This post is long overdue, but I just couldn’t write about food until now. First, we overindulged during the holidays. Then, we started our healthy “cleanse diet” from Bon Appetít magazine. So, I didn’t want to think about all of those great meals I was missing. Now, after a small break, I’m ready to revisit some special food spots in Sonoma.
I don’t claim to be a food critic or a gourmet, but after checking with Wikipedia, I do qualify as a foodie. According to their definition, “… foodies are amateurs who simply love food for consumption, study, preparation, and news.” One can find plenty of great food for consumption in Sonoma, along with an excellent selection of wines. Even though we lived here for over fifteen years, we didn’t find the time to try every restaurant in the valley. However, the ones mentioned in this blog were visited many more than one time, so I hope you find the descriptions helpful.
Along the plaza there’s a great selection of small cafes and restaurants. For a morning coffee and bakery items, there’s Basque Boulangerie, El Dorado Kitchen or the Sunflower Cafe. The Basque Boulangerie (close to the Sebastiani Theatre) has limited seating, but some nice outdoor tables. Even if there’s a line, the service is fast and the coffee and food are worth the wait. They also serve a light lunch with daily specials. Don’t misss out on their excellent bread, made fresh on the premises. The El Dorado Kitchen has a cosy corner location for a quick coffee and a bakery item. They also provide free wifi. But if you want to have a bit more for breakfast, the Sunflower Café is a great choice. Besides dining alfresco along the street, you can find a beautiful garden patio in the back. Their coffee and espressos are excellent and besides the tasty bakery items, they offer egg dishes and an amazing Belgium Waffle with real maple syrup. This is also a good spot for lunch.
Several blocks north of the plaza are two worthy morning options. The Community Cafe is a fun eatery on Highway 12 past the public library. It’s more like a diner with fresh and local ingredients. Try their breakfast burrito or any of their specials. This is a spot to sit down, relax and have a full and satisfying breakfast. Across the street is a delicious bakery for those who prefer a lighter (and sweeter) menu. Their amazing muffins and scones are worth a stop. They also make excellent espresso drinks and provide some tables to sit and enjoy your treats.
If you’re on the plaza at lunch time, you have even more choices. Maya restaurant is a fun and casual restaurant with Mexican food and a full bar. They serve an excellent tortilla soup and an eclectic mix of Mayan cuisine using local ingredients. They are also open for dinner, which I prefer because I can sample a truly authentic Margarita (get it on the rocks) or tasty Sangria. It can get quite noisy during Happy Hour, but in the warmer months, they provide a few outdoor tables.
Most travelers don’t venture far from the plaza and miss the best pizza in town at The Red Grape. We hardly ever miss a chance to eat there when we visit Sonoma. It’s located one block off the plaza on First Street West. This is a great spot for lunch or dinner. Their signature dish is thin crust pizza with a wide assortment of fresh toppings and two choices for sauces. But they also have tasty soups, sandwiches and pasta. If the weather is nice, sit out in the garden patio and enjoy a glass of wine or a local beer from their handpicked list.
If you’re planning an outing and need something quick and portable, try the panini at the Sonoma Market on West Napa Street. This family owned market is a foodie’s paradise. The deli can grill your panini (it’s actually a panino if you get only one) while you check out the fresh produce, salad bar, fresh olives and artisanal cheeses. This is also a great place to find local breads (Artisan Bakery is our favorite) and a wide selection of beers & wines. They usually have a wine expert to help you with your selections. Along Napa Street you can also find a Safeway store and Whole Foods, but don’t miss out on this fun, local market.
When it’s time to splurge for fine dining, Sonoma has plenty to offer. The Swiss Hotel (on the Plaza) is a traditional favorite with locals and travelers alike. If you have time, try their Happy Hour where you can join the regulars who socialize and people watch at the outdoor tables. Inside you’ll find a cosy dining room with delicious standards, like their Polenta and Sausage dish or Rosemary Chicken. They’re also open for lunch.
Just one west is the El Dorado Kitchen on the corner. It’s also a good choice for Happy Hour or a nice meal. Their interior patio is a delightful place to enjoy lunch or a summer dinner. This restaurant also has a large dining room, so it’s a great location for larger groups.
Harvest Moon Cafe, is a much smaller venue with an excellent menu featuring fresh and local fare. It feels like a French Bistro and offers unique and creative dishes. They also have an excellent wine selection, of course.
If you’re craving Italian cuisine, Della Santina’s Trattoria is a lovely spot just a short half-block from the plaza on East Napa Street. This would be a nice splurge for lunch or dinner. Two generations of the Santina family have been providing delicious cuisine and a warm welcome for over 20 years. The dining room is small and cosy, with a warm fire in the winter. But they also have a beautiful patio in the back, with Wisteria & lush vines. Unlike the Pacific Northwest, Sonoma restaurants can provide patio dining almost year-round, so take advantage of it!
Across the street is one of Sonoma’s finest restaurants, Cafe Le Haye. You will definitely have to make a reservation for this local favorite. The food is exceptional and the service is always excellent. It’s rather small, but cosy and fun. You can even elect to sit at the bar and watch the kitchen at work.
One more gem I have to mention is The Taste of the Himalayas Restaurant in the courtyard just before the Sebastiani Theatre. This tiny cafe offers wonderful Indian cuisine that won’t break the bank. The small dining room extends out into the courtyard that is shared with small shops and Murphy’s Pub, a fun venue for music. If you’re craving a more spicy and exotic menu, this is the spot.
Moving away from the town center are several restaurants worth finding. I’ll start with the furthest one first−El Molino Central on Highway 12 near the famous Fairmont Hotel. This small and very casual restaurant offers the best tamales you might find outside of Mexico! They also make a wonderful chilaquiles dish and excellent enchiladas (some, with Mole Sauce). The owner is dedicated to fine regional Mexican cuisine that the Diana Kennedy cookbooks promote. They source their cornmeal from Nebraska and make fresh, stone-ground tortillas daily. You can get take-out or sit in the fun patio in the back. Don’t miss this one.
On Highway 12 heading back to town is Hot Box Grill, another, new and trendy spot for Sonoma. The farm to table menu and reasonable prices make this restaurant a local’s favorite. Because it’s so small, you should make reservations, even during the slower seasons. It doesn’t look like much from the exterior, but once you get inside and see the food, you’ll know why it’s packed with happy diners.
I know I’ve left out someone’s favorite spot, but this list should keep you busy for a while. I provided links on my restaurant pages, so you can check out their seasonal menus. Whether you seek casual or elegant dining—fast or slow food, craft beers or local wines, you can find it all in Sonoma. But unlike its lively neighbor, San Francisco, don’t expect to start your evening after 9 p.m. This town goes to bed early.