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Lamb chops at Ca’ Bianca Ca’ Bianca

16 Essential Restaurants in Santa Rosa

Where to eat and drink in this urban wine country town

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When director Alfred Hitchcock cast about to find a city in which to set his 1943 noir thriller Shadow of a Doubt, he looked across the Golden Gate Bridge to Santa Rosa. It can be argued that Santa Rosa continues to model small town perfection with just a touch of disquietude, but until recently, that’s mostly been kept hidden around home kitchen tables.

A mini restaurant renaissance shook up downtown a few years back, helping make dining out more mainstream. And while the pandemic and back-to-back extreme fire seasons have led to a number of recent closures downtown, many of Santa Rosa’s stalwarts remain, and new spots continue to open. Here are some of the essential restaurants that, without a shadow of a doubt, define this classic American town.

Health experts consider dining out to be a high-risk activity for the unvaccinated; the latest data about the delta variant indicates that it may pose a low-to-moderate risk for the vaccinated, especially in areas with substantial transmission. The latest CDC guidance is here; find a COVID-19 vaccination site here.

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Note: Restaurants on this map are listed geographically.
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John Ash & Co.

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John Ash’s defining legacy of wine country dining lives on at the Vintner’s Inn, where ingredients are drawn largely from the lodge’s own gardens and relationships with some 30 local farmers. Meant for expense accounts and special events, the entrees are expensive and tend to the aerie of foie gras, short ribs, and veal, but are executed with care. Locals know that the excellent and inexpensive happy hour staged daily in the Front Room bar area is a wonderful way to unwind and enjoy some of the same views and quality care that the expense account seats get.

Sazón | Peruvian Cuisine

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Peruvian cuisine — as interpreted through Sazón’s kitchen — appeals to all tastes with six types of ceviche and main dishes heavy with plantain, cassava, and sweet potato. Native Peruvian aji amarillo sauce touches many dishes brightly. Don’t miss a chance to have a purple corn drink. Meanwhile, the Deli by Sazón, adjacent to the dining room, offers traditional deli sandwiches as well as some more Peruvian-inflected to-go fare.

Stark's Steak & Seafood

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Happy Hour, oysters, and steaks are the defining nouns for this retro meat palace, part of the Stark family’s Sonoma County dynasty of dining. Dark and masculine, the moody bar hosts weekday happy hour with martini specials and a range of reliably fried and doused snacks. The dining program centers around different a la carte meat cuts with sauces, veggies, and sides available on a per-dish basis. With banquets and plenty of dark reds, the restaurant has an up-do, date-night feel to it.

La Gare

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French old school pleasures define this long-standing Santa Rosa institution. Gen X-ers remember prom dinners there; Boomers, their first taste of beef Wellington. From veal dijonnaise to frog’s legs to coq au vin, La Gare has maintained its menu (and client base) for more than 30 years by keeping a romantic menu heavy on shared meals that are irresistible and still excellent, even after all these years. Come hungry: all entrees include soup and salad. Vegetarian and gluten-free items available.

La Gare/Facebook

Jackson's Bar and Oven

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Chef-owner Josh Silvers named this place for his son and it does his boy good stead, offering consistent American food ranging from salads to burgers to wood-fired pizzas. The full bar area, set in dormer windows at the restaurant’s front and the lively crowd there make this a good first date meeting place. Plus: beignets and Nutella pizza for dessert, including a gluten-free version.

The Spinster Sisters

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Spinster Sisters, open for dinner inside and in the garden weather permitting, helped revive the South A Street neighborhood and Santa Rosans longing for interesting choices. Chef-owner Liza Hinman works with the seasons and her own award-winning palate to keep veggie-rich menu regulars as well as hamburgers, an extensive seafood menu, and cheeses. There are always great wines on tap, a comfortable wooden bar wraps the room, and winemakers come to hang out every few weeks.

Perch + Plow

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Overlooking Courthouse Square in the former Christy’s on the Square, this is a solid date spot for its sunset views, good drinks, fresh seafood, and parallel play side-by-side window seating. Bright, creative preparations of fish and vegetables, show-stopping cocktails, and a strong weekend happy hour have made it a Santa Rosa go-to since it opened in 2018.

Mac's Deli and Cafe

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Reminiscent of LA’s famed Canter’s, this traditional Jewish deli has had everything crave-able, from lean brisket to matzo ball soup to fresh rye bread, available since 1952. The menu numbers well over 100 items, including a pastrami sandwich with a side salad and a glass of beer. So very civilized. Breakfast and lunch only.

Dierk's Parkside Cafe

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Its counters crowded with plates of freshly frosted cinnamon buns, Dierk’s is a place to indulge. Make certain to include the Country Benedict, which builds upon a thick baguette slice and flows into mushrooms, bacon pieces, roasted tomatoes, and sautéed spinach all napped with a fresh hot hollandaise and nestled next to crispy home fries. Breakfast and lunch only, but look for the occasional special dinner event.

Ca'Bianca

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Occupying the historic 19th century “White House” in the downtown residential district, Ca’ Bianca exudes a date night charm that beguiles even the food, about which there is nothing particularly notable or poor to report. The white tablecloth service, handsome wooden bar, and rose-heavy gardens add enchantment to the expected array of pastas and meat dishes sourced from all corners of Italy.

Rosso Pizzeria & Wine Bar

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Futbol is king at Rosso’s, and so is pizza crust, made via a reverse osmosis process that puts air into dough as vigorously as an Italian puts fut to bol. Woodfired pizza is the main, but making a meal of such starters as beef and veal meatballs or house-made burrata offers reliable excellence. The menu changes with the seasons and the bar at Rosso is an exciting place to be when the first tomatoes are picked for caprese or the blood oranges have ripened for spritz. In other words: Go often.

SEA Thai Bistro

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This successful local chain with the hidden acronym in its name (SEA stands for South East Asian) reinvented Thai food for North Bay eaters with an emphasis on fresh, seasonal, organic ingredients, particularly salads and noodles. Understanding local palates, chef Tony Ounpamornchai has his kitchen adjust the heat without complaint. Now located in Montgomery Village with a huge bar weighting the center of the room, the glass sculptures hanging down from the ceiling suggest both Dale Chihuly and Jules Verne.

Cascabel

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Cascabel Santa Rosa is worth the slight hunt it requires to find. Deceptively large, with a covered side patio and a deep interior dining room, this informal Mexican-style house offers freshly fried chips and three types of salsa as a welcoming gesture, assuring guests that they’re in good hands from the start. Specializing in tequila and mezcal, Cascabel has a lively bar, but it’s the fresh food that makes it a hit.

Gary Chu gave up his eponymous Chinese place in 2017 to focus exclusively on sushi at his small fish house and sake bar. Featuring robato open-grill cooking as well as numerous rolls, sashimi, and nigiri, Osake is a beloved favorite, as admired for the freshness of the food as for Chu’s friendly presence at the counter. The sake menu is divided into four categories, ranging from “Deep & Earthy” to “Clean & Elegant” and is available in single and double pours as well as by the bottle.

The Villa

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Family-owned since 1976, this Italianate granddaddy has one of the best views of golden California hills to be glimpsed from an overstuffed banquette in Sonoma County — or anywhere. Gloriously old-fashioned, with a terrific bar staffed by lifers, and a deft hand at deep-frying anything, the Villa is a gas — particularly at the daily happy hour. Still featuring dishes rendered doré or picatta, the Villa has all the pastas, scampis, veal, and sole dishes you might remember, served up with a flirty elderly charm.

The Bird

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Formally Santa Rosa Avenue landmark Willie Bird’s, the Bird is its similarly old-fashioned reincarnation, located across town on Sonoma Highway. Willie Bird’s was known for offering Thanksgiving dinner all year round, and it’s still all turkey, all the time here, just with additional sandwiches, entrees, appetizers, and barbecue on the menu, as well as a full bar. The Bird hosts live music every Friday through Sunday.

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John Ash & Co.

John Ash’s defining legacy of wine country dining lives on at the Vintner’s Inn, where ingredients are drawn largely from the lodge’s own gardens and relationships with some 30 local farmers. Meant for expense accounts and special events, the entrees are expensive and tend to the aerie of foie gras, short ribs, and veal, but are executed with care. Locals know that the excellent and inexpensive happy hour staged daily in the Front Room bar area is a wonderful way to unwind and enjoy some of the same views and quality care that the expense account seats get.

Sazón | Peruvian Cuisine

Peruvian cuisine — as interpreted through Sazón’s kitchen — appeals to all tastes with six types of ceviche and main dishes heavy with plantain, cassava, and sweet potato. Native Peruvian aji amarillo sauce touches many dishes brightly. Don’t miss a chance to have a purple corn drink. Meanwhile, the Deli by Sazón, adjacent to the dining room, offers traditional deli sandwiches as well as some more Peruvian-inflected to-go fare.

Stark's Steak & Seafood

Happy Hour, oysters, and steaks are the defining nouns for this retro meat palace, part of the Stark family’s Sonoma County dynasty of dining. Dark and masculine, the moody bar hosts weekday happy hour with martini specials and a range of reliably fried and doused snacks. The dining program centers around different a la carte meat cuts with sauces, veggies, and sides available on a per-dish basis. With banquets and plenty of dark reds, the restaurant has an up-do, date-night feel to it.

La Gare

La Gare/Facebook

French old school pleasures define this long-standing Santa Rosa institution. Gen X-ers remember prom dinners there; Boomers, their first taste of beef Wellington. From veal dijonnaise to frog’s legs to coq au vin, La Gare has maintained its menu (and client base) for more than 30 years by keeping a romantic menu heavy on shared meals that are irresistible and still excellent, even after all these years. Come hungry: all entrees include soup and salad. Vegetarian and gluten-free items available.

La Gare/Facebook

Jackson's Bar and Oven

Chef-owner Josh Silvers named this place for his son and it does his boy good stead, offering consistent American food ranging from salads to burgers to wood-fired pizzas. The full bar area, set in dormer windows at the restaurant’s front and the lively crowd there make this a good first date meeting place. Plus: beignets and Nutella pizza for dessert, including a gluten-free version.

The Spinster Sisters

Spinster Sisters, open for dinner inside and in the garden weather permitting, helped revive the South A Street neighborhood and Santa Rosans longing for interesting choices. Chef-owner Liza Hinman works with the seasons and her own award-winning palate to keep veggie-rich menu regulars as well as hamburgers, an extensive seafood menu, and cheeses. There are always great wines on tap, a comfortable wooden bar wraps the room, and winemakers come to hang out every few weeks.

Perch + Plow

Overlooking Courthouse Square in the former Christy’s on the Square, this is a solid date spot for its sunset views, good drinks, fresh seafood, and parallel play side-by-side window seating. Bright, creative preparations of fish and vegetables, show-stopping cocktails, and a strong weekend happy hour have made it a Santa Rosa go-to since it opened in 2018.

Mac's Deli and Cafe

Reminiscent of LA’s famed Canter’s, this traditional Jewish deli has had everything crave-able, from lean brisket to matzo ball soup to fresh rye bread, available since 1952. The menu numbers well over 100 items, including a pastrami sandwich with a side salad and a glass of beer. So very civilized. Breakfast and lunch only.

Dierk's Parkside Cafe

Its counters crowded with plates of freshly frosted cinnamon buns, Dierk’s is a place to indulge. Make certain to include the Country Benedict, which builds upon a thick baguette slice and flows into mushrooms, bacon pieces, roasted tomatoes, and sautéed spinach all napped with a fresh hot hollandaise and nestled next to crispy home fries. Breakfast and lunch only, but look for the occasional special dinner event.

Ca'Bianca

Occupying the historic 19th century “White House” in the downtown residential district, Ca’ Bianca exudes a date night charm that beguiles even the food, about which there is nothing particularly notable or poor to report. The white tablecloth service, handsome wooden bar, and rose-heavy gardens add enchantment to the expected array of pastas and meat dishes sourced from all corners of Italy.

Rosso Pizzeria & Wine Bar

Futbol is king at Rosso’s, and so is pizza crust, made via a reverse osmosis process that puts air into dough as vigorously as an Italian puts fut to bol. Woodfired pizza is the main, but making a meal of such starters as beef and veal meatballs or house-made burrata offers reliable excellence. The menu changes with the seasons and the bar at Rosso is an exciting place to be when the first tomatoes are picked for caprese or the blood oranges have ripened for spritz. In other words: Go often.

SEA Thai Bistro

This successful local chain with the hidden acronym in its name (SEA stands for South East Asian) reinvented Thai food for North Bay eaters with an emphasis on fresh, seasonal, organic ingredients, particularly salads and noodles. Understanding local palates, chef Tony Ounpamornchai has his kitchen adjust the heat without complaint. Now located in Montgomery Village with a huge bar weighting the center of the room, the glass sculptures hanging down from the ceiling suggest both Dale Chihuly and Jules Verne.

Cascabel

Cascabel Santa Rosa is worth the slight hunt it requires to find. Deceptively large, with a covered side patio and a deep interior dining room, this informal Mexican-style house offers freshly fried chips and three types of salsa as a welcoming gesture, assuring guests that they’re in good hands from the start. Specializing in tequila and mezcal, Cascabel has a lively bar, but it’s the fresh food that makes it a hit.