In the not-too-distant past, the best dinner spot in Healdsburg was a red-sauce Italian joint next to the highway, and the only option for picnic goodies was the Salami Tree Deli. But then Napa got crowded, Sonoma wine developed street cred and a slew of boutique hotels opened up around the town square.
And Healdsburg became seriously about food.
So serious that the tamale truck at the Saturday farmers market features chef-butchered meat. So serious that the town is home to at least four destination restaurants, including one where the cooking is equal parts science fair and Cordon Bleu.
In fact, although Healdsburg sits smack in the middle of three unique wine-growing regions, it’s better known in some circles for its eating and its ideal convergence of locavore sensibilities with Michelin Guide standards. It’s where the Slow Food Movement meets the Wine Spectator, and the only downside is that there aren’t enough meals in a weekend to try everything.
Not that I haven’t made an attempt.
These days, when I come to Healdsburg for a weekend of wine tasting, I bring my bike (amazing how a little riding works up an appetite) and a game plan, honed over five years of thorough research. I still don’t get to try everything, but I do come close. Here, then, is a guide to the best of the best.
Scopa, named after an Italian card game, is housed in a long, narrow space that was once a barber shop. It serves the kinds of dishes your Italian grandmother would cook — if she had her own show on the Food Network. Spicy meatballs with smoked mozzarella. Grilled lamb’s tongue. Nonna’s tomato-braised chicken served over soft polenta. This hip but friendly restaurant (which just made the San Francisco Chronicle’s Top 100 list) is as full of locals as it is with tourists, especially on Winemaker Wednesdays, when a local vintner earning his or her place on the Scopa wine list may be the one taking your order.
Barndiva is as much about the politics as the food. Both are unimpeachable. The diva of Barndiva, Jil Hales, is the force behind Fork & Shovel, a Web-based organization that brings together chefs and farmers online and, eventually, in the kitchens of Sonoma County’s restaurants. The locally sourced menu at Barndiva (yes, it’s a barn, but a barn by way of Dwell magazine) is proof that a small carbon footprint can also be delicious. Do not miss out on the extensive, inventive cocktail menu (a rarity in the wine country). Try the Our Lady of Fatima, made with gin, jasmine and yuzu (an Asian citrus).
The actual definition of heaven just might be spending a warm Sonoma afternoon or evening on the arbor-shaded patio of the Dry Creek Kitchen, where you nibble on the house-made charcuterie (with three kinds of mustard) or the salmon carpaccio decorated with tiny edible flowers. If that’s not enough to propel you into paradise, you’ll find 650 local wines on Dry Creek’s wine list. As with Barndiva, the focus here is on local ingredients. On Saturdays, you’re likely to spot chef Dustin Valette at the Healdsburg Farmers Market, planning that night’s menu, but at DCK, those local ingredients receive a dose of sophistication. Think American Kobe flat-iron steak served with a sunchoke mousseline.
If you find yourself in Healdsburg on a Sunday morning, stop in at the (very popular) Healdsburg Bar & Grill and try the (also very popular) bloody mary bar. This do-it-yourself station has what you need — and more — to make a killer bloody mary, including a bacon-flavored tomato mix that tastes way better than it sounds. Do not leave without sampling the truffle oil French fries.
Here is everything you need to know about Cyrus Restaurant: The Meyer lemon cells that accompany your California caviar service are made by first peeling a Meyer lemon, then blasting it with liquid nitrogen until it freezes, and then shattering it with a hammer. Cyrus is the ultimate restaurant for science geeks. Actually, it’s the ultimate restaurant for everybody. Consider morel and green garlic ravioli with poached bantam egg and parmesan froth. Or hoisin-glazed short rib with tat soi and ginger bone marrow flan. Now, consider that these are just two of the 17 (equally impressive) dishes that are likely to arrive on your table. Cyrus is indeed a splurge. But then eating here isn’t just dinner. It’s an experience.
The doughnut muffins from the Downtown Bakery & Creamery have star status on the Food Network’s “The Best Thing I Ever Ate,” for good reason. Cake-y and cinnamon-y, they combine the best features of a doughnut and a muffin. Time it right, and you can taste them warm from the oven.
If you’re looking to put together a winery picnic, you have two terrific options. For whole roasted chicken, wood-fired pizzas and made-to-order hot and cold sandwiches, stop at Oakville Grocery, where you can also pick up some Cowgirl Creamery cheeses, duck pâte or truffle mousse. If you’re hankering for something a little more down-home (black-eyed pea soup with ham hocks, spicy bread and butter pickles, Mom’s potato salad), head to the Jimtown Store. This re-created 1940s-era cafe also sells sock monkey kits, yoyos and Mexican oilcloth, as well as Tootsie Pops and Bazooka bubblegum.
At some point you’re going to want coffee, and when you do, the only place to go is Flying Goat. This modern but rustic cafe roasts and blends its own coffees. You’ll find the Goat’s Mrs. Garland’s blend (organic, medium dark) in Healdsburg’s top restaurants.
Every Saturday morning from May through November, the Healdsburg Farmers Market sets up one block from the plaza, and seemingly everybody, including local chefs, comes to check out Sonoma’s other crops. And it’s not only Sonoma farmers who set up shop. You’re also likely to see ranchers selling Boer goat meat and ranch-slaughtered lamb. The biggest crowd, however, will be outside the Yucatán Tamales truck. These are no ordinary tacos and tamales. Local chef legend Mateo Granados fills them with fresh rock cod (from the adjacent booth) and spring lamb Granados has slaughtered himself.
Doing it yourself
If all this focus on food inspires you to pick up a knife and julienne something, sign up for a cooking class at Relish Culinary Center. These hands-on classes, which have included “Cooking With Wild Foods,” a “Mozzarella and Mascarpone Workshop,” and “Mastering Sauces,” are as much social events as cooking classes, with everyone sitting down at a long table in Relish’s state-of-the-art kitchen to polish off the fruits of their labor.
Wine with that
If you can’t bear to come to Healdsburg and skip the wine tasting entirely, treat yourself to Seghesio’s Family Table. Instead of doing your tasting standing at the bar, you can do it seated at a table in a private room and accompanied by a sampling of Seghesio family recipes. Ed’s Eggplant alla Parmigiana. Peter’s Penne Pasta. Rachel Ann’s Spring Risotto. And with any luck, while you’re enjoying Rachel Ann’s risotto, Rachel Ann herself (a second-generation member of this now six-generation wine family) will come by and fill you in on a little local winemaking history.
Because every food and wine lover harbors a fantasy of eating dinner in the middle of a vineyard, Relish Culinary Adventures and Quivira Winery host a series of “Farm to Table Dinners.”
Here’s how it works. Arrive at Quivira, pick up your glass of wine, and head off into the organic vegetable beds to pick some strawberries or baby lettuces for dinner. Then, commandeer a cutting board and get started on some appetizers. Or wander over to the pig pen and visit with Ruby, Quivira’s resident feral pig. As the sun starts to dip, take your a seat at the long table set up in the vineyard and enjoy a multi-course dinner (cooked by a guest chef) paired with Quivira wines.
Proof that some fantasies actually are better in real life.