What a year. On the downside, normal is still far more of a concept than a reality. But on a bright note, my favorite eats this year are not comprised solely of takeout foods. I actually was able to dine outside at restaurants, and a couple times even indoors when the situation felt especially safe. So, there is that.
Whether you are comfortable dining indoors, only outdoors or just through delivery or takeout orders, please continue to support your local restaurants, which still need you more than ever.
To stoke your appetite to do so, here are my Top 10 eats of this year, in no particular order:
Walking through the doors of the soaring, three-story The Matheson in downtown Healdsburg, which opened this summer, there is no doubt that this place is as personal as it gets for Chef-Owner Dustin Valette.
All you need do is turn your head left and right, as you look high up on the walls. There, you’ll spy the evocative, colorful murals by San Francisco painter Jay Mercado that vividly depict “Sonoma heroes.” Prominent among them are Valette’s father Bob, a recently retired CalFire pilot who helped battle wildfires far and near; and Valette’s French immigrant great-grandfather Honore, who owned the Snowflake Bakery, which nearly a century ago sat on the same site as The Matheson. Lushly hued, they are symbols of a proud family legacy. But one that was almost lost to so-called progress.
More than four years ago, a developer bought this $7.5 million property with its prime location on the square with the intention of leveling everything to build a luxury hotel and condos (priced at $4 million each). Dustin, who opened the popular Valette’s restaurant six years ago on the square, was approached to see if he was interested in building a restaurant on the first floor. Moments after he heard the details, though, he walked out of the meeting.
“I said that I couldn’t be a part of this,” he recounted as we chatted last week. “I couldn’t watch as they tore down something that got my family here.”
One of the partners, tech entrepreneur Craig Ramsay, followed Dustin out of the room to ask what the chef would build there instead.
You know a restaurant has got it going on when it is packed on a Monday night.
The start of the week is typically a sleepy night for most restaurants. But not for Valette in downtown Healdsburg. On a recent Monday night, when I dropped in to dine at the bar solo (paying my own tab at the end), the place was bustling shortly after opening at 5:15 p.m.
Chef Dustin Valette and his brother Aaron Garzini opened the beloved restaurant in 2015 in the same property that their great-grandfather once owned. They turned it into a convivial space, with warm polished wood, big hefty leather bar chairs, and a golden glow from globe chandeliers.
Dustin was off that night. But I did get to meet his father, who in his mid-70s, still flies for the state Department of Forestry, responding to forest fires, including the devastating fires in Napa and Sonoma in the last two years.
Ahi poke that stands out from the pack.
When Dustin was a kid, his father would take him to school — dropping him off in his plane — because it was quicker than the school bus. How’s that for one cool ride?