If you find yourself hungry in Healdsburg, you're in a good spot. It helps to come armed with a large wallet and a way with reservationists, but it's not essential. Even the simplest fare is often stamped with some measure of the Sonoma County signature - a drizzle of olive oil, a slice of an heirloom tomato, a chunk of real bread from a wood-fired oven. And while the county spreads its many farms, valleys and "microclimates" over a fairly broad expanse, Healdsburg gathers most of its bounty into the two-block radius of its central plaza. If you're making the rounds, here are some suggestions...
Dry Creek Kitchen
The finest of fine dining in Healdsburg, Dry Creek Kitchen is a Charlie Palmer restaurant and affiliated with the sleek new Hotel Healdsburg. While you won't find any Wine Angels here, the decor is elegant and peaceful, and the service attentive yet unobtrusive. From oysters and seafood from Bodega Bay, to meats and produce from organic Sonoma farms, to olive oil from a local press, there's a single-minded focus here on Sonoma County. Amazingly, the abundance of this region allows Palmer and his team to keep the menu fresh, with new items monthly -- or even weekly -- with no repetition. The artful and inspired combination of flavors is often stunning and always a delight. And kudos for the wine program. Select from an incredibly comprehensive list of Sonoma-only wines, OR bring your own Sonoma wines (up to two bottles) and corkage fees are waived. Tip: don't ask them to waive the fee on that bottle of overpriced Napa cab. Full bar. Outdoor dining. Reservations highly recommended.
A recent addition to the Healdsburg dining landscape, Willi's specializes in -- you guessed it -- fresh seafood from around the world and around the bend. The concept is small plates (NOT to be confused with tapas), so everyone orders two or three items and shares. The raw bar features oysters, shrimp and the like by the piece. And there are a number of non-seafood dishes for the landlubbers (or the allergic). One of the coolest things about Willi's, pioneered by its sister restaurant, Willi's Wine Bar (of Santa Rosa, not Paris) is the "small plates" concept as applied to wine. Each wine is offered by the glass, half bottle or full bottle. If you're looking to experiment, this is the place.
Manzanita offers more great local meats, seafood and produce, made in a range of styles from Southwestern to Latin to "California" (whatever that means). A wood-fired oven is the focal point for both menu and decor. Great pizzas and flatbreads, and a selection of fresh oysters, round out the appetizer menu. Dishes are complemented by a well-rotated wine list with fun by-the-glass selections.
A longtime Healdsburg favorite, Bistro Ralph features traditional French dishes made with fresh California meats and produce, often from local Sonoma farms. Go easy on the pre-meal rolls; they're delicious but filling (you can get more later, if you're still hungry, but that's unlikely). The wine list often features some hard-to-get Sonoma gems. But if you're looking for sterner stuff, go for an excellent martini made to order. No other mixed drinks are offered; requests are referred next door, to John & Zeke's bar (aka "Ralph's office").
The name refers to the way you walk in, not how you leave. (Portions are generous, to say the least.) Now expanded in a new location, Ravenous became a local favorite years ago as a tiny, seven-table restaurant next to the Raven theater. Then and now, "comfort-food" dishes usually include a healthy dose of fresh vegetables. Hot summer nights are well spent dining at the outside bar and patio, where live music is sometimes featured. Full bar, reservations recommended.
This is a good one for first-time visitors to Northern California. The menu is recognizable (complete with daily "Blue Plate Specials"), but here dishes are just a bit more "special" than elsewhere. It's truly American style, though the owners travel frequently and bring their international experiences and influences home with them. The wine list is wide-ranging with an emphasis on, that's right, Zinfandel... as American as wine gets!
While the French influence is unmistakable, you can still get a great burger here. You just have fancier options for cheeses and toppings. This place is small in size, big in portions and flavors. Traditional French favorites include escargot and the Charcuterie plate, as well as fresh seafood, soups, steaks and, of course, the best pork dishes around. This isn't the place for a swinophobe, as the decor teems with piggies of all shapes, sizes and colors.
This de facto "office" and meeting place for Healdsburg locals has the best coffee (with beans roasted on site) and exquisite teas, as well as delicious muffins and fresh-baked treats. If you don't have time to chat around the water cooler, there's a walk-in location nearby.
Downtown Bakery & Creamery
Wonderful hand-crafted bakery items, from rustic rolls to wedding cakes, are available here. The cheddar-topped herb scone is one of my personal favorites for breakfast. (And breakfast is hard to come by in this town, oddly enough.) Also check out all the coffee drinks and ice cream, too.
(in addition to Fine Dining)
Oakville Grocery offers a popular outdoor patio right on the corner -- great for people watching. Grab delicious gourmet sandwiches, pizzas, salads and deli items here, along with rotisserie fare for more substantial evening meals or take out. While it's a true "grocery," you'll be hard pressed to find the milk. Much more interesting are the cheeses, olives, salamis, mustards, sauces and the other odd-thousand SKU's on the shelves. Then there are the really high-end delicacies such as truffles, caviar and aged Balsamic vinegars. Wines are available by the taste or glass, or buy a bottle at retail price and avoid the usual restaurant markup.
Dry Creek General Store
Okay, so even though it looks like it's straight out of a spaghetti Western, thankfully this place is more modernized. Go for the good made-to-order sandwich standards and daily specials, along with homemade deli items with an Italian bent. Wines are by the bottle, with emphasis on Dry Creek zins. And if you happen to be in need of bait and tackle, that shop is right next door.
This is the Happiest Place in Sonoma County (with apologies to Disney). Painted a cheery yellow with dark green trim, this "old fashioned" store is a pleasant trip back to more reasonable times. Sandwiches are creative combinations of local ingredients, ranging from the obscure (prosciutto w/figs, etc.) to the comfortably familiar (PB&J). Shop the collection of classic toys and candies while you wait, or browse through antiques and country-hip housewares. Outdoor patio dining. Wines are by the glass (limited) or by the bottle.
John & Zeke's
Don't be put off by the Harleys and the boar's head... things aren't really as scary as they look. Fairly priced drinks with no-nonsense attitude, this is the kind of place where you can drink Buds at noon on a Tuesday (sans car wash), and nobody gives you a hard time. This is a popular local hangout, with pool tables, darts, a jukebox and shuffleboard.
Catelli's The Rex
It's worth seeking out the Martini Madness happy hour here, as well as the drink specials and complimentary meatballs. Stick around for dinner with traditional Italian fare.
A fairly well-kept secret among locals, the B&B is an institution known for its friendly bartenders and generous "feeds" on holidays. It's a no-windows kind of place with excellent air conditioning, naugahyde banquettes, pool table, a juke box, liar's dice games... You get the picture.
Bear Republic (beer/wine only)
This popular microbrewery has a range of award-winning beers, good pub fare and daily specials. Dine at the bar, at tables or in the outdoor beer garden, or (sometimes) catch sports on TV.
The secret's in the dough. Or maybe it's the sauce. Whatever it is, it's good. Homemade pizzas and sandwiches are very non-chain. More New York than Chicago in style, pizza is both by-the-slice and by-the-pie. And the hot pastrami sandwich is to die for. Free refills on soda if you eat in. No booze.
Fresh, traditional, affordable. Locally known as "the hat," this place is authentic Mexican in a casual taqueria. Check out the excellent fish tacos.
The best fresh meats in town, many from local and organic farms, are here. Seasonal seafood is great here, too. In addition to serving up made-to-order sandwiches, the recently expanded deli section includes gourmet cheeses, olives, etc. and made-in-store sushi. A comprehensive wine aisle is complete with helpful service. BONUS: Krispy Kreme donuts are "delivered fresh daily" and team nicely with the self-serve co
Anstead's is an absolute paradise for the organically minded. Fresh produce and natural products abound and are complemented by a limited selection of meats and seafood. A gourmet deli with delicious and creative sandwiches and salads rounds out the place.
What's to say... it's a supermarket. The notable aspect is that it's open 24 hours, making it the ONLY late-night option for food. And late night in Healdsburg means after 9:30!
Of course, these are just a few highlights. There are many more delicious bites in Healdsburg, but I'm not getting paid by the word. It's hard to go wrong wherever you dine, and it's fun to discover your own favorite salt lick. As mentioned, you don't have to travel far and the natives are (mostly) friendly. Bon appetit!