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Sonoma County Foodie Road Trip

A drive through California's Sonoma Wine Country yields freshly picked produce, star chefs, and scenery to die for.

 

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  • salad from Spinster Sisters, image
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    Photo: David H. Collier
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    Bacon adds crunch to a kale salad from Spinster Sisters.
  • overhead view of diners at Aventine Glen Ellen, image
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    Photo: David H. Collier
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    A bird's-eye view shows guests digging into hearty food at Aventine Glen Ellen.
  • Fremont Diner window, image
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    Photo: David H. Collier
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    A server shows off delicious dishes at Sonoma's Fremont Diner.
  • Fremont Diner Sandwich, image
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    Photo: David H. Collier
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    Try the filling oyster po'boy sandwich at Fremont Diner in Sonoma.
  • exterior of Glen Ellen Star, image
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    Photo: David H. Collier
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    Glen Ellen brings funky charm to Arnold Drive.

Some road trips require quick refueling with no time to linger over a sumptuous repast. But when you venture to Sonoma County for wineries, spas, and bucolic Northern California landscapes, the 36-mile drive from the city of Sonoma to the town of Healdsburg demands that you brake for good eats, not for tossing out burger wrappers. Here, slow food sets the speed limit, and the closest you'll get to a combo meal is the region's trademark mix of big-city culinary sophistication with ingredients fresh from small farms and orchards.

"I'm doing road food the way it used to be done, the way it should be done," says Chad Harris, chef at Sonoma's Fremont Diner (thefremontdiner.com). At his rustic-meets-retro eatery along Highway 12, Harris insists on local sources and cooking from scratch. His homemade granola comes layered in a mason jar with organic yogurt and apple butter made of fruit plucked from the diner's backyard trees, and the house-smoked pastrami Reuben showcases local Asiago and house-pickled vegetable relish. In the diner's folksy photo booth, everyone is all grins.

From here, Highway 12 leads to Sonoma's historic tree-shaded plaza, lined with exclamation-worthy restaurants. Duck into a shopping arcade to find cozy LaSalette (lasalette-restaurant.com), where Azores-born chef Manuel Azevedo is fluent in Portuguese favorites such as port-glazed pork tenderloin stuffed with almonds, figs, and olives. Another don't-miss: wood-fire-cooked mussels served with crusty, home-baked bread to mop up the fragrant tomato-lobster broth.

Farther north on the highway, El Molino Central does a deservedly brisk trade in tortillas and tamales made by hand from stone-ground corn masa. Grab a bag to go, or linger over a plate of chilaquiles and Blue Bottle coffee on the covered patio. From there, detour west along Arnold Drive to the hamlet of Glen Ellen, a sleepy beauty recently awakened by chefs like French Laundry alum Ari Weiswasser, whose Glen Ellen Star (glenellenstar.com) hums around a cheerful open kitchen. Wood-fire-baked veggies—blistered shishito peppers, brussels sprouts sticky with brown sugar and bacon—arrive in mini skillets, offering the perfect bite before you dig into lamb ragu gnocchi.

Glen Ellen's latest culinary coup is the recent opening of Aventine Glen Ellen (aventineglenellen.com) in the town's 175-year-old former gristmill. The third Aventine location—after San Francisco and Hollywood—this stunning osteria features an on-site microbrewery and a menu of artisanal cocktails and rustic Italian fare, all served with views of the mill's 40-foot waterwheel.

Back on Highway 12, north of Glen Ellen, the Valley of the Moon opens up to forested hillsides and undulating vineyards, a gorgeous setting for the five-course food-and-wine pairing at St. Francis Winery (stfranciswinery.com). Executive Chef Bryan Jones plays matchmaker between varietal wines and small plates, many inspired by the winery's herb and vegetable garden.<.p<

At the highway's junction with U.S. 101, sprawling Santa Rosa is sometimes dismissed as unworthy of a culinary stop. But in the SofA (South A Street) arts district you'll find scrappy newcomers such as the Naked Pig (707-978-3231), a tiny brunch spot serving whiskey-caramel waffles and seasonal salads in a former Greyhound station. Also in SofA, the Spinster Sisters (thespinstersisters.com) brings international flavors—fiery harissa, house-made kimchi, tangy Vietnamese nuoc cham sauce—to American bites, attracting fans including former Gourmet magazine editor Ruth Reichl, who spoke here during a book tour this past May.

After the final stretch of U.S. 101, you might celebrate your arrival in Healdsburg with craft cocktails at Spoonbar (spoonbar.com)—photoworthy concoctions topped with edible flowers, fragrant herbs, and even slivers of jalapeno. Then head to lively Chalkboard (chalkboardhealdsburg.com), where ingredients from the restaurant's three-acre garden add zing to small plates such as buttermilk-fried quail and squid-ink gigli pasta with Dungeness crab and lemon verbena. Dessert here is a no-brainer: Order the Candy Bar, a cubist sculpture of caramel-topped brownie, nougat ice cream, and toasted milk-chocolate ganache. It comes without a single fast-food wrapper to sully your backseat.

This article was first published in November 2014. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.