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9 Wonderful Wine Country Restaurants

The dining options in Napa Valley and Sonoma County offer something for every palate, and every budget

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Kenzo

When Japanese video game magnate Kenzo Tsujimoto founded Kenzo Estate winery on Mount George, high above the Napa Valley, he dreamed of eventually opening a restaurant that would serve authentic kaiseki, or multi-course, prix fixe dinners. That dream became reality in late 2016 when the upscale Kenzo Napa opened on Pearl Street in downtown Napa. Today, with a fresh Michelin star under his belt, chef Eiji Onoyama crafts a new menu every other month, importing fish, seaweed, and other ingredients from Japan to make the experience feel as it might in Hokkaido. Flavors are simple and refined—dashi broth tastes like the sea itself, Wagyu beef is as smooth as sashimi. One of the highlights of every menu is the seasonal hassun, which consists of small bites that contrast fish and beef. Another is the sushi course, which differs with every meal. Dessert comes in a trio, often featuring flavors such as matcha, adzuki beans, and candied nuts. All of the dishes are served on custom-fired, hand-painted ceramics from Japan, making every course a work of art. Pairings with Kenzo wines are available and can include sake courses, as well. The atmosphere is intimate in the 25-seat dining room. You might even spot Tsujimoto himself; he and his wife dine at the restaurant at least once a month.

The Charter Oak

Simplicity reigns at The Charter Oak, the gamechanging restaurant owned by Christopher Kostow (who also helms the kitchen at The Restaurant at Meadowood). The family-style menu by chef Katianna Hong features “elemental” cooking, with dishes that highlight only one or two ingredients at a time. The best representation of this is the crudités, raw vegetables from the restaurant’s farm, served on a bed of crushed ice with a side of fermented soy dip. Another example? Crudo of kanpachi with grilled Rangpur lime and herbs. Most of the menu’s larger dishes are seasonal and prepared in a hearth at the center of the restaurant. Highlights include roasted pork shoulder with spiced molasses and winter squash, and beef rib grilled over cabernet barrels and beets dried over the fire. The most Instagram-worthy part of the meal may be the moment the server explains where to find the silverware—forks, knives, spoons, and napkins are stored in hidden drawers on the side of each table. During warm summer evenings, precede your meal with a few rounds of handcrafted cocktails in the open-air courtyard out front. The happy hour of half-priced beers and $3 shots of Fernet-Branca can’t be beat.

Campo Fina

A trendsetting Italian restaurant just off the plaza in downtown Healdsburg, Campo Fina is where locals go for a night out. The eatery sponsors an annual bocce tournament on a regulation court in the back, hosts after-hours dance parties on summer weekends, and serves family-style dishes designed for sharing. Menu highlights include burrata cheese with toast points, honey-roasted baby carrots with bread crumbs, and pork-and-beef meatballs in tomato sauce. The restaurant also has a pizza oven, which means you can order calzones and wood-fired pizzas at any time of day or night. In summer, the open-air patio becomes quite a scene, with large dinner parties popping bottle after bottle of prosecco and well-heeled drinkers lining up two and three deep at the bar for Italian cocktails. Above all else, Campo is known best for hospitality; husband-and-wife owners Ari Rosen and Dawnelise Regnery make the rounds to welcome guests and ensure everyone is comfortable.

Miminashi

Locals will tell you one of the best things on the menu at chef Curtis di Fede’s Japanese izakaya-style restaurant is the soft-serve ice cream, which changes every night and is available for roadies through a take-away window near the front door. But it’s worth reserving a table inside this beautifully minimalist restaurant, both for the ambience and for the food. Guests enjoy the shareable small plates, the miso ramen full of king trumpet mushrooms, the Paine Farm Squab served over a bed of corn, and the fried chicken katsu. Fried rice ingredients change nightly, so you’ll find some diners who like the version with clams and squid, and others who prefer the one with blood sausage and sole. And even if you’ve never liked beef tongue before, the yakitori version here stands out. Pro tip: The bar menu is the underappreciated star of this show. There’s an impressive list of imported sakes as well as Japanese whiskeys, which mixologists whip into cocktails with flavors such as coffee and molasses.

El Molino Central

Tamales, tamales, and more tamales. This is the story at El Molino Central, arguably Sonoma County’s most authentic Mexican restaurant. Sure, the tiny eatery on Highway 12 in Boyes Hot Springs has a full menu that features a variety of dishes, but the handmade tamales are the reason for the line around the block. While tamales specials pop up every now and again, there are two kinds on the menu at all times: vegetarian tamales with potatoes, cheese, greens, and cream sauce; and Rufina’s pork tamales, which are made with Niman Ranch pork and served with pickled vegetable relish. Both options will change the way you think of corn. Indoor seating is limited, but over the years management has responded to the crowds by building an open-air dining area in the back of the restaurant. Still, you need to go early to get a good spot (and be aware of the seating situation if it’s raining). Another must-order: At breakfast, the Chilaquiles Merida, made with scrambled eggs, stewed beef, habanero salsa, and refried beans. This is the kind of day-starter you’ll remember long after you’ve eaten it.

Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch

Just about every aspect of the farm experience comes to life at Long Meadow Ranch’s public-facing facility in St. Helena. The relaxed destination includes an outdoor café, a restaurant named Farmstead, and a general store with wine- and olive oil–tasting bars—as well as an open-air pavilion that is perfect for events. Start mornings at the café, where you can enjoy a cup of Stumptown coffee and freshly baked goods at picnic tables in the shade of a giant blue spruce. Later in the day, hit Farmstead for a lunch of salads made with vegetables grown on-site or for a rack of the restaurant’s signature Heritage St. Louis ribs. (Pro tip: The “brick chicken,” or chicken cooked beneath a brick, can’t be beat.) If you’re visiting in the early afternoon, go to the general store to sample flights of Long Meadow Ranch wines or olive oils or to stock up on such artisan provisions as locally made cheese and salumi. Executive Chef Stephen Barber also hosts regular lunches and dinners at a chef’s table inside the property’s historic Logan Ives House. These meals can include a walk through the culinary garden, followed by a multi-course meal paired with Long Meadow Ranch wines.

The Restaurant at Meadowood

Don’t let the understated name of the restaurant at Meadowood Napa Valley fool you—the place is a temple to fine dining that repeatedly earns three stars from Michelin and is considered one of the best in the world. Executive Chef Christopher Kostow has built the menu around simple dishes that feature local ingredients—in fall, for instance, a dish may include flour from locally foraged acorns; in spring, you might find one that incorporates edible flowers that grow on the property. The standard menu in the dining room has anywhere from nine to 11 courses in all, and wine pairings are available. There’s also a rotunda-style bar where guests can order smaller portions—three-course meals, snacks, and smaller bites. Without question, the best seats in the house are in the kitchen, at a four-seat high-top from which you can interact with chefs as they cook and see preparation unfold at every turn. Every winter the restaurant organizes an innovative event dubbed the 12 Days of Christmas, during which Kostow brings in visiting chefs from around the world to take over the kitchen and prepare food to pair with select wines from renowned vintners. It is one of the most popular Napa Valley culinary events of the year.

Ramen Gaijin

As the name suggests, Ramen Gaijin is all about the noodles. Sure, the menu features small-plate, izakaya-style dishes such as briny Miyagi oysters, pork-shoulder gyoza, rabbit confit fried rice, and tako salad, but the real star of the show is the ramen. Chefs and co-owners Matthew Williams and Moishe Hahn-Schuman make rye, sapporo, and soba noodles in-house, and broths are rich and flavorful. One of the favorite options, the Spicy Tan Tan, features pork belly, wood ear mushrooms, spicy ground pork, charred cabbage, and a six-minute egg. The Tonkatsu includes bone marrow in the broth, giving it a savory finish that warms you from the inside. Vegetarian options come with miso broth and include fried tofu and soy-glazed squash. Whichever noodle dish you choose, add an order of house-made kimchi to add a tart contrast. Pro tip: If you’re dining with a friend, order the two-person Hitodama punch bowl, which mixes several rums with apricot, lime, and pomegranate juices.

SingleThread

Farm-to-table dining meets Eastern philosophy and culture at this unparalleled Michelin-starred restaurant and inn in downtown Healdsburg. The 52-seat restaurant prides itself on creating food that is as much about ancient Japanese technique as it is about fresh ingredients. Case in point: Chef Kyle Connaughton and his wife, Katina, run their own farm, and they have developed a system by which they manage 72 distinct microseasons to harvest the ripest items at any given time. Meals at SingleThread are served kaiseki-style. Without question, the most impressive course is the first one—a spread of tiny bites served in small plates and stand-alone spoons that have been laid out on a moss-covered stump. Kyle, who studied in Japan, also specializes in donabe, or clay pot cooking, and these soul-warming courses are especially memorable. Upstairs from the restaurant, SingleThread runs a five-room inn; accommodations are spacious and modern in all the right ways, with giant soaking tubs and fixtures that look like works of art. Guests at the inn enjoy a fridge stocked with artisanal products from around Sonoma County, as well as a sumptuous breakfast.

 

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