Sonoma Dining Guide

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girlfig.JPGBy Deirdre Bourdet

Sonoma Valley boasts dozens and dozens of restaurants, from tiny holes in the wall to luxurious palaces.  Where to go depends entirely on the kind of ambience and sustenance you're craving.  Here are some suggestions that may speak to your mood next time you're in the area.

The Depot Hotel.  For old-school Italian nostalgia, you must go to the Depot Hotel.  The 19th Century plumstone building is only two blocks off the Sonoma square, but feels sixty years away with its circa 1950s time capsule dining room and outdoor terrace, with fountain and reflecting pool.   Rest assured, however, that the cuisine has evolved since the 1950s.  Chef-owner Michael Ghilarducci is now joined in the kitchen by his son, Antonio, who has worked at such places as The French Laundry, La Folie in San Francisco, Angele in Napa, and El Dorado Kitchen down the street.  The finest local ingredients are prepared in true Italian style--simply, deliciously, and with a minimum of fuss.  The kitchen produces its own pastas, fresh ricotta, and salumi, and also offers regional cooking classes at its Scuola Rustica.  This month is Summer Sardinian Grilling, offered July 26 and 27th.
carnerosbistro.jpgThe Carneros Bistro and Wine Bar.  Unlike the Depot Hotel, Carneros Bistro is actually situated in a hotel--the tasteful and luxurious Lodge  at Sonoma, which is located on Broadway about a mile south from the Sonoma square.  Contemporary and urbane ambience pair with elegant preparations of punchy local ingredients--really, the essence of wine country cuisine.  Chef Janine Falvo also does wine maker dinners and other themed events throughout the year, as well as a weekly Sunday supper, and expansive brunch.  Monday is locals' night, with no corkage; Tuesday at 5:30, the sommelier introduces some of his favorite finds in Grapes to Glass educational tastings outside by the firepit (free); and Thursday is Celebrity Wine Bartender night, when local owners or winemakers take a tour behind the wine bar and talk about their delicious work.

eggpizza.jpgEl Dorado Kitchen.  Another hotel restaurant?? Yes.  The swanky El Dorado Hotel anchors the northwestern corner of the Sonoma plaza, offering a modern oasis of style and luxury to all who pass through its doors.  The restaurant kitchen excels at turning local ingredients into gorgeous, perfectly-executed, and soul-satisfying dishes.  Do NOT miss the epic ham and egg brunch pizza if you are there at the appropriate time--there is no finer cure for morning-after ravening.  In extreme weather, sit inside at the bar or at the enormous 21-foot communal table fashioned out of a single plank from an abandoned bridge.  If the sun is shining more favorably, nab a table in the garden courtyard which caters to both sun-worshippers and shade seekers, and offers private dining cabanas to those who absolutely must be alone. When seated beneath the canopy of the enormous fig tree, keep an eye out for falling fruit--the fugitive figs are very tasty, but can be treacherous to the unwary.  If a quick bite is all you need, step into the Kitchenette just off the main lobby, where ex-French Laundry and Bouchon Bakery pastry master Octavio Alcantar whips up 5-star baked goods, sandwiches, and snacks.

lasalette.jpgLa Salette.  If you're looking for a more familial welcome, step into the Old-World warmth of La Salette on the eastern side of the square.  The Portuguese names on the menu may sound unfamiliar, but don't be intimidated--the flavors are ancient, primal, and satisfying.  Chef Manuel Azevedo is also one of the few wine country chefs to feature an extensive selection of seafood, so be sure to try the whole roast fish, traditional bacalau, scallops, or fresh sardines.

the girl & the fig.  This casual little restaurant on the northwest corner of the plaza is one of the most famous in Sonoma, and for good reason.  Rustic southern French cooking meets Sonoma farm ingredients, in a comfortable and tasty Franglais that is guaranteed to please.  The antique bar pours classic cocktails from France and America, as well as the Rhone and Rhone-style wines dearest to owner Sondra Bernstein's heart.

Estate_3[1].jpgEstate.  Sondra Bernstein's newest restaurant to the west of the plaza ventures into Italy for its inspiration and soul.  Sit out on the terrace and enjoy the ultra-fresh garden antipasti, pizzas, pastas, and Italian beverages.  The weekly-changing Cena di Famiglia is one of the best (and healthiest!) deals in town: $26 per person scores a copious four-course family-style dinner prepared with seasonal meats, seafood, and plenty of veggies from the restaurant gardens.

Sunflower Caffe.  Follow the locals into this minuscule café storefront (which is also California Historic Landmark #501--Salvador Vallejo's home), and emerge moments later in one of the best-kept secret gardens in Sonoma.  The outdoor bar, terraced shade seating, and refreshing lack of crowds are a godsend.  Come during happy hour for $2 beers and $4 wines to appreciate this local treasure even more.

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I haven't eaten at all of these restaurants, but heartily agree with your recommendation for A Girl and a Fig. Their hamburgers are the best I've had anywhere! It's a great restaurant with lots of food choices.

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