Serving in-the-know locals in an old cottage just one block off the town's main square, Ravenous Cafe & Lounge might not look like much from the outside. And in all the right ways, it isn't. Thank God. This results in required reservations, as drop-in wait times can be long, but it's worth it. With hardwood floors, wrought-iron fixtures, live music on weekends and menus elegantly handwritten in Old World cursive, Ravenous is the rare restaurant that remembers to keep the service helpful, the food fancy but the atmosphere distinctly casual—and that goes double for the patio out back.
With less than 50 seats inside, the back patio's the place that really hops on weekends, with a separate bar where cocktails featuring fruit from a nearby orchard are served to those Healdsburg twenty-somethings with unexplainable reserves of cash flow and hair products. Paper lanterns, wooden tables, wheelbarrows and lattice complement the conversation, snippets of which are far more interesting than at most Michelin-rated restaurants in the area. There's an alley down the side to get to the street without rowing through the sea of people inside the restaurant, and patio diners rarely go ignored by the waitstaff. A perfect respite from starched linens and heightened noses, this one. 420 Center St., Healdsburg. 707.431.1302.—Gabe Meline
There are people who are glad—thrillingly, actually glad—to live in Bakersfield. Dear Reader, I should know—I once lived there. I was never thrillingly actually glad about anything the entire time I was there, but I did grudgingly not dislike the Central Valley's warm summer nights. Healdsburg is, as they say, a different kettle of poisson, a place to be thrilled and actually glad about that also boasts warm summer nights. And one of the best places to enjoy the gentle soot of a soft seasonal dusk is outside in the gravel-crunch goodness of Barndiva's backyard.
There's a sense of largesse to the place that allows such free fantasies as that it's actually owned by very wonderful pals who are lucky enough to be carelessly rich and who would love for you to wander in any time you like and take advantage of their splendid yard because they're in Europe and someone should enjoy it, and certainly their staff would be glad to accommodate you while you visit. The fact that a check is tendered is only a small shock because the food—overseen by chef Ryan Fancher, most recently of Thomas Keller's Per Se—is so splendid and the cocktails so sublime that it only seems right to ensure that the butler gets his usual tip. It is absolutely guaranteed, Dear Reader, that this is not a fantasy anyone would ever actually have in Bakersfield. 231 Center St., Healdsburg. 707.431.0100.—Gretchen Giles
Gott's Roadside Tray Gourmet
You know a place has gone from its humble small-town roots to a bona fide tourist trap when there are Hummer limos and Wine Country tour buses parked out front and a line of khaki-shorts-wearing weekenders 20 deep at the ordering window. But at Taylor's Refresher, which due to some tediously detailed and altogether sad legal wrangling is now called Gott's Roadside Tray Gourmet, the wisps of Chanel No. 5 in the air and the $10 burgers are made far more bearable and down-home by the picnic-style dining out back.
Sure, you can order Napa Valley wine with your bacon cheeseburger. You'll even pick it up served by a sommelier at the special wine bar. And in St. Helena, you can take that wine out back to where there's a nice swath of lawn and tables, and inhale a calming, deep breath. Sit facing the trees if you want solitude. Sit facing the burger stand if you want some seriously funny people-watching. Wash your sweet potato fries down with Pinot Noir and be glad that a place like this still exists—no matter how many people know about it. 933 Main St., St. Helena. 707.963.3486. Also at Oxbow, 644 First St., Napa. 707.224.6900. —G.M.
Panama Hotel & Restaurant
Located at the edge of downtown, the Panama is a quick escape for a fun lunch. Spacious yet cozy with a canopy of table umbrellas and well-nurtured greenery that protects diners, the patio oozes old-town sweetness. The odd collection of sun hats hanging along the fence (some of which closely resemble props from the Golden Girls' green room) are readily available for customers to use in shielding away any summer rays that might creep through.
The fun atmosphere created by the unique, inviting quirkiness of the scene, and Kelly, the most outgoing, entertaining and efficient server-bartender in the North Bay, are only surpassed by the fact that the Panama Hotel Restaurant also hosts a "yappy hour" specifically for dog owners. Each week, Tuesday–Friday, from 2pm to 6pm, pet owners can head on down to the Panama's front porch, get $2 off a glass of wine and feed the pooches free dog treats. Weird, I know. But also totally awesome. 4 Bayview St., San Rafael. 415.457.3993. —Dani Burlison
Everything about Fish is difficult. Even with the reassuring instructions of a Tom-Tom GPS system, it's a maze of "Is that the turn?" puzzles just getting to this spot adjacent to a small Sausalito marina. Patrons must wait in a permanently long line to place their order. The place only takes cash. And lastly, there's the worry of grabbing a table. In the winter, the choicest spot is right next to the wood-burning stove; any other time of year, it's the picnic tables outside. There, the hungry buzz the sated, waiting for the tiniest signal—women reapplying lipstick, men lazily crumpling napkins, toddlers circuiting the deck—that a table might soon open. The pounce is often ugly, a tangle of strollers and back-pushing chairs colliding with long legs eager to step instantly in.
Everything about Fish is rewarding. Once one has triumphantly secured a spot on the deck, it finally dawns: I'm in Sausalito. Sitting outside. Eating the best, freshest, most sustainably caught seafood available. Revelation is followed by the nonsensical poetry of pleasure: ceviche, how I love thee, ceviche! Poetry is followed by ease: look at that boat, isn't the sky blue, gosh the sun feels good, boy this is a nice place, we should come here again, did you have any trouble finding it, neither did I, weren't we lucky to get this table, isn't the staff great, man, my lobster roll is buttery. And of course, the final return to humanity: sheesh can't they wait, we'll be done in a second, yes this table is taken, let's get out of here, I can't wait to come back. 350 Harbor Drive, Sausalito. 415.331.3474.—G.G.