With its blend of small-town charm and big-city chic, Healdsburg, California, has become a sophisticated hub that continues to celebrate its rural roots. Here’s how to make the most of it.
By Gemma Price
As far as California wine country destinations go, Healdsburg, an hour’s drive north of San Francisco in Sonoma County, has always been one of my favorites. Everything is within a minute’s walk; two, maybe, if you’re dawdling. The town is home to disarmingly friendly people as well as a swath of stylish concept stores, cutesy home-ware boutiques, and irresistible places to eat, drink, and linger, most of a caliber you’d expect to find in a much larger city. Yes, nearby Napa has always had more sparkle when it comes to places to drink and dine, but Sonoma—and especially Healdsburg—offers laidback charm in spades.
WHERE TO EAT
The biggest news on the culinary front comes with the hotly anticipated opening of Kyle and Katina Connaughton’s Single Thread (131 North St.; no telephone), a 52-seat fine-dining restaurant with an attached inn and its own farm plot at the nearby San Lorenzo Vineyard. Katina, a skilled horticulturalist with a focus on sustainable agriculture, manages the farm as well an “edible roofscape” atop the restaurant to supply the kitchen with olives, fruit, micro greens, and eggs from her flock of Ameraucana and Light Brahma heritage-breed chickens. Come September, her chef husband Kyle, a soft-spoken L.A. native whose résumé includes stints with Michel Bras and Heston Blumenthal, will serve an 11-course kaiseki-style tasting menu nightly, driven by what’s fresh in Sonoma—particularly from Katina’s farm—that day. Dinner starts with champagne and canapés on the roof at sunset; dishes served in the home-kitchen-inspired dining room might include Sonoma duck with spinach, green garlic, and morel or Monterey abalone with garlic scape, melted onion, and fingered-citron kosho.
A short stroll away, Valette (344 Center St.; 1- 707/473-0946) was opened last year by brothers Dustin Valette and Aaron Garzini. If à la carte options such as day-boat scallops en croûte with fennel, caviar, and a rich champagne-infused beurre blanc don’t tempt you, opt for the as-many-courses-as-you-can-handle tasting menu—chef Valette will pop out to say hello and introduce dishes whenever he gets a spare moment. Or head to Chalkboard (29 North St.; 1-707/473-8030), where vaulted ceilings and marble-topped tables give the dining room a cloistered, cellar-like ambience, ensuring your attention is fully directed to those plates of fried Brussels sprouts, hamachi crudo, and buttermilk-fried chicken being whisked from the open kitchen.
Chef Perry Hoffman, who earned a Michelin star three years running during his previous tenure at Domaine Chandon’s now-shuttered fine-dining restaurant Étoile, helms the excellent café at SHED (25 North St.; 1-707/431-7433), a grange hall and marketplace set in a barn-like steel-and-glass structure. Dishes such as the duck paté salad with autumn squash, Asian pears, chestnuts, chicories, and cider syrup prompted San Francisco Chronicle food critic Michael Bauer to name it Sonoma County’s “most authentic and beautifully conceived restaurant” in a recent three-star review.
For standout Italian fare, eight-year-old trattoria Scopa (109A Plaza St.; 1-707/433-5282) remains a must for its grilled baby octopus and tomato-braised chicken served with a warm cloud of polenta. And if it’s the sweet stuff you crave, Noble Folk Ice Cream & Pie Bar (116 Matheson St.; 1-707/395-4426) is sure to satisfy. Grab a slice of chocolate-maple-walnut or lemon-custard pie with a scoop of organic buffalo-milk vanilla ice cream and sit out in Healdsburg’s tree-ringed town square to enjoy it in the sunshine.
WHERE TO SHOP
Tucked around the town’s foodie haunts are a handful of chic boutiques with edits to delight even the most discerning shopper. For home furnishings and decor, Saint Dizier Home (259 Center St.; 1-707/473-0980) is a one-stop shop for the wine country–style house, while the drawers at all-white Gallery Lulo (303 Center St.; 1-707/433-7533) contain a kaleidoscopic array of jewelry by independent designers, including sculptural pieces by co-owner Karen Gilbert. OSKA (310 Center St.; 1-707/431-7717), a Munich-based label, stocks contemporary women’s clothing cut in loose, flowing silhouettes in neutral colors. Style-conscious gents aren’t left wanting, either. Hipster haven Ereloom (110 Matheson St.; 1- 707/395-0550) sells handcrafted leather accessories and tweed bowties alongside edgy urban men’s labels such as Theory and John Varvatos. At Outlander (103 Plaza St; 1-707/433-7800), which curates pieces ranging from Tommy Bahama shorts and tees to sartorial selections from Rodd & Gunn, the fitting room is inside a huge vault—staff say it’s left over from the time the building housed a branch of the Bank of Italy.
WHERE TO SLEEP
Another of Healdsburg’s major plus points is its clutch of charming, boutique places to stay. With its September debut, this includes the inn at Single Thread (doubles from US$700), where those lucky enough to snag one of the five upper-floor guest suites can look forward to an experience inspired by a stay at the Connaughton’s own home. Kitchen-made drinks and snacks are offered in lieu of a mini-bar and potential daytime experiences include cooking classes with Kyle and the kitchen team, wine tastings, and trips to the farm to work alongside Katina and her 20-year-old daughter Chloe.
Home to Charlie Palmer’s excellent Dry Creek Kitchen restaurant, where people come as much for a glass of wine at the bar or outdoor patio as the tasting menu, Hotel Healdsburg (25 Matheson St.; 1-707/431-2800; doubles from US$399) is another standout. Accommodations feature contemporary lighting, illuminated laurel-wood headboards, and decorative pieces by local artisans, including ethereal cloud paintings by Healdsburg-based artist Wade Hoefer. The spa offers indulgent massage and beauty packages while the newly updated pool and outdoor relaxation area is a perfect place to while away a few hours.
A short drive from town, rooms at the gabled, 1881-built mansion Madrona Manor (1001 Westside Rd.; 1-707/433-4231; doubles from US$235) come with antique four-poster beds and furnishings, framed Victorian-era christening gowns, and balconies with views over the estate’s rambling flower gardens and vineyards. Even if you’re not staying the night, the hotel’s Michelin-starred French restaurant is well worth visiting in its own right—dishes on chef Jesse Mallgren’s seasonal nine-course tasting menus might include quail with onion soubise and Bulgarian osetra caviar with smoked-duck gelée and crème fraîche.
If you have a free afternoon, spend it at the Francis Ford Coppola Winery in neaby Geyserville. The director’s “wine wonderland” offers a cabana-lined pool and sipping and dining amidst movie memorabilia, including the bridal dress from Bram Stoker’s Dracula and prop galleons from Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette.
Summer visitors will want to book advance tickets to the Transcendence Theatre Company’s Broadway Under the Stars. The season runs until September 11 and sees spectacular music and dance revues staged within the ruins of a 19th-century winery in Jack London State Park.
This article originally appeared in the August/September print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Here’s to Healdsburg”).