The first time I had dinner at the Spinster Sisters the place was half full, but filled up rapidly. The second time, the restaurant was packed and I had to wait 10 minutes or so for a table. The next time I go, I expect there'll be a line around the block to get in. And I'll happily wait. You get my point: the Spinster Sisters has got it going on.
The five-week-old restaurant is easily the most exciting to open in Santa Rosa this year. Right out of the gate the place was a hit, and it's easy to see why.
Visually, the restaurant is a stunner. Set in a long, brick-colored building in the elbow crook formed by highways 12 and 101 on artsy South A Street, the restaurant brings some big-city good looks to the little neighborhood. A tall grid of paned windows allows light to pour in and play off the gorgeous square bar, the focal point of the restaurant, topped with enormous 14-foot slabs of polished, century-old redwood.
"We wanted a bar where people could look at each other," says partner and general manager Giovanni Cerrone. "A watering hole."
A banquette and a group table are also made from single specimens of redwood. The two-top wooden tables around the bar are custom-made as well, complementing the bar tops. The tables were repurposed from the old doors in a former therapy office the new owners inherited when they took over the building. (Those hard surfaces look great, but they can make for a noisy dining room when the place is full, which is often.)
Big, bare bulb lamps encased in thick glass hang overhead. Two exposed concrete walls add a rough but urbane look. The aesthetic idea was to strip away the years, let the building show its age, and celebrate an area that before the freeway divided the town was once a major crossroads in Sonoma County.
"We were eager to see Santa Rosa in that light," Cerrone says. "It's interesting to see people rediscover this neighborhood, many of whom didn't even know it existed."
Rows of moody animal portraits painted by local artist Hillary Younglove give the place a gallery feel, a natural fit for a neighborhood with several art galleries; look for more artists to grace the walls in the months to come.
All that artistry and style, of course, is just a backdrop for the food. The reasonably priced menu is nearly pitch-perfect, upscale American food with a few global accents. The list of starters and bar bites is the Spinster Sister's strongest suit. Given the 49-seat restaurant's appealing list of local wines and beers on tap, Liza Hinman (former chef at the late Santi) probably figured many guests would just want a few small plates to share as they linger over a glass of wine. If you're looking for a full meal, well, they can do that, too.
Hinman's partners are Eric Anderson, a Santa Rosa native and founding partner at the East Village's celebrated Prune restaurant, and Cerrone, a wine-and beverage-industry pro.
By all means start with a bowl of the lime-, chile- and sea-salt-roasted-garbanzo beans ($5). The beans are served green and in the pod, like edamame. It takes a little practice to figure out how to pop them open, but the salty, sour and spicy flavors make them compulsively edible.
And you'll probably want a few orders of the kimchi and bacon deviled eggs ($3). Bacon, of course, makes everything taste better, but the tang of the kimchi adds a bright, acidic note to the richness of the egg yolks and bacon. The Kennebec fries ($6) with "SOFA" sauce (creamy, faintly sweet sauce named after the South A Street arts district) are hard to beat, too.
For something a little more substantial but shy of an entrée, the merguez sausage paired with a yogurt and red quinoa salad ($13) is good, as is the grilled calamari ($10) matched with a cabbage and zucchini salad that's splashed with nuoc cham, a classic Vietnamese fish-based dipping sauce and table condiment.
Kale salads have threatened to break the beet-and-goat-cheese monopoly on NorCal menus, and the Sisters takes theirs ($9) in a fresh direction with the addition of Point Reyes Blue cheese, hardboiled egg, a mustard vinaigrette and croutons made from Pugliese bread. It's a big-flavored, hearty salad.
The only small dish that missed was the smoked trout dip with bagel chips ($8). The abundance of cream cheese overwhelmed the delicate flavor of the trout. More trout. Less cheese.
On my visits, there were only three choices for entrées. The clear winners were the grilled king salmon ($20) and hangar steak ($21). It's been a great year for salmon, and the kitchen did the fish justice, cooking it just this side of pink along with a white bean succotash and a dollop of mint and basil salsa verde. It's a delicious late-summer dish. The hangar steak was well charred but supremely tender and rosy inside. A roasted corn cake and tomato and avocado salad rounded things out.
I was less impressed with the pan-fried chicken thighs that came with grilled nectarines, white beans and arugula ($16). I appreciate simply prepared food, but this was too simple, just a boneless thigh fried in a pan with a light sprinkling of flour, salt and pepper. I wanted a little something more (herbs? sauce?) and felt I could make something better at home.
The restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch and, on weekends, brunch. I came in for lunch and had a great pork belly, lettuce and tomato sandwich on toasted wheat bread and housemade pickles ($11). It's a grander, porkier take on a BLT, and was excellent, as was my plate of olive oil and flaky Maldon-sea-salt-sprinkled heirloom tomatoes ($7).
For something sweet, the chocolate pot de crème ($7.50) is what you want. The creamy chocolate is dense enough to bend a spoon and uncommonly rich and delicious. Less stellar is the blackberry and peach tart with vanilla ice cream ($7.50) with its rather soggy crust.
As for the restaurant's name, it's a nod to the 1920s-era building's past. It once housed the Canevari deli and grocery. Two of the family's unmarried daughters reportedly lived in the apartments above, giving the current occupants inspiration for the "spinster" name.
The new owners have breathed new life into the building, and created something the old maids would hardly recognize in the nearly 100-year-old building: the coolest restaurant in Santa Rosa.