Winery is a great stop for oenophile historians. Founded by the count Agoston Haraszthy in 1857, it was California’s first commercial winery, and some tours are even given by an actor portraying the count. For dining, Bistro Ralph has been serving comfort-driven classics such as braised pork osso buco, a lamb burger and a giant “Animal Style” sundae for over 20 years. The Depot, built within a hotel that was opened in 1890, is an atmospheric Mediterranean restaurant and wine bar.

  • Credit: Kunde

    Where to Feel Like You’re On the Set of 'Bottleshock'
    The 1976 wine competition known as the “Judgment of Paris,” when California wine bested the French in a blind tasting, sent shockwaves throughout the industry. The competition inspired the 2008 film Bottleshock, and though the winning wine was from Napa, most of the scenes were shot in Sonoma at the Kunde Family Estate Winery, particularly at the Dunfillan Winery ruins on the property, which date to the late 19th century. (Also fun to note: 80% of the grapes used to make the winning Chardonnay were actually grown in Sonoma County).

  • Credit: Chalkboard

    All graped out? There are a few great cocktail bars that fully embrace the garden-to-glass movement. Just behind the tasting room at small winery Medlock Ames lies the Alexander Valley Bar, the wine country’s answer to a speakeasy, with clever cocktails such as the New Year’s Resolution, a combination of kale, ginger, lemon juice, tequila, mezcal, agave, sea salt and club soda. Chalkboard is the newest addition to the scene, serving up concoctions such as the Smoke and Mirrors, a blend of mezcal, jalapeno, lime and agave. Spirit Works Distillery is an artisan distiller of gin and whiskey with a tasting room and gift shop open to visitors Thursdays-Mondays.

  • Hop Country
    Besides being one of the state's top wine regions, Sonoma is also home to some legendary craft brewers. Russian River Brewing Company produces Belgian-inspired ales, hoppy ales and barrel-aged beers. Taste them at the brewpub where you might also catch some live music. Bear Republic Brewing is a family-owned craft brewery, which makes the popular Racer 5 IPA. There are dozens of beer on tap to sample at the brewpub and full brewery tours are also available.

    The three area Flying Goat Coffee branches are famous for single origin coffees and blends like Espresso no. 9. Hot Shots (711 Broadway, Sonoma) features sells espresso via a drive-through window; Barking Dog Roasters is known for small batch coffee with “more bark, less bite”; and Taylor Maid Farms includes a sustainability-driven coffee and tea bar.

  • Credit: Lodge Sonoma

    Where to Stay

    The Lodge at Sonoma is conveniently located just a stroll away from Sonoma Plaza. The on-site restaurant Carneros Bistro, gains inspiration from its adjacent garden, while the Bean and Bottle doubles as coffee house and wine bar.

    The Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn houses the largest spa in Sonoma, complete with wine-focused treatments. Hotel Healdsburg is chic, colorful and soothing, with a Charlie Palmer restaurant onsite. The upscale Farmhouse Inn is owned and operated by fifth-generation farmers and wine-growers in a building that dates to 19th century.