When your three top talents are eating, sleeping, and criticizing, your career options are pretty limited, so it’s a good thing that I ended up being a travel writer. But it’s the eating for a living that I enjoy the most. That, and being able to share my finds with fellow food lovers. Lately I’ve been tooling around Sonoma County on a never-ending quest for the perfect hamburger (as noble a pursuit as any in my opinion), revisiting some my restaurant favorites and discovering a few new gems that I’d like to share with you.
River’s End: Established in 1927, this unpretentious yet urbane seaside restaurant offers a rugged yet romantic setting with big windows overlooking the coast and sunset views to swoon over. It’s owned and operated by Bert Rangel, whose passion for local Sonoma products is only equaled by his desire to make sure all of his guests are having a wonderful dining experience (you’ll love this guy).
Bert’s eclectic menu offers everything from filet mignon to wild halibut, seared duck, and Dungeness crab (in season)—all sourced from local farms, seas, and ranches whenever possible. And his wine list is so comprehensive it’s a recipient of Wine Spectators’ “Award of Excellence”. Bert also rents four cottages on his property, but if those are full try the Timber Cove Inn up the highway a bit. Either way, River’s End is an original way to spend a romantic coastal getaway. 707/865-2484, ext. 111
My favorites places to dine in Bodega Bay aren’t even restaurants, but two little roadside shacks that most tourists overlook. The first is called Island Style Deli (707/875-8881) at Lucas Wharf, located right next to the Lucas Wharf Restaurant at the south end of Bodega Bay. It’s gone through several names changes over the past two decades, but that little deli still cranks out the best fish-n-chips I’ve ever had, made from caught-that-day fish brought in straight from the wharf.
My other favorite is the Spud Point Crab Company (707/875-9472), a tiny take-out shop on the road to Bodega Head. I’m going to start an argument here and claim that they make the best clam chowder in California (and people, I’ve tasted a lot of clam chowders). Everything’s made on-premises here, including their smoked salmon and crab cakes.
Since it’s whale watching season right now, it’s great excuse to take a getaway to Bodega Head (a prime whale watching spot), then stop by Spud Point on the way for some chowder and Lucas Wharf on the way back for some fish-n-chips.
Cape Fear Cafe: Okay people, I’m letting you in on one of my top dining secrets in California. In a town you’ve never heard of—Duncans Mills, located a few miles inland from Highway 1 near Jenner—is a cafe you’ve never been to called Cape Fear Cafe. It’s so damn cute and the service so friendly that it almost seems fake, like a movie set from On Golden Pond.
I discovered the Cape Fear Cafe on a motorcycle trip about 10 years ago and having been making regular day-trips there from Mill Valley just for breakfast—it’s that good (their Savannah Banana Waffle with toasted pecans, maple syrup, and molasses butter will slay you). The cafe is open for lunch, dinner, and brunch as well. 707/865-9246
The Farmhouse Restaurant: The Farmhouse Inn, located in tiny rural town called Forestville, may be more famous for its destination restaurant than its gorgeous guestrooms. Run by fourth-generation Forestville locals Joe and his sister Catherine Bartolomei—two of the nicest hosts in the hospitality business—The Farmhouse is the kind of place that regularly graces the pages of Travel + Leisure, Bon Appetite, and Conde Nast.
The inn’s restaurant is romantically situated in a restored farmhouse surrounded by private guest cottages. I was fortunate enough to dine here a few weeks ago and absolutely loved it, particularly Chef Steve Litke’s Pasta con Carciofi (a parmesan cheese fondue with wild mushrooms and artichoke) and his signature dish, Rabbit Rabbit Rabbit (rabbit served three ways). If a weekend of romance, relaxation, and fantastic food and wine sounds good to you, give Joe or Catherine a call and them Matthew Poole says hello. 800/464-6642
I have two top picks for Santa Rosa restaurants: John Ash & Co., a Santa Rosa sensation founded by Wine Country cuisine guru John Ash, and Hana Japanese Restaurant, and humble little restaurant located in a strip mall in Santa Rosa suburb of Rohnert Park that serves the best sushi in Northern California. If a serene dining room with cream-colored walls, tall French windows, a crackling fire, expert service, the finest of wines, and fabulous Wine Country cuisine is what you seek, John Ash & Co. delivers. And since it’s part of the Vintner’s Inn, it makes for an easy (and romantic) overnight getaway. 707/527-7687
Hana, however, is a completely different experience. What it lacks in its almost motel-style décor, it more than makes up for with mind-blowing raw and cooked fish dishes and astoundingly beautiful presentations created by chef-owner Ken Tominaga. It’s Ken’s specials that make finding this place worth the effort—divine creations such as foie gras with unagi, sea-urchin egg custard, ahi poke, and octopus salad. For the sushi experience of your life, ask him to lead the way, but be sure to tell him up front how much you want to spend. 707/586-0270
Glen Ellen Inn Oyster Grill & Martini Bar: Christian and Karen Bertrand have made this place so quaint and cozy that you feel as if you’re dining in their home, and that’s exactly the place’s charm. Garden seating is the favored choice on sunny days, but the covered, heated patio is also always welcoming. Courses from Christian’s open kitchen are exotic—think ginger tempura calamari with wasabi or grilled salmon with blood oranges, watercress, and lemon aioli. Their eponymous oyster grill and martini bar (my preferred place to sit) offers half-size martinis (genius!) and oysters any way you want ‘em. 707/996-6409
Kenwood Restaurant & Bar: This is what Wine Country dining should be. From the terrace of the Kenwood Restaurant, diners enjoy a view of the vineyards set against Sugarloaf Ridge as they imbibe Sonoma’s finest at umbrella-covered tables. On nippy days, you can retreat inside to the Sonoma-style roadhouse, with its vibrant artwork and cushioned rattan chairs at white cloth–covered tables. Regardless, the cuisine is perfectly balanced between tradition and innovation, complemented by a reasonably priced wine list. But the Kenwood doesn’t take itself too seriously: Great sandwiches and burgers are also available. 707/833-6326
For more about epicurean adventures throughout Northern California, log on to www.localgetaways.com, where you can find hundreds of other local travel tips and the best local travel deals around.