The first rule when entertaining out-of-towners in Healdsburg is to take them to the little wine shop in Healdsburg called Prohibition. Show them inside the phone booth in the corner, tell them to lean against the left wall, and watch as they tumble into a hidden speakeasy tucked behind the storefront. Just like that, an instant story for them to tell friends back home! In fact, the concept is so cute that it's easy to overlook the tasting room's shortcomings as an authentic 1930s "speakeasy"—i.e., no hard liquor, the flat-screen TVs on the walls, the bartender who couldn't gruffly bark at overindulging patrons if he tried—and to focus instead on the place's best feature: the Bubbles LaRue.
A Champagne cocktail poured over a raspberry-tinged cube of sugar, the Bubbles LaRue is the other story your visiting relatives can tell townsfolk back in Des Moines. Fruity, tasty and with bubbles going straight to one's head, it's not a flask of bathtub gin, that's for sure. But it's a quick, fun drink to grab after one of those high-class Healdsburg dinners that leave tourists just wandering around the city, looking for more kicks. 340 Healdsburg Ave., Healdsburg. 707.473.9463.—Gabe Meline
Barley & Hops
Climbing over the hills, along the coast and through the woods of western Sonoma County—by bike, on foot or even in a motor vehicle—often results in fatigue and always causes a deep and serious hunger that cold, lifeless plastic-wrapped energy bars and mere water never fully satisfies. For me, Barley and Hops holds the carrot at the end of my cycling training stick: the Chris Woods burger. This burger is the most delicious, juicy, makes-your-stomach-sing-with-fricken-joy meaty goodness in the world. Cradled carefully inside a soft herbed onion roll, smeared lovingly with Barley and Hops own secret-recipe "Beer-B-Q" sauce and topped with melted smoked cheddar and heavenly slices of applewood smoked bacon—what could be better? Served with perfectly textured hot, crisp fries and a side of cole slaw, this power-protein delight is even better when washed down with a Lagunitas IPA—one of 50 brews available—while seated at the tall bar table next to the breezy open windows immediately to the right of the front door. Tip: Don't eat before an outdoor adventure and don't expect to move quickly or ride a bike more than five miles after this meal. 3688 Bohemian Hwy., Occidental. 707.874.9037.—Dani Burlison
I eat meat like a ravenous lion in the jungle, but one thing I can't stand is restaurants that don't have squat for my vegetarian and vegan friends. How many times can you accompany your meat-eating friends to a restaurant before you get sick to death of eggplant parmigiana, usually the only vegetarian thing on the menu? Or a caesar salad with . . . oh, wait, that has cheese and anchovy in it. And then the inevitable second-guessing comes: "You do eat fish, though, right? You mean you don't eat fish?"
My friends who definitely don't eat fish, thank you very much, have especially been drawn to Goji Kitchen. There, in a strip-mall location they're sure to outgrow, the owners serve up Asian-fusion entrées with fresh and healthful ingredients. No MSG, no microwaves and, much to my friends' delight, the only vegan pho in town. That's right—all those other places use chicken stock, while Goji uses various herbs and spices, cloves among them, to flavor their pho. Me? I had the five-spice chicken, which is incredible, and anytime I get invited out to dinner here with the vegan crew, I'm more than happy to come along and revel in their giddy, relieved excitement. To hell with eggplant parmigiana. 1965 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa. 707.523.3888.—G.M.
Having been a nurse for 22 years, Beth Thorp lavishes the same amount of passion and TLC on her Nightingale Breads as she did on her former patients. When a space in Forestville became available, she changed careers and opened a boulangerie, which serves traditional, classic French-style European breads. Named in honor of her former career, all things about this spot exude warmth. A huge wood-burning oven dominates the room, which is painted in brick reds, mellow golds and olive greens.
Thorp feeds the oven with oak and madrone wood, using about one cord per month. Her breads are made with all organic flours, seeds and grains, and are either hearth-baked for a crusty finish or in a convection oven for a softer crust.
The store does not sell pastries or coffee, and does not bill itself as a cafe. A small refrigerated case holds Redwood Hill cheese, Petaluma Farms butter and Gabriel Farm Asian pear jam, made in Graton. I buy three loaves of the still warm bread, neatly wrapped in brown paper. The mini sourdough baguette, crusty brown on the outside and deliciously, pillowy white on the inside, is left unwrapped, and by the time I reach the car, it's gone. 6665 Front St. (Highway 116), Forestville. 707.887.8887.—Suzanne Daly
Mill Valley Beer Works
The latest addition to charming central Mill Valley's night scene is Mill Valley Beer Works. Tucked at the end of downtown's Throckmorton Avenue, the brewery and beer cafe opened its doors two months ago with an eclectic and elaborate list of tasty alcoholic and nonalcoholic treats. Along with on-tap pub favorites like Old Speckled Hen and Big Eye IPA, Mill Valley Beer Works offers bottle upon bottle of stouts, Belgian brews, barley wines and lambics, and will be soon adding its own house-brewed thirst-quenchers to the menu. The designated driver in the group can choose from ginger beer and dandelion or burdock soda pop, as well as a variety of more familiar sodas.
Consisting of just four simple items, the food menu is an easy document to navigate. There is a pretzel, a mixed crostini, sandwich of the day or, my current obsession, the $15 cheese and charcuterie plate. The choice is quick and painless, leaving time to admire the clean, raw elegance of the unpolished blonde wood bar and tables, low-hanging clear glass light bulbs and, of course, the boyishly cute and charmingly hip bartenders who are happy to share samples of the unusual and fun variety of beers on tap.
Noshing on crusty bread, Fiscalini bandaged cheddar and paper-thin, melt-in-your mouth Creminelli sopressata with a pint of IPA in hand while old-timey bluegrass weaves through the air and around the plain glass vases bursting with bouquets of dry wheat is an excellent way to spend a weeknight with friends. 173 Throckmorton Ave, Mill Valley. www.millvalleybeerworks.com.—D.B.
I got a filling this morning at the dentist. The drill reverberated through my skull, my numb cheeks dripped with drool and Sheryl Crow sloshed out of the speakers. In other words, it was torture, but I'm seasoned enough to close my eyes and zone out to my "happy place" easily. This morning, that happy place was Woodhouse Chocolate. With the chemical cherry-flavored gunk against my gums and the rank smoke rising from my mouth, I daydreamed of walking into Woodhouse's calming storefront, beneath the elegant chandeliers and high-ceiling crown molding, approaching the display counter and saying, "I'll have one amaretto almond, please."
Naturally, there are other chocolates at Woodhouse, all made on-site, all hypnotically sublime. Also, picking them out is a truly deluxe experience, with girls behind the glass counters wearing white gloves and delicately assembling an assorted dozen into a Tiffany's-style aqua-blue box and wrapping it up with a ribbon. But the amaretto almond has an especially lovely, slow-melting wallop. A solitary chocolate-dipped almond, surrounded by amaretto-flavored ganache and housed in a milk chocolate shell, it's the reason I always try to find parking every time I'm in St. Helena. Yeah, it's probably the source of the filling I got this morning. But you know what? I'll gladly go on record to say to the whole world—and even my dentist—that it's worth it. 1367 Main St., St. Helena. 707.963.8413.—G.M.
There is a little wrinkled man, older than time itself, who works in the kitchen at Stark's Steakhouse. No one knows his real name, but the cooks call him Cleve—short for Cleveland, where he's said to have been hired at a top-secret restaurateurs' convention by chef-owner Mark Stark. Rumors fly about the amount Stark paid for the first-round pick of the curious old little man, and no figure cited so far seems too high for what the little man provides. The little man makes exactly one dish. That dish is bread.
Churning out his incredible bread in a cast-iron skillet, the little man drizzles garlic herb butter over every fresh-baked little loaf and sends it out to the dining room with full cognizance that he is changing lives. He has been doing this for decades. No one knows why. Some say he killed a man once and he's been on the lam ever since, perfecting this one small, flawless thing. Every once in a while—not often—he'll poke his head out to enjoy diners' reactions: the gigantic eyes, the pointing fingers, the fast, obsessive devouring. "Would you like more bread?" the servers ask. Only the insane say no. 521 Adams St., Santa Rosa. 707.546.5100.—G.M.
The unfortunately higher-than-it-used-to-be number in the "W" column of the patch on the back of my Levi's 501s can attest to the fact that I love me some ice cream. So much that I forgive the incessant ding-dongy version of "The Entertainer" that I hear every afternoon from the ice cream truck. So much that I'll take long walks to the only store open after 10pm to buy ice cream, even though I know they only have strawberry because I walked there for ice cream last night, too. So much that when my wife got pregnant, I was thrilled—sure, for the baby on the way, but also for the ice cream I'd get to stockpile in the freezer to satiate her prenatal cravings. (She never got them. I stockpiled that shit anyway.)
The long and short of it is that I've pounded the beat far and wide, and the best ice cream around is not ice cream at all, but gelato—Fiorello's Gelato, that is, and if former New York City mayor LaGuardia were alive today he'd be proud as hell to have his name attached to such divinity. Made in San Rafael and packaged in a plain white generic tub, the stuff inside is creamy, smooth and not for your fly-by-night ice cream consumer. This is the serious stuff, with a serious price tag. Sometimes I'd drive to Traverso's just for a pint of vanilla. Then it started popping up at other area markets in the North Bay. Finally, earlier this year, Whole Foods picked it up, and the secret is out. So is my waistline. 3100 Kerner Blvd., San Rafael. 415.459.8004.—G.M.
Highland Dell Lodge
It's a beautiful day in Monte Rio, and we have equally lovely plans for the night. After hours of heating up in the sun and cooling down with a swim in the Russian River, we mosey on over to the Highland Dell Lodge, the grand dame of a hotel and restaurant, in business since 1906. The building has retained its original chalet charm since the early glory days of river life, but in 2006 was completely renovated and upgraded technologically to accommodate its customers and the many bands that play there.
The ample parking lot across the street accommodates the crowd that soon gathers inside. Seated at a table on the deck overlooking the redwoods and the river, we admire the spectacular, west-facing view and watch kayakers make their way slowly past a great blue heron to the hotel's private dock. We choose a cold artisan brew from the wide variety on tap and crispy potato pancakes with homemade applesauce, one of the many German specialties on the menu. While enjoying the sun's last rays, we watch as a river of folks stream into the high-beamed room, filling the tables surrounding the stage and dance floor. We wait in anticipation for the concert that takes place inside, fittingly: It's a Beautiful Day. And that makes for a beautiful night. Highland Dell Lodge, 21050 River Blvd., Monte Rio. 707.865.2300. It's a Beautiful Day play the Highland Dell again on Sept. 3.—S.D.
North Light Books & Cafe
The taste of childhood comes in neat little packages, bites of life that have somehow been preserved despite the passage of time. Digging into a fresh tortilla graced with melted cheese is like coming inside from the snow to defrost in front of a fire with Jack the dog. With a forkful and a sip of lemonade, you are transported back to when little things like this were all that mattered. The cheese is at the most perfect stage of meltiness, and mixed with the chipotle-sour cream dip, it tastes like adventuring away from home on a hot summer day, drawn toward mysterious music and a strange spring. The floury tortilla provides cool respite from the sun, that special treat won like Turkish delight, with the pride of gaining approval. Each bite is another friend, a character from a beloved book devoured in a patch of sun.
You can't exactly have a picnic in the halls of your old high school, but you can sit down at North Light and rediscover your seven- or 17-year-old self in a quesadilla, even if the book beside you has gone from Ann M. Martin to Anna Karenina. 550 E. Cotati Ave., Cotati. 707.792.4300.—Justine McDaniel
Before the crêpes hook you, the charm will. Bubbling over with French bistro ambiance, Rendezvous Bistro recreates a European cafe complete with a mosaic tile floor, ornate décor and delicate round tables for two. Rendezvous offers sandwiches, salads and sweets, but its main attraction are the savory crêpes. Each variation bears a girl's name such as Margot, Laetitia and Gabrielle, but Isabelle is the sweetest—er, most savory—of all.
Served with a salad, the Isabelle ($11.95) includes grilled marinated chicken, goat cheese, caramelized onions, pine nuts and sundried tomatoes. This compendium of heavenly scrumptiousness combines the tanginess of the chewy tomato with the sweetness of the onion, the crunchy pine nuts with the soft chicken. Plus there's goat cheese, and everybody knows that any food with goat (cheese) is good. The crêpe is folded meticulously into a square, and one almost feels guilty for cutting it open and spilling its delectable contents across the plate. All OCD apprehension vanish with the next bite. The Isabelle and its bursting-with-personality restaurant setting transport the diner to what I imagine a French cafe would be like. Rendezvous also serves Isabelle at the Wednesday Night Market from a booth set up directly in front of the bistro. It's faux France on a paper plate. 614 Fourth St., Santa Rosa. 707.526.7700.—Caroline Osborn
Our sweet, plump, briny bivalves are best when they're freshest, right out of the water at the farms where they are grown from seed. Aficionados of these pearly shellfish no longer have to mind the old rule of abstaining from eating them in the months without the letter r, because cold Pacific waters prevent spawning. Oyster farms also raise varieties that don't breed, preserving the bright, rich taste.
Tomales Bay Oyster Company sells net bags of fresh oysters at its bay-front farm. One dozen or 50 oysters per bag are available in four different sizes, from small to extra large. Tomales Bay accepts cash and local checks and has a convenient ATM. It's best to bring an ice chest for transport (ice is available for purchase), and orders over 100 should be called in ahead. Use of picnic tables and barbecues at the water's edge are on a first-come first-served basis, making a great place for an impromptu party. No reservations are taken. 15479 Hwy. 1, Marshall. 415.663.1242.
Raised in an environmentally friendly manner, Hog Island Oyster Company's bivalves are legendary. Enjoy them at their freshest at the farm in Marshall, but make sure to call for reservations. Parties are limited to 20, and picnic fees are charged per person for use of a picnic table, barbecue, shucking tools and even a shucking lesson for newbies. 20215 Hwy. 1, Marshall. 415.663.9218, ext. 255.
Housed in the historic Valley Ford Hotel, Rocker Oysterfeller's has a comfortable yet hopping atmosphere that welcomes diners of all ages. Twenty-somethings share tables with seniors and small children, enjoying the live music that plays nightly in the bar. Thursday is dollar oyster night, and the small Tomales Bay miyagis slide down easily, dressed with a lemon, honey and jalapeño mignonette. Or try them four ways: with garlic butter, barbecued, with Louisiana Hots—our table's favorite—or spiked with a red-orange spicy sauce. Lastly, chef Brandon Guenther's signature dish tweaks the classic Oyster Rockefeller, substituting arugula for spinach and adding cream cheese, bacon and a splash of Pernot. No wonder it's standing-room-only in the bar, with people waiting to swoop down on an empty table like a sandpiper pursuing a clam. In the Valley Ford Hotel, 14415 Hwy. 1, Valley Ford. 707.876.1983. (Guenther and his wife, co-owner Shona Campbell have also just opened The Sonoma Coast Fish Bank in the bank building next door, boasting an oyster and fresh fish bar with 10 seats plus picnic tables outside for noshing on fresh seafood, Louisiana Gulf shrimp included.)
GTO's Seafood House in downtown Sebastopol serve their Tomales Bay oysters on a bed of ice, predressed with a lemon/orange juice and fresh herb mignonette or a tomato, horseradish, white wine and garlic cocktail sauce. Seating is limited, but patrons are friendly and don't mind squeezing in another new friend at the bar. Look for $1 oysters on Tuesdays. 234 S. Main St., Sebastopol. 707.824.9922.
Nestled along the banks of the Napa River, the Oxbow Public Market—the 40,000-square-foot grand bazaar of all foods local, artisanal and wonderful—brings the coast inland with its Hog Island Oyster Bar. Shucking meets jiving during the Tuesday- and Wednesday-night happy hours, when oysters on the half-shell are just a dollar apiece. 610 First St., Napa. 707.226.6529.