Best Restaurants in Wine CountryOur favorites include some of this destination's best local restaurants—from fine dining to simple fare.
By Greg Weekes
Cole's Chop House , located in a historic, 1886 hand-hewn stone building in downtown Napa, touts itself as a “classic American steakhouse.” The wine list focuses on the Napa Valley's own Cabernet Sauvignon vintages to complement entrées. Beefy highlights include 21-day dry-aged Prime and certified Angus Beef steaks. Meat lovers will also appreciate the New Zealand lamb chops. If you're not in the mood for beef, order the filet of Atlantic salmon. Sides like grilled asparagus and sautéed mushroom caps are served family style. The mahogany bar is a popular gathering place to sample custom cocktails and a great place to go if you’re looking for fun things to do with friends.
A branch of the popular restaurant in San Francisco's Ferry Building, Hog Island Oyster Bar Napa , tucked inside Napa's Oxbow Public Market, features locally sourced Tomales Bay shellfish. The oysters are filled with briny-fresh flavor whether you get them grilled, fried in cornmeal for a po'boy sandwich or plump and fresh on the half shell. Try seafood stew with grilled levain toast, a warmly comforting dish.
The French Laundry got its name from the old stone building's former function: 19th-century pioneers brought their clothes here for washing. Today this two-story house in the picture-postcard hamlet of Yountville is nationally known for the spectacular and creative cuisine whipped up by chef Thomas Keller. Dinner here is a culinary journey; the nine-course chef's tasting menu lasts 3 hours or more as guests relax and savor each finely choreographed offering. Delicacies like black truffles and hand-churned Vermont butter are flown in from around the country, but much of the produce comes from the restaurant's own gardens. Reservations are absolutely essential.
Ad Hoc , Keller's other Yountville restaurant, isn't as dearly expensive, although it's not cheap either. A four-course dinner with the option of wine pairings features one entrée that changes daily, served family style. While this doesn't allow for flexibility in ordering, never fear; the food is consistently excellent, simple and homey but perfectly executed. Many Ad Hoc fans wait until buttermilk fried chicken is on the menu; it's that good (the day's selections are posted on the restaurant's website). Reservations are strongly advised.
The line is usually out the door at Mustards Grill , another longtime Yountville favorite. Surrounded by vineyards and gardens, the patio is a popular spot to sit and savor a glass of wine before dinner (the tantalizing smells emanating from the wood-burning grill and oak smoker will make you hungry). For an appetizer try the sweet corn tamales or onion rings with tomato-apple ketchup. The eclectic menu features such specialties as seafood tostadas, mustard-marinated quail, French-style rabbit in red wine and grilled ahi with basil aioli and pickled ginger.
Italian food aficionados should reserve a table at Yountville's Bottega Napa Valley , a handsome contemporary space accented by brick, steel, wood and leather, plus wood-burning fireplaces in the outdoor terrazzo. Food Network celebrity chef Michael Chiarello oversees the kitchen and often makes an appearance in the dining room. Warm, crusty bread accompanied by a dip of olive oil, herbs and spices is a nice welcoming touch. Pasta dishes include such favorites as pappardelle with a Bolognese of veal, pork and porcini mushrooms, and truffle fries are delish. For dessert, chocolate soufflé adorned with candied hazelnuts and crème anglaise should finish you off nicely. Wine prices are among the most reasonable in the Napa Valley.
Two St. Helena hangouts are perfect places to relax after a day of touring wineries, especially if you're looking for fun things to do with friends. Goose & Gander has a clubby steakhouse feel, but if the day's warm grab a table on the pretty outdoor patio. Grilled flatiron steak with caramelized Brussels sprouts and trumpet mushrooms is a hearty entrée; for something lighter go with arugula and Asian pear salad or the country pâté with garlic crostini. The wine list is reliably good, but Goose & Gander also concocts a mean Manhattan.
Market specializes in upscale comfort food like Dungeness crab cakes, mussels and frites and mac 'n cheese. The menu also takes advantage of seasonal California produce fresh from local organic farms. Save room for dessert; even homespun butterscotch pudding (served in a waffle cone) is elevated to divine heights.
Long-standing Sonoma Valley staple John Ash & Co. , at the Vintners Inn in Santa Rosa, serves award-winning Wine Country cuisine. The emphasis is on seasonal, organic products from Sonoma County farms and the restaurant's own gardens, whether it's a starter of roasted heirloom beets or entrées like Pinot-braised lamb shank with toy box tomatoes and baby carrots A carefully selected wine list enhances these regional flavors. Ask for a table on the enclosed plantation-style porch for a view of the vineyards. This is an excellent choice for a special occasion and among Sonoma’s best things for couples to do.
Original artwork adorns the walls of Sonoma's tiny Cafe La Haye . The menu focuses on creative Californian and New American cuisine, with an emphasis on organic Wine Country produce. The risotto offering changes daily, and fettuccine with sweet Italian sausage, kale and roasted shallots is delicious. This artsy café is big with hip locals, so make reservations and expect to wait.
Hana Japanese Restaurant , a small, unassuming place in Rohnert Park, is hiding something—unbelievable Japanese cuisine. Local chefs often come here on their days off to eat and watch the preparation. The sushi bar has a tempting array of fresh nigiri, makimono and sashimi. The traditional menu includes grilled seafood and steak, maki rolls, and soba and udon noodles, accompanied by a selection of sake.
Glen Ellen is a small Sonoma Valley town full of trendy local restaurants, and one of the most popular is Glen Ellen Star . The wood-fired oven in its tiny open kitchen turns out a parade of flavorful dishes like Brussels sprouts with a brown sugar-bacon marmalade and cauliflower with roasted almonds, plus a variety of pizzas. Brick chicken with creamy polenta and hen of the woods mushrooms is a tasty main course. Caveats: This is a very small restaurant, and tables are spaced close together. The music is also on the loud side, so it isn't the place to come for a romantic, intimate dinner.
See all the AAA recommended restaurants for this destination.
Wine Country, CA
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550 2nd St W. Sonoma, CA 95476