Going Beyond The Grapevines
Local beer and food are also putting the region on the map
While Sonoma County is best known for its wine, craft beer is also putting the region on the map. Cooperage Brewing Company is one of the many local craft breweries making a name for itself. And with a triple IPA called Meglodank, clocking in at a whopping 10.7% there’s no need to explain the popularity. The brewery is in an industrial office park in Santa Rosa, a low rent, roomy choice favored by many new breed brewers. It has everything you’d expect, yet it exceeds expectations- it must be the beer. There’s foosball, and an entire corner with games for your enjoyment (just don’t read the Jenga blocks, or do for a good laugh!), and a rotating array of the region's best food trucks.
Our beer country’s rise of fame is synonymous with Russian River Brewing Co., founded in Santa Rosa and now expanded to Windsor. RRBC is best known as the creator of Pliny the Younger – the celebrity of an IPA with an annual release in February that attracts beer lovers from around the world. Seriously. A line worthy of a rock concert starts days before, and you’re even given a wristband.
Henhouse Brewing Co. is another extremely popular drinking hole, and with their annual release of Big Chicken, they’re rising to the cult status of Pliny! Equally good beers minus the long lines are found at the small local breweries, namely Old Caz Beer, Crooked Goat Brewing, Seismic, Moonlight Brewing Co., and also at Lagunitas Brewing Co., the county’s local star turned 900-pound beer gorilla. In many a bar in Sonoma County, you’ll find patrons and bartenders alike sporting unique wearable art by Dom Chi- or maybe you’ll spot his work on the walls. The local artist is known for his vibrant, hand-painted hats, laser cut goodies and spraypainted canvases that are equal parts hippie dream and Gustav Klimt homage.
Beer demands Mexican food and if we’re within 100 miles we always head to El Molino Central. “Molina” means mill and what that means to you is the restaurant grinds its own corn masa to make its famed tamales and tortillas. Located just outside of Sonoma in the Springs District (BHS to the born and raised), the restaurant goes beyond tacos and enchiladas to showcase regional Mexican food made by cocineras with premium ingredients that are worth a drive from anywhere. They take pride in crafting artisanal, seasonal dishes you can’t usually find this side of the border.
If you’re tasting for something different, the Stark family has become something of a fine dining institution in Sonoma County. With standout destinations like Willi’s Wine Bar, Stark’s Steak and Seafood, and Bird And The Bottle in Santa Rosa, the Stark restaurants are the place for a ribeye and Cabernet, small bites and inventive cocktails, or the local’s favorite happy hour secret– $3.50 martinis. Willi’s Santa Rosa location burned in the 2017 Tubbs fire but in a testament to both community support and the Starks’ resolve, the beloved destination for “foie gras in flip flops” reopened nearly two year later.
Like the Starks, acclaimed local sushi chef Jake Rand knows something about adversity and community support. When flood waters washed into his nearly new Sebastopol restaurant Sushi Kosho in February 2019, the disaster forced him to close for five months. When he reopened, the décor and menu of modern Japanese food was even better than before. Then just over a year later came coronavirus and Rand had to close again. But before long he was serving plates of sashimi and gyoza to go for sushi starved, mask-wearing fans again.
OK, you’ve chased all that beer with great food. How about some live music? While it’s hard to compete with San Francisco’s music scene, Sonoma County has developed its own sound. Another local craft beer pioneer, Dean Biersch, serves up great beer and tunes at HopMonk, a rustic-chic tavern and live music venue with locations in Sebastopol, Sonoma and Novato. Also check out Dean’s Twin Oaks Roadhouse, a classic juke joint with an eclectic lineup of live music backed by barbecue and local beer in tiny Penngrove. It’s the kind of place you drive by and make a u-turn.