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Unlike other highly successful local restaurateurs, you won't find the Starks opening a stadium-sized restaurant in the middle of Times Square—or anywhere outside of Sonoma County.
"In big cities, there's a huge disconnect," says Mark, who has worked in Seattle, Washington, D.C., and New York, where he graduated as co-valedictorian from the Culinary Institute of America. "You don't know who you're cooking for." He much prefers "the huge circle" of Sonoma County, where, within the first month of opening Willi's Wine Bar, local purveyors of food and wine—Steve Kistler, Laura Chenel and Jim Reichardt of Liberty Farms—were enjoying Mark's culinary transformation of their own products.
In 2010, the Starks took their first trip to Europe, a place where culinary and community go together like baguettes and Brie. "We fell in love with the food in Barcelona," says Terri. "The flavors were clean and the ingredients simplistic." Inspiration met opportunity when a 1927 bungalow on Center Street in Healdsburg, formerly the site of Ravenous, became available for rent. "We're never looking to open a new restaurant," Mark and Terri insist, "but if a space opens up, we'll look at it."
When it comes to their restaurants, the physical space shapes the culinary experience. The moody romance of the building that once housed Santa Rosa's oldest restaurant, Michelle's, was, according to Mark, "screaming to be a steakhouse." In the case of Bravas, the tiny kitchen is perfectly suited to the small plates of Spanish tapas, which include local sardines with black olive ink ($10), crispy pig ears with anchovy vinaigrette ($11), chilled octopus and chickpeas ($12), tuna belly salad ($10) and Patatas Bravas ($8), a fried potato dish from which the restaurant derives its name.
Hankering for a sliver of jamón ibérico or Idiazabal cheese? Allow the resident "Hamboner" to slice your fancy at Sonoma County's first ham and cheese bar ($8–$18). In addition to beer, wine and several gin and tonic selections, a specialty cocktail menu makes the most of fun monikers like Ready, Willing and Hazel and the Dingo ($10).
Bravas (Spanish for "spicy" or "wild") dazzles both the palate and the eye: vintage psychedelic Fillmore posters grace the bright orange walls, which contrast nicely with snow-white barstools and polished wood tables. The newly renovated backyard patio includes a full bar, a fire-pit and a covered deck.
"It's like having a newborn after your other kids are grownup," Terri says about the five-year gap between opening Starks and Bravas. Though their cheerful disposition and easy camaraderie belie the stressful nature of the job, the Starks are forthcoming about their challenges. "We forget about how hard the beginning is," Mark says. "It takes years off your life to open a restaurant."
"Exposure is the hardest part," says Terri, who likens a bad review to "someone telling you your kid is ugly." Thanks to the rise of Yelp, of course, everyone can be a critic, including a disgruntled drinker ("We had to cut him off") or a misinformed naysayer who pooh-poohed the Dover sole, which isn't even on their menu.
But in 10 years, the Starks have had only one significant faux pas: in September of 2005 they opened Bar Code, a sophisticated New York City–style lounge on Mendocino Avenue in downtown Santa Rosa. Perhaps because they were out of their comfort zone serving only alcohol, not food, or perhaps because the bar would start to get busy just when Mark and Terri were ready for bed, after two years Bar Code closed its doors, the very same day that Starks opened. "Everyone thinks opening restaurants is going to be really, really fun," says Terri, "but it's 90 percent business."
Still, it helps to be in the biz with your family. Mark creates the menus, Terri designs the space, and both bounce ideas off the other constantly. "We're together 24/7," says Mark, "and we have a blast." Even their daughter Katie, who at 18 started working in "the dish pit" just like everyone else, is now out on the floor at Bravas, serving for the first time.
If their restaurants are like children, each one is special in its own distinct way: Willi's Wine Bar gets the most press, Willi's Seafood stays the busiest, Monti's is the neighborhood favorite, and, thanks to the wide appeal of happy hour, Stark's has shown the most growth. Bravas, surely, will take on its own distinct shape. And yet the full tables are not what make Mark and Terri most proud.
"At least 20 employees who started out washing dishes and bussing tables now own their houses," Mark tells me. "More than anything else, that is our greatest accomplishment."