Visiting Wine Country: A Local’s Guide to Eating, Exploring and Imbibing in Sonoma

 
Exploring Sonoma, Scribe Winery, Meghan Marsh King
 

Sonoma—there’s something about this town. I’m writing in the evening with the windows propped open. Outside, a summer’s day gives way as a backyard dinner grows quiet and the pleas of crickets echo into something like silence. It’s dark except for the moon, which casts shadows, playing tricks with my imagination and the breeze. In the morning, it’s just a short walk to the vineyards where I’ve gotten used to the way that leaves move—disguising themselves—and the colors the grapes make when they’re ready for pressing.

I moved here after years in San Francisco and fell into love with life in the “country” in less than a heartbeat; but then again, it’s easy to love a town with a central plaza, Tuesday night Farmer’s Market, and restaurants and wineries everywhere you look. I’m accustomed to familiar and friendly places everywhere I go, and the ease of buying vegetables at farm stands with handmade signs on the road that say things like “Local Peppers, Turn Left in 50 feet.”

Still, there’s something that's still wild and dusty here—this Valley of the Moon—where farmers first settled to mine the land for juice. The rest of us just live here because we know what they knew at first press: there’s something about this town. 

At the request of friends, family, clients and thirsty folks everywhere, get to know the spots from my personal Sonoma that you shouldn’t miss during your next visit to wine country:

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Eat

Glen Ellen Star

My favorite restaurant in the area, Glen Ellen Star has mastered the art of wood-fired cooking in a way that’s fresh and seasonal, quintessentially Californian, hip and entirely approachable. They embrace the art of simple food, but with an effortless refinement that you can’t master at home. Just off the main road in downtown Glen Ellen, the red-starred façade offers a no-frills but well-executed interior that makes you feel welcome right away—like you’ve stumbled upon a neighborhood gem. Don’t be mistaken: you have. 

The menu changes with the seasons, and often by the day, but it’s always food that you want to eat—crave-able, straightforward, and of the moment. Vegetable starters are served family style in cast-iron skillets that are shared amongst intimate tables, and the nightly dessert special is best enjoyed with single serve cartons of house made ice cream. Servers bounce around in jeans, red sneakers, and matching t-shirts, and if you’re lucky you’ll eat close enough to see Chef Ari Weiswasser and his team carefully dancing around the central spirit of the restaurant—the open hearth.

Here's a tip: Order all of the vegetables—no, really, just do it. You must try the Tomato Cream Pie before you die and the seasonal pasta is always memorable.

 
 

Harvest Moon Cafe

A quaint and unassuming restaurant just off the Sonoma Square, Harvest Moon offers a surprising, fresh, and completely sustainable menu that changes daily. Run by a husband and wife chef team, I admire their commitment to the bounty of Sonoma County and their commitment to sourcing meat and produce that comes from farms, ranches, and fisheries that uphold their shared principles of sustainability. Their menu is an ode to the hard work of these farmers and their collective culinary experiences as chefs. I’ve never ordered the same thing twice and I am always surprised by what I order—a testament to a great menu.

Though simple in ambiance, it’s the perfect place to enjoy a quiet dinner followed or preceded by a walk around the square or a visit to a tasting room like Pangloss.

Here's a tip: At Sonoma's Friday morning Farmer’s Market, Harvest Moon has a stand of baked goods and breakfast items that people line up for.
 

El Molino Central

A perfect stop on the way to Glen Ellen or Kenwood, El Molino is located in Boyes Hot Springs and just might be some of the best Mexican food around. Hey, I’ve even heard it called the best in the Bay Area and that’s saying something. A brightly colored façade offers at-the-counter ordering inside, along with some key takeout items, and a back patio where you can eat under the shade of red umbrellas. The seasonal and soulful menu offers delicious fish tacos, seasonal enchiladas, tamales, and more.

Here's a tip: They only offer one item before 11am, but it’s delicious: Chilaquiles Merida. And trust me on this one: share it with a friend. Grab guacamole with whatever you order and enjoy the thickest, crunchiest chips around.
 

The Fremont Diner

The Fremont Diner offers a reimagined but nostalgic take on American comfort food. Seasonal ingredients are sourced from Sonoma’s local farms and purveyors to create a homestyle menu that recalls someone’s grandma’s cooking. With a nod to the diners of the past, Fremont is an essential American dining experience that’s anything but bygone.

Here's a tip: There’s usually a wait, so come prepared; watching the hot butter melt on your freshly made biscuits will be worth it.
 

Photo by Sarah Deragon

SWEET SCOOPS ICE CREAM
 

Do you know why that old adage about all of us screaming for ice cream is true? It’s probably because Joe and Ramie Hencmann have set out to make the world a sweeter place one scoop at a time and it’s working. You can find their incredibly charming ice cream shop right on the square, or look for their Ice Cream Cart at the Tuesday Night Farmer’s Market or at Cornerstone on summer weekends.

Here’s a tip: In addition to all of their creative and delicious flavors made from local ingredients, they make some very delicious vegan flavors. Three words: Vegan Cookies & Cream. You’ll never look back. 

 

 

 



Sonoma's Best: Modern Mercantile

For the kind of place that’s perfect to explore, eat, and imbibe, head to Sonoma’s Best to grab lunchtime essentials and local sundries to take along to Jack London Park or Bartholomew Park Winery. Located a little out of the way, it makes for a great jaunt through local neighborhoods. If you decide to stick around, they have a charming outdoor garden where you can enjoy your lunch along with beer on tap and wines by the glass.

Here's a tip: They have an excellent little wine shop—it’s the perfect place to pick up a delicious and reasonably priced bottle for dinner.

 
 

Still hungry? I don’t blame you. Try:

Café La Haye for a charming, white tablecloth dinner just off the square that feels like a local’s spot, located right near my favorite local bookstore, Reader's Books.
The Girl & The Fig or The Fig Café for a chance to eat at one of Sondra Bernstein’s classic Sonoma restaurants.
Sunflower Caffé for a healthy breakfast, lunch, or quick smoothie pit stop.
El Dorado Kitchen for an upbeat vibe with drinks and appetizers at the bar or on the patio.
Delhi Belly Indian Bistro for excellent Indian just off the square.
Café Citti for a wine hangover; head to this checkered tablecloth restaurant in Kenwood where the ambiance and pasta is best served to go.
Crisp Bakeshop for a chocolate chip cookie; and then again for more chocolate chip cookies. 

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Explore

Jack London Park

Long before I ever dreamed of living in Sonoma County, I was fascinated with Jack London Park and the rich and mysterious stories that the land must hold. Once the home of the writer Jack London—famous for penning adventure tales and naming this area the Valley of the Moon—the park features miles of trails and historic buildings from when London called it home. The site includes the ruins of a 19th century winery, which now hosts Broadway Under the Stars, an event worth planning a trip around if you visit during the summer. You can set out to hike the trails or simply explore the museum, the cottage where Jack wrote, or the mysterious Wolf House, where a fire destroyed the structure before they ever lived in it.

In addition to being a writer, London was curious, inventive and experimented with farming methods that he gleaned from abroad—demonstrating early examples of organic and sustainable farming practices that are still used today. It’s one of the most beautiful ways to explore Sonoma Mountain. Often dripping with fog in the early morning, I’ve never had a visit that didn’t prompt a clear head and a hungry pen.

Cornerstone Sonoma

Just off Arnold Drive before you get to Sonoma proper is Cornerstone—a modern marketplace featuring boutique shops, tasting rooms, art-inspired gardens, and Sunset Magazine’s Gardens + Outdoor Test Kitchen. I think it offers some of the best shopping in Sonoma so save your sips for of any of my recommended wineries and hit the shops after a stroll through the gardens, which are certainly worth a visit. Here’s the shopping you shouldn’t miss:

Exploring Sonoma: Cornerstone Sonoma Sunset Magazine Gardens, Meghan Marsh King

Chateau Sonoma: More than just an expertly curated collection of French antiques and artful home décor, it’s a lifestyle experience that recalls the very best things about French culture and brings them to you in a sensory manner. In addition to home goods and antiques, they also carry the collections of local jewelry and handbag designers that make excellent gifts.

Nomad Chic: I actually first discovered this hip boutique in Todos Santos, Mexico and was delighted when they opened a shop in Sonoma. Taking boho-chic to the next level, Nomad carries global, unique, and often handcrafted items for the home as well as clothing, jewelry, and accessories—all that make you wish you were on a beach in Mexico sipping a margarita. 

Artefact Design & Salvage: I dream about this place. A sensory-awakening collection of artifacts sourced from all over the world—furniture, gifts, oddities, and large architectural elements—this is the kind of place where every piece has a story to tell. For example, I own a doorstop that was once a piece of a ceramic stove in the original Hearst castle. Prepare yourself.
 

Friday Morning Farmer’s Market

If you ever happen to be in Sonoma on a Friday—every week, rain or shine—don’t miss the chance to explore the farmer’s market on Arnold Field. Grab fresh local produce, iced-tea from local purveyor Tea & Trumpets (Earl Grey Lavender and Jasmine Rose are my favorites), and get the Hippie Hash from The Green Grocer—it’s one of my favorite things to eat, ever.

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Imbibe

Three Sticks Winery, Sonoma Valley, Meghan Marsh King

Three Sticks

Just off the square, you can step into another world where time is unhurried, wine is an art form, and ambiance is lionized. Located in a historic Adobe—the longest occupied residence in Sonoma and a remnant from California’s Mexican period —Three Sticks is a can’t-miss winery in Sonoma. Thoughtfully preserved, the Adobe is designed by Ken Fulk who artfully layered Spanish influences and antiques with modern finishes, an array of stimulating textures and colors, and a truly unforgettable hand-painted wall. It's an experience that feels uniquely akin to Sonoma today, and yesterday.

The wines? Let’s talk about them. They make some of the best Pinot Noir in Sonoma County and well beyond. That’s all you need to know.

Here's a tip: Book an appointment and take your time, you’re going to want to savor this experience from the wine tasting to the rich space and the completely wonderful and sincere hospitality. 
 


Scribe

Quite the trendy hotspot these days, Scribe lives up to the hype, especially with the reopening of the historic Hacienda, sitting like a citadel at the end of their iconic palm-lined drive. A perfect match for their terroir-driven wines, the Hacienda—a building with bones that date back the 1850’s—has been restored to accommodate an array of food and wine experiences. 

The Hacienda itself is something to behold, a careful blend of nuanced old details—chipped paint, original wood, old windows—with quietly modern furniture that lets the naturalism of your surroundings speak for themselves. Above all, Scribe showcases a reverence for style, the land, and things built over time with your hands. Pair all of this with a glass of Sylvaner or Skin Fermented Chardonnay and you’ve got yourself an afternoon. 

Here's a tip: The food and wine experience at the Hacienda is worth the price—allowing you the opportunity to taste food from the garden and local purveyors, all curated with the same style and panache that goes into the rest of their brand.

Hamel Family Winery

A trip nearly north toward Glen Ellen will take you to the expansive Hamel Family Ranch—a state of the art building perched on vineyards looking west toward Sonoma Mountain. A modern building with incredible views, Hamel is worth a visit to experience their hospitality alone. You could also sit out on the patio overlooking the valley for hours—it’s one of my favorite views.  

Both their Estate and Reserve experiences include food from their onsite culinary program, a thoughtful tour of the property and cave, and some special touches from “the badger.” You’ll know what I mean after your visit. 

Here's a tip: Housemade ricotta. That’s all.
 

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Pangloss

If you’re on the Sonoma Square and want to find the best environment to enjoy a glass of wine or a tasting, look no further than Pangloss. Named after the eternal optimist in Voltaire’s Candide, the tasting room is spacious and open with restored rock walls, a giant portrait of the author, and books and miscellany—all lending to its modern drawing room appeal. Admittedly, I go most often for the ambiance and energy (it’s often lively), but their food program is well done and there are a few standout wines that pair incredibly well with their thoughtfully curated space.

Here's a tip: If you don’t want the whole tasting you can enjoy a glass of wine or wine flight with food pairings in the lounge area. The bar—which surrounds a built-in olive tree—is for tastings only.
 







Starling Bar

Wine’d out? It happens. Starling is sort of the cocktail bar in Sonoma. A dive-bar reinvented as a friendly local watering hole with excellent cocktails, fun atmosphere and neighborhood vibe, Starling is the place to get that cocktail you’ve been craving since your Xth glass of Pinot. Seasonal favorites include: the Watmaugh Margarita and Hibiscus Paloma. 
 

still thirsty? Try:

Kivelstadt Cellars for great wines, a cool and laid back tasting room in Glen Ellen, really cool labels, and some of my favorite naming and wine descriptions in the business—be sure to read them!
Westwood for Pinot, Pinot, Pinot just off the square. 
BUMP for another tasting room experience just off the square that offers, wine, art, and a great vibe.
Auteur for the wines and great hospitality in a charming cottage just off the square 


POSTSCRIPT: Wow, this got long. Volume 2 is inevitable, as are other locations by special request. I’ve done my best to capture the Sonoma that I adore, but please note there is certainly much left for me to explore.  Did I miss something you love? Let me know. I’d love to visit and write about it.