In Sonoma Valley, an oasis of history, food, and fine wine
By Kathleen Thompson Hill
Globe Correspondent / April 9, 2008
SONOMA, Calif. - Your weakened dollar can go a long way in Sonoma Valley, if you know where the locals dine - which can also be where movie stars, big name hi-tech founders, and celebrity chefs and winemakers hang out. They tend to hide in the hills around town, and when they do emerge onto Sonoma Plaza, savvy restaurants and hotels studiously keep secret who dines or visits, all of which makes this region more alluring.
For 24 days in 1846, Sonoma constituted the entire California Republic. Now it's a food- and wine-centric historic town by Western standards. The eight-acre Sonoma Plaza was laid out in 1835 by General Mariano G. Vallejo, commander of the Mexican armed forces for California, partly so Vallejo could drill his squad of soldiers. Later it served as a dusty train turnaround, void of plants, trees, or grass.
Today the plaza is covered with a lush lawn and shade trees, and you can find children's playground equipment, a duck pond, and fountains. It serves as home to Sonoma City Hall and is a center of activity, from a lively farmers' market with loads of music to arts festivals.
Historic adobe buildings around the plaza that once sheltered Italian meat markets, dance halls, illegal underground wine storage, and even brothels, now house some of the region's most expensive houseware shops and dining spots. There are also some cheap eating opportunities.
Sunflower Caffé occupies the Salvador Vallejo Adobe, a home built by Indian labor for Mariano Vallejo's brother in the mid-1840s. The Sunflower's singing chef, Curtis Dorsett, makes perfect omelets, a toasted salmon sandwich with goat cheese, his signature chicken salad, Sonoma duck breast, and a perfect grilled cheese on whole wheat. If Dorsett's cream of tomato soup is on the menu, do not miss it.
Owner James Hahn bought the Sunflower on a lark and has instilled his love for good food and wine at reasonable prices. There are several hidden seating niches and extended outdoor seating. Locals greet one another from early morning to late afternoon. According to Hahn, the back patio offers "our alternative to the traditional happy hour," with lamb burgers, oysters, and tastes of flights of wines with flights of cheeses.
A block away, Carol and Sam Morphy remodeled what was once an agricultural feed store where parents used to take their kids to purchase fuzzy yellow chicks that would grow up to lay organic eggs.
After retiring from the corrugated box business in 2000, Sam and Carol loaded their three kids, cat, and dog into their Suburban and moved east to Madison, Conn., near New Haven. Neighbors enticed them to try the nearby Pizza Works, and Morphy immediately thought, "We have to take this back to California." A year later, they were in Sonoma working on The Red Grape.
Daughter Megan, an Endicott College hospitality program graduate, serves as general manager. With a gorgeous sheltered patio, the Red Grape produces perfect thin-crust pizzas, the best Cobb salad anywhere, zabaglione, gnocchi, shellfish spaghetti, rib-eye steak, and chicken with pesto.
On the north side of Sonoma Plaza, Mary's Pizza Shack reigns supreme for family dining and specialties from founder Mary Fazio: pizzas with heavy scoops of tomato sauce and cheese, robust but healthy salads, fried calamari, daily soups, and killer garlic bread.
Should you spot one of the valley's famous comedian or movie star residents, do as the locals do and don't say a word. And if you buy a Sonoma T-shirt, the T-shirt rule applies: Wear it somewhere else.
Sunflower Caffé, 421 First St. West, Sonoma, Calif., 707-996-6645. sonomasunflower.com. Sandwiches $5.50-$12.50; salads $7.50-$9.50.
The Red Grape, 529 First St. West, Sonoma, Calif., 707-996-4103. theredgrape.com. Sandwiches $8.25-$10.95; salads $6.50-$13.95; pizzas $10.50-$15.25.
Mary's Pizza Shack, 8 West Spain St., Sonoma, Calif., 707-938-8300. maryspizzashack.com. Sandwiches $2.95-$9.25; salads $$5.25-$10.55; pizzas $6.75-$25.95.