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Land o' Plenty
Pleased to serve you: 'Best Waitperson' Maggie London knows the secret of success.
Photo by Janet Orsi
'Best of' local food and drink--
something to chew on
Remember those dreadful ads that ran in Rolling Stone magazine back in the late 1980s, the ones that placed a photo of a naked hippie with the caption "Perception" next to a sneering, Armani-clad yuppie labeled "Reality"? Well, there seems to be an equally Olduvai Gorge-sized Perception/Reality gap regarding the state of dining and drink in Sonoma County, at least as far as the mainstream media are concerned. To read the dining sections of innumerable California newspapers and magazines, one would think every resident of Sonoma County spends his or her evenings neck-deep in warm peat moss with cucumber wedges under the eyes and a glass of $50 white wine in hand, waiting for that entrée of radicchio and smoked emu breast in tarragon sauce to arrive. But as our readers' answers show, that high-end yuppie gourmand stuff is mostly for the tourists. Sonoma County residents' dining priorities are a lot more down to earth, and rightfully so. While some of these preferences are no doubt indicative of economic reality (who can afford haute cuisine every night?) and a lack of pretension, we'd like to think they also reflect an admirable focus on the more social aspects of dining and drinking. After all, everything tastes better when shared with someone you love, so perhaps Independent readers are simply taking their dining cues from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayam: a loaf of bread (preferably from Village Bakery, say our voters), a jug of wine (from Kenwood or DeLoach Vineyards, of course), and Thou.
Best Place Not to Take
Dr. McDougall for Dinner
For a big, juicy, high-cholesterol, diet-defying slab of no-frills meat, go west, young person, to Bloomfield. You won't find anything cute or pretentious on the menu at Stormy's (open for dinner Thursday through Sunday evenings at 6650 Bloomfield Road), a venerable, family-run roadhouse, but you certainly won't go away hungry, either. Steaks are thick and flavorful, and the perfectly pink prime rib comes in hand-hewn slices that threaten to overwhelm the plate that holds them. Entrées come with soup and salad, vegetables and bread, for carnivores who enjoy all the basic food groups. Prices are reasonable, and you get a pleasant drive through the west county coming and going in the bargain.--B.R.
Best Café for Hip, Late-Night Discussions of God, Sex, and Death
First of all, it's not technically a café. It's Not of This World (609 Fifth St., Santa Rosa), and it's a bookshop; it is during the day, anyway. When it reopens each evening (Tuesday through Saturday) at around 8, it trans-forms into a "mystical hangout," offering free coffee (good coffee to boot!), snacks (try the peanut-butter balls), and a turn-down-the-lights atmosphere that practically screams "Beatnik!" and that lasts until midnight. Since it began opening at night, Not of This World has become an unlikely hit, drawing an eclectic group of late-night conversationalists, everyone from body-pierced punkers to soul-searching monks. The creation of Fathers Paisius DeLucia and David Skopp, members of the same local Eastern Orthodox monastic order to which Brother Peter Reinhart (creator of Brother Juniper's Bakery) belongs, the bookstore/night spot was planned as a place for people to comfortably discuss mystical subjects, though many of the younger patrons are eager to talk about other stuff: problems at school and home, whatever. Above all, the place is fun, though certainly not run-of-the-mill. For heartfelt verbal explorations of the universe's deeper mysteries, there is no better environment in Sonoma County.--D.T.
Best Place to Taste to 'Tosca'
True Italian food lovers know that you're not going to find the ultimate pizza experience at a sports bar surrounded by screaming Little Leaguers. But that's just one reason why Lo Coco's Italian Restaurant and Pizzeria (56 East Washington St., Petaluma) is such a find. Their pizza is arguably the North Bay's best, and there also are a lot of other menu items worth recommending--and all for the same reason. Ingredients are not only fresh, they are for the most part created with imported Italian products that lend a delectable authenticity to the cuisine. And when the sound system isn't playing the lush strands of a Puccini aria or an Ellington jazz suite, the customers are likely to be tapping their toes to the sound of live jazz performed by some of the region's finest musicians.--G.C.
Best Place to Relive Your Parents' Middle-Class Upbringing
The ceiling is so low you're certain that the living room is just upstairs and you better not turn the stereo (oops, make that the jukebox) up too loud because Mom and Pop might come down to see what the hell you're doing. With team pennants and mildly shocking girlie photos up on the walls, plus well-used pool tables that look as if Pop picked them up just for the kids to mess around with, Red's Recovery Room looks just like the rec rooms of yore, except that Mom and Pop haven't aged that well. With an In-crowd all its own, Red's gingerly welcomes outsiders. The place pours such generous vodka gimlets that, after just a few sips, you're ready to roll up the rugs and do the Twist. And wouldn't you donate your liver to some deserving soul just to have thought up the name of this place yourself? Located on Highway 116 going west to Sebas-topol from Cotati, Red's doesn't mess around with the phone book. In a Zen way, Red's will be there for those who seek. --G.G.
Best Place to Say "Hold the Salt"
Housed in a just-barely-remodeled old gas station (you can spend some quality time figuring out the physics of pumping ethyl while you wait for your food), Cotija Restaurant (330 Western Ave., Petaluma) serves up authentic south-of-the-border grub that goes a lettle heavy on the sel-food. But request that this humble spice be withheld, and you'll hold some of the tastiest soft tacos around in your salivating little grasp. Tiny (four tables and the place is bursting) and unassuming, Cotija is the perfect place to practice your rough translation skills (on the menu, you dolt--the proprietors seem to understand that a second language is a necessity in our global village) and to daydream over the phrase "the fruits of the sea." Inexpensive--just try to spend more than $5 and still waddle away--and friendly, Cotija is the type of little neighborhood joint that most neighborhoods wished they still had.--G.G.
Best Place to Swirl and Spit
Frankly, we're pretty unclear on this "swirl and spit" concept. You taste the wine, but you don't swallow it? What's the point of that? Everyone knows a day of winetasting isn't complete until you're seeing triple, and bellowing for the designated driver to take you home now, please. But if one is determined to wine-taste the oh-so-sophisticated non-swallowing way, there's no better place to do it than Rafanelli Winery (4685 West Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg; 433-1385). Located on a postcard-perfect spot of land, the homey, family-owned winery and tasting room offers a fine selection of wines in a mercifully non-pretentious setting. So while the spirit of Bacchus might not be satisfied with the results, your palate will get an education and your liver will still respect you the next morning. The winery is open Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and it's best to call ahead.--Z.S.
Best Place to Get a Burger
That Still Goes Moo
"Mellow out," grins Mike Condrin, shaking his spatula at a wisecracking customer. "Mellow out or I'll burn your burger!" Moments later, he pulls a water rifle on another patron while shouting, "Come on in. Shut the door!" to a newcomer. Welcome to Mike's at the Yard, the charmingly atmospheric home of what may be the biggest, freshest, and juiciest hamburgers anywhere in Sonoma County. As good as the food is, it's clear that many of the regulars here are fans of Mike himself. Ruling his roost with a keen wit and a quick tongue, he's the Robin Williams of meat slingers. Located within the massive, barnlike building that houses the Petaluma Livestock Auction Yard on North Petaluma Boulevard (near Corona) in Petaluma, Mike's is a bona fide cultural treasure, painted inside like a spotted cow and decorated with posters advertising road-kill entrées. A phenomenally popular spot among local cattlemen (a group that knows good beef when they bite it), auction days--Mondays and Thursdays--become especially lively. A great place for parents to demonstrate the food chain at work. Moo.--D.T.
Best Place to Divide and Conquer
Molly Malone's Irish Pub and Grille in Healdsburg (245 Healdsburg Ave.) has found that if you put the women in one room and the men in another, people seem to have an unusually good time. Accordingly, once a month Malone's cuts closely along gender lines and hosts Men's and Women's Nights. For the guys, there are large steamy slabs of bloody fatty meat, fine wines, cognac, and cigars. Oh yeah, there are also what Malone's delicately terms "special videos." Pub staffers swear that the gents are just sitting around puffing and digesting to sports bloopers, but we wonder. Women's Night offers champagne and salmon and usually something that's been truffled. After-dinner entertainment is a fashion show, though more than one young damsel has been heard to murmur just the teeniest desire to be able to stuff a $5 bill down the G-string of an all-male strip revue entertaining après desserts. For details on which night your sex is represented, call 431-1856.--G.G.
Best Place to Feed the World with the Change in the Sofa Cushion
What can we say about the incomparable El Capitan (544 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa), home of the 99-cent Dumbo burrito? That it's the best nutritional bang for your buck in town? That it beats out Ramen and Mac & Cheese hands down as the day-before-payday meal of choice? Yeah, sure, but the appeal of the Dumbo can't be put into mere prose, so we've set it to haiku verse instead.
Meat, flour, frijoles,
Swathed in aluminum skin,
Eat the Dumbo now.
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From the March 28-April 3, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent
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