The buzz among foodies about SingleThread Farm-Restaurant-Inn started long before it became reality. Plans for the newest ultra-dining experience in Sonoma County were first announced two-and-a-half years ago, when the impressive two-story structure going up at the corner of North and Center streets in Healdsburg was nearing completion. For decades the town’s post office had stood on that corner, one block north of the Plaza, as a long-time community hub. But it was destroyed by fire in 2010.
The empty lot was an eyesore before Pete Seghesio of the Seghesio wine family bought it and started construction in 2013. As envisioned by Seghesio, his Healdsburg Meat Company project would combine a butcher shop, cafe and wine tasting at street level, together with a USDA-approved production facility for processing raw meat and making salumi. A few hotel rooms would occupy the second floor. The roof, with sweeping views of surrounding hills, could be used for special events.
After construction was well underway, Seghesio learned he wouldn’t have enough square footage for both the retail space and the production facility, based on strict USDA regulations.
Enter Kyle and Katina Connaughton, chef and farmer, respectively, who had moved to Healdsburg in 2011. Kyle, 40, has an impressive resume that includes stints at Spago Beverly Hills and The Fat Duck in England, together with several years working for chef Michel Bras at his Michelin-starred restaurant in Hokkaido, Japan. After settling into their new home, the Connaughtons began looking for a suitable property to create a trifecta of hospitality––an elevated dining experience, a small inn, and a plot of nearby land to grow specialized produce for the restaurant.
Serendipity steps in
“We wanted to be in Healdsburg, but we opened up our scope because there were limited properties to create a project like this,” says Kyle. “So while we were trying to figure that out, Katina created gardens at The Barlow and farmed at several area wineries, and she was also the greenhouse manager at Santa Rosa Junior College’s ag school.”
Kyle, meanwhile, co-founded Pilot R&D with three partners. Pilot R&D collaborates with restaurants and food companies, from small startups to global corporations, either as an advisor or an external research and development team. The group works on numerous forward-thinking projects dealing with food science and product challenges, and part of their early work was helping develop ideas and dishes for Kyle’s own restaurant, in anticipation of one day having a venue to show them off.
Time passed, and then serendipity intervened: Seghesio’s new building, too small for his project, looked like a perfect fit for the Connaughton’s restaurant-inn vision. “All of a sudden, the Seghesio family didn’t need the building for the use they had intended,” says Kyle. “So Katina and I put together an investment group, got a real estate development partner to assist with that, and we took over the site.”
Construction went on hold for eight months while the Connaughtons redesigned the plans for their purpose. The finished configuration, totaling approximately 12,000 square feet, is a 52-seat restaurant and state-of-the-art kitchen on the ground floor; five guest rooms on the second floor, along with a breakfast/business nook space; and a welcoming rooftop lounge with an aperitif bar, greenhouse, planter boxes on wheels filled with herbs, and cozy chairs and sofas where diners begin their experience. An elevator zips guests quickly between floors.
“It was easy working through the permit process because most of the heavy lifting had been done,” says Kyle. “We had a new design review, mostly about the exterior we proposed, and after the design phase was approved we moved forward to complete the building. We used the same architect and most of the people who had worked on the initial project. So we started on the property in December 2014 and opened for business in December 2016. I wasn’t surprised it took as long as it did, but we were originally aiming to open by summer of 2016.”
Much has already been published about the Connaughton’s Japanese-inspired dishes, with produce grown on their five-acre farm nearby. The couple began farming the plot about 18 months before the restaurant opened. “It was a fallow piece of land and we had to till it all down,” says Kyle. “Then we did cover crops and built a greenhouse.”
Part of creating an elevated dining experience is to showcase not only their own produce but also those of farms around them. Says Kyle, “We use peaches from Dry Creek Peach, and produce from Foggy River Farms, Middleton Farms and Bernier Farms, who are growing certain things for us.” SingleThread also employs a full-time forager to seek out other producers and farmers in Sonoma County who may have something to offer.
SingleThread’s logo is an onion flower, a graphic branding found on napkins, menus and chef’s whites, and even the inspiration for the paper ceiling lanterns in the guest rooms. “Katina grows a lot of Japanese varieties of onions, because it’s the one thing we can grow here year-round, and so that’s a big part of our cooking,” says Kyle.
Ingredients are mostly sourced in Sonoma County, and Connaughton’s team visits farms and wineries together frequently to gather more knowledge about the area. “Most of the team is pretty new to Sonoma County,” says Kyle. “Our general manager, David Sisler, and head sommelier, Evan Hufford, both worked in San Francisco at Saison. So some of the staff moved here to be part of our restaurant, and others who are from here are sharing their expertise.” More than 40 people comprise the restaurant and inn staff.
“It’s good to have a great mix of people––those from the outside bringing their experience from other great restaurants, and those from here who can share their local knowledge.”
Kyle Connaughton gave a personal tour of the property on a recent afternoon, pointing out that the restaurant and inn were fully booked for the evening. The entrance along North Street is so low-key that on a sunny day it’s possible to walk on by before realizing you missed it. “We wanted it to feel discreet and not stand out too much,” he says. “Because Healdsburg gets so many visitors walking around, a lot of people will open the door and walk in and ask to see a menu. That’s why our door is on the side street and not on the corner.”
On this day, the door was unlocked by mid-afternoon to begin the check-in process for guests of the inn’s luxurious rooms. Two smiling couples rolled their luggage into the small reception lobby just after 3 p.m. Before ascending to the second floor, they could watch the chef activity in the finishing kitchen through a large picture window.
“When we first greet dinner guests, we show them the window into the kitchen, then one of the service team takes them to the roof (weather permitting), where they start their experience,” says Kyle. The massive redwood door separating the lobby from the dining room remains closed, allowing for a big reveal when diners are later shown to their tables.
The lush planter boxes on the roof are an extension of Katina’s farm, he says. “It’s just over the hill there,” he says, pointing to the north. “You can almost see it.” Guests can wander through the greenery while they sip sparkling wine and take in the expansive view. They are then served small bites from the kitchen while a sommelier recommends wine pairings for the main event. Most guests relax on the roof from 20 minutes to an hour before descending to the dining room.
The interior of SingleThread was carefully executed. “We created the feeling that you were coming to someone’s home or to a dinner party instead of entering a restaurant,” says Kyle. “That was our goal––to give it a living room kind of feel.”
And indeed it does. For the three- to four-hour meal, the chairs and banquettes are plush and comfortable. A huge vase of natural branches and greenery, selected and arranged by Katina, adds whimsy and color. The carpeted room is quiet, and other innovations in the design help tamp down extraneous noise. During meal service, sliding doors are opened to show diners the lovely finishing kitchen with Japanese ceramic donabe pots lining the walls. The pots are used in many of the meal presentations.
“We can walk right out of the kitchen and speak to everyone, and guests can see some of the cooking going on,” says Kyle. “After the last courses are served, we close the doors to start cleaning––guests don’t need to see or hear that.”
Walled off from the restaurant is a concrete fermentation tank. “Pete Seghesio had already received a winery permit for this site, so we absorbed that into our plans,” explains Kyle. “Because of tied house laws, this tiny winery has to be separate from the restaurant, with its own door and address. So we are working with Pete to bring in a different Sonoma County winemaker each year who can do something unique and different in that tank, then we’ll bottle it and make it available here. It will be our wine of the year, served in the restaurant and in the rooms. It’s a novelty for us, and a bonus for guests to take away.”
In May, the AvroKO design firm, which specializes in hospitality projects, won the 2017 James Beard Foundation award for “Best Restaurant Design” (75 seats and under) for its work on SingleThread’s interior design, custom furniture and lighting, branding and graphics. In the foodie world, it’s the equivalent of winning an Academy Award.
Rooms at the inn
AvroKO also designed the inn rooms, which strongly encourage guests to decompress, says Kyle. “They feel like a guest room in a private home. We tried to take away anything that would make this feel like a normal hotel. Nothing in the rooms costs extra—everything is included, even breakfast.” (Tariffs range from $700 to $1,000 per night.)
The 750-square-foot suite, the largest of the rooms, has a mini-kitchen area chockfull of local wine and craft beer, such as Pliny the Elder, hot beverages and juices. Automated Japanese toilets, which turn “on” as you approach by raising the lid, are installed in the rooms and in the restaurant. [Most guests are fascinated by the toilets, adds Kyle with a chuckle. “I don’t know why they haven’t caught on yet in America.”
Cutting-edge technology, in fact, is embedded throughout the building, but the staff works to make it inconspicuous. “Any time we use technology, it’s put away out of sight, so people don’t see us interact with a device or a screen,” he says. “I wanted it that way so guests wouldn’t feel its presence. They are supposed to leave work behind when they arrive, but they don’t always unhook.”
Regardless of the occasional workaholic checking in, SingleThread was recently named by Condé Nast Traveler as one of the “Most Romantic Weekend Getaways in the United States.”
Strong local clientele
Kyle Connaughton shrugs off comparisons between his restaurant and the French Laundry in Yountville, or St. Helena’s Meadowood. “Our cuisines are very different from one another, so it’s different experiences for diners. There are some apples and oranges to it, in that we all have a tasting menu format, but we are certainly not in competition with them.”
The French Laundry’s Thomas Keller, in fact, sent a large-format, engraved bottle of Krug wine to the Connaughtons when SingleThread received a four-star review in the San Francisco Chronicle. “Thomas Keller is a mentor and a friend, and he’s been very supportive,” says Kyle.
Before SingleThread opened, he adds, there was a notion in Healdsburg that it would be only for tourists. “We’re new, and our newness will fade, but I always knew we’d have a strong local clientele, and I’m pleasantly surprised that it’s as big as it is. Some guests have already come back three and four times. In some places I’ve worked before, almost all of the guests came just once so they could check that place off their bucket list. It was rare for us to have repeat guests.”
Healdsburg’s mayor, Shaun McCaffery, who describes himself as “more of a taco guy” than a fine diner, is pleased to have a restaurant like SingleThread in his city. “It raises all the boats, because the other restaurants in town get side business from it, as well. We saw the same thing happen when Cyrus was here, because it put Healdsburg on the culinary map.” Cyrus closed in 2012.
The Connaughtons achieved their initial goal of opening and operating SingleThread the way they had planned all along, without compromises. “We are where we wanted to be from the beginning,” says Kyle. “We haven’t had to say, oh, later on we’ll do this or that. We want to do some incremental things as time goes on, but for now we’re trying to see where we can make small improvements, to make the experience even better for our guests.”
As late-afternoon prep work in the dining room picks up, and more staff members begin scurrying about, Kyle is eager to join the activity and go do what he does best. “I have to jump back into the kitchen now.”
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