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Dining Al Fresco

Author: Bonnie Durrance
June, 2018 Issue

One of the most primitive pleasures is to enjoy a meal outside in the fresh air, where you get to feel a sense of the place where you live or have come from afar to visit. The North Bay offers a rare abundance of choice when it comes to dining out-of-doors, with its diverse geography featuring sea coast, farmland, vineyards and forest. Depending on the season, the weather or the county, you can dine outside on a shady patio, lounge on a terrace with a commanding view, lunch in an urban or pastoral setting or dream of romance on a cozy deck overlooking a harbor. Now that summer is about to begin, it’s a great time to discover some new dining spots, or visit some favorite al fresco venues around the North Bay. All await your pleasure, whether for a dining experience close to home, or one that, within a reasonable drive, lets you feel you’ve taken a plane to a romantic destination.

Luna Blu

If you’re exploring the harbor from the network of boardwalks, you’ll see large open patios filled with people. And if you find yourself on the quaint and narrow Tiburon Main Street, and see the blue sign, Luna Blu, be sure to stop in. Luna Blu is a small, gem of a restaurant and the kind of place you feel excited to have discovered. It features a sheltered terrace that extends over a narrow beach.

Luna Blu offers a combination of warm Italian hospitality and friendly British politeness as owners Renzo and Crystal Azzarello are, respectively, from Italy and England. The dining room is small and pretty, but if the day is nice, head for the deck where you’ll immediately see that you’re in for something special—seagulls, sailboats and San Francisco skyline in the distance. Waves are lapping just below the deck. If the day is chilly, the deck, sheltered by the stationary awning and clear vinyl side flaps, is heated and toasty warm, but stadium blankets are available to wrap up in if you’re looking chilled.

Aside from the atmosphere and the view, you remember what you came for: fine, Italian food crafted by a chef who grew up cooking seafood on the coast of Sicily, who makes his pasta by hand, and who cares enough about what he serves to partner with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch to ensure that all the seafood they serve is sustainable. The menu is so colorful you’ll want everything. Renzo recommends the Cioppino. He prepares it with fresh salmon, monkfish, clams, mussels, calamari and prawns in a spicy tomato garlic broth. One of his favorite pastas is the mezzelune di ricotta e spinaci, a beautiful dish with the homemade ravioli filled with ricotta and spinach on a bed of marinara sauce topped with butter, sage and Parmesan. For those with gluten-free needs, may be surprised to find that Renzo and Crystal serve a gluten- free pasta that is as flavorful and every bit as exciting as the meals of your companions ––a rare treat for those looking for gluten-free options.

Luna Blu’s many awards show that the restaurant, which Renzo and Crystal launched in 2013, has become a community favorite. “We discovered the place on our honeymoon, and we renovated it with love, and that shows through,” says Crystal. It is a place for romance. “We have had four successful proposals here!” says Crystal. “And I don’t know how many weddings!” If  you’re visiting from Napa or Sonoma (or maybe stopping to wait out traffic after a day in San Francisco), Luna Blu is a perfect getaway, and parking is convenient. Be sure to make a reservation because it’s a popular spot.

Sweetwater Music Hall Café

If you’re looking for a place to meet with a friend for breakfast, a light lunch, or an afternoon bite, and want to bring your (well behaved) dog, try Sweetwater Music Hall’s Café. Long famous for its music, the new venue, across from the town hall in Mill Valley has a music hall and small indoor seating area for dining, but if the weather’s nice get a spot outside on the patio. Shaded by umbrellas, set down a few steps from the sidewalk and protected by a low wall that offers a sense of coziness and containment, the patio is a pleasant place to listen to music as you relax. Here, you can sit and read, meet with friends, and hang out while sharing a plate of uniquely tasty small bites inspired by chef Gordon Drysdale, who advertises his philosophy as fresh, local, organic, seasonal and sustainable, or FLOSS.

The fish tacos are fresh, and the tortillas are thick. The achiote braised pork shoulder tacos are tasty and enough for a meal.  For a heartier appetite, try the fried mac ‘n cheese balls. Along with the Mexican feel, the soups include a posole of braised pork shoulder, hominy, cabbage and tortilla strips ––a meal in itself. Sweetwater, great for music, is a great place to stop in for a bite, listen to music, and watch the passersby, with their dogs, without feeling pressed by the traffic or crowds.  If you have business to attend to there, or shopping in Mill Valley, it’s an ideal place to put your cares down, enjoy the sunshine, the people and the music.

Farmstead Restaurant

Eight years ago, Ted, Laddie and Chris Hall, proprietors of Long Meadow Ranch, opened the restaurant at Farmstead on a three-and-a-half acre site on Main Street in St Helena as a way to showcase and share the bounty from their vineyards, winery, olive groves, farm and ranch.  They restored the property’s historic Gothic Revival farmhouse and turned it into an elegant tasting room and general store, with planted gardens all around, through which visitors can stroll. They then transformed a former nursery barn into a rustic-elegant restaurant with a warm-weather deck for fair weather dining. The concept was to create a gathering place where people could come and enjoy “farmhouse cooking” in a rustic atmosphere, with ingredients from right outside and from the family’s own ranch, farm and vineyards.

The property is so inviting you can almost spend a day at Farmstead, eating your way from one venue to another and never—or almost never—have to go inside. The Café, a little white outdoor coffee bar in a sheltered area behind the tasting room, is shaded by a majestic old blue spruce with a communal picnic table, a few small tables and a couple of relaxing Adirondak chairs. The menu has evolved from the original coffee and a bun to a wider range of choices including salads, yogurts, Panini and house-made pastries, fresh juice drinks, coffee and espresso drinks from their custom blend from Stumptown Roasters, and Long Meadow Ranch wines. You can drop in after a bike ride, or before a meeting. It’s also a great place for a mid-afternoon caffeine hit where you can chat with a friend and enjoy the view—past the enclosing hedge and over the tops of gardens to the blue hills in the distance. Open from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, children and well-behaved dogs are welcome. This is a family-friendly restaurant; children can have a good time playing on the lawns.

At Farmstead, your outdoor options can continue through lunch and dinner on the restaurant patio. On Friday afternoons, you can stop in for a relaxing Growers’ Happy Hour on the patio bar from 4 to 6 p.m. and enjoy a range of Long Meadow Ranch wines, cocktails, craft beers and tasty plates of appetizers such as barbecued oysters, grass-fed meatballs and mini ham sandwiches.  If you’re not in a hurry, stick around because you may hear live music and can order from the bar or full menu. 

As for the food, Farmstead is a celebration of the concept, “farm to table”—from their own farm to your own table. The menu is rich with a home feel. The grass-fed beef and lamb are from Long Meadow Ranch.  The eggs are from the farm’s own chickens, the olives are produced from their ranch’s own olives (grown and stone-milled on the ranch) and the greens are growing on-site.  It’s a wine and food-living gardener’s paradise. They serve fish, too, in season. The grilled trout with fennel, mushroom, onion, bacon mustard vinaigrette and almonds is good. Another option is the wild-caught sole.  Both are sustainable choices in keeping with the nature-respecting philosophy of Long Meadow Ranch.

Goose & Gander

If you’re in St Helena and enjoy the hustle and bustle of Main Street, especially in the evening, there are several sidewalk café-style restaurants to try. The Bistro offers great lamb burgers and a fish-and-chip entrée that would please an Englishman. But if you’re in the mood for a quiet business, or romantic lunch off the beaten path, on a back street, under an umbrella in a shady, secluded patio, you may find the Goose & Gander just the place. Inside, you’ll get an immediate sense of a pub––dark, woody, brassy—and a completely different feel out on the patio.

If you find the day too hot even with the shade of the umbrella, you may try their covered covered area, where a koi pond offers serenity.  The food is classi—referred to there as “rustic American.” The (all natural) burger is a Goose & Gander favorite. For dinner you might start with Brussels sprouts and fried duck egg and proceed on to roasted chicken breast and white truffle gravy. Or, if you prefer the bar menu, you can munch on chicken wings, Vietnamese sticky pig ears, or roasted bone marrow. Manly food, but women enjoy it, too.  Gluten free?  Yes––if you leave off the bun! The atmosphere there ranges from business to casual, and the service is friendly and accommodating.

Auberge du Soleil

The Auberge du Soleil is an all-time classic Napa Valley dining spot. Perched high above the Silverado Trail, you can enjoy a meal while immersing yourself in the heady sense of place with sweeping Napa Valley views.  A renowned culinary destination, it’s as popular for the stunning backdrop as it is for the food. From the restaurant terrace, you can see all the way down the valley to practically forever. It offers a spectacular outdoor dining experience where you can relax and enjoy a meal after a hike, or arrive in your best shoes while immersing yourself in the heady sense of place.

The restaurant at Auberge du Soleil offers a fine dining experience from one of the best vantage points in the valley. The terrace is a great place for breakfast, especially with out-of-town visitors who always want to get an overview of the Napa Valley. If you have a hearty appetite, try the buttermilk pancakes with Vermont Maple Syrup (the key quality detail). For something lighter, choose from the “Global” section –– Chinois or Japonais –– or from the Francais, which offers delicious pastries with homemade jams and Straus Butter (another tellingly delicious, organic detail). Dinner on the terrace offers a romantic backdrop as the sun is setting. (Or, if you prefer, you can enjoy the view from the dining room, behind vast glass windows.) The menu is inviting and the restaurant has earned 12 consecutive Michelin stars, so you can close your eyes, point to a spot on the menu and let chance lead the way.

If all you want is a great view, a great location and a fantastic burger, you can get that, too, at the Bistro & Bar.  Reservations are not required—just come right in. Here, you can indulge in gazpacho lobster soup and a roasted beet salad, or a sandwich and pasta. If you feel you may have over indulged, try a dainty plate of cookies for dessert.

Calistoga Inn Restaurant and Brewery

Calistoga’s main street has been in the midst of a two-year bridge construction project (one year scheduled for each side).  Lucky for the Calistoga Inn Restaurant and Brewery, their side of the street should be finished and the sidewalks clear in the spring, so guests will find it again with ease. This is exciting news because to sit out on their patio for an evening dinner or Sunday brunch is one of the joys of living in the Napa Valley.

Covered by a white wooden arbor, hung with twinkly lights, the patio radiates warmth and Colonial charm.  Tables, nestled close to dense greenery and at the edge of the patio overlooking a little creek, are set with patterned tablecloths, giving it a formal, but casual ambience.

For brunch, the eggs benedict and Napa Valley breakfast (scrambled eggs, Vermont cheddar, asparagus, spinach, peppers and mushroom with chicken-apple sausage and country potatoes) are two popular menu items, and both pair well with a Bloody Mary. The dinner menu is classic-eclectic. If you like lamb, the lamb shank is succulent – oven-braised with preserved lemon-olive gremolata, baby carrots and creamy polenta.  The paella is another favorite with guests.

Calistoga Inn is also a great place to stop for a beer. Home to the Napa Valley Brewing Company—founded in 1987 and the first brewery in Napa County—the restaurant features a beer garden with cedar-planked picnic tables and Adirondack chairs, which offers relaxed seating by the river. What’s more, there’s live music every night from 6 to 9 p.m., with a solo guitarist playing jazz, blues, Latin rhythms, classic oldies and more.

Willi’s Seafood and Raw Bar

If you’re in Healdsburg on a beautiful day and you’re feeling puckish, try Willi’s Seafood and Raw Bar, known for its savory small plates. Willi’s is an institution in Healdsburg. Proprietors Terri and Mark Stark launched it as their second restaurant about 14 years ago and over the years have developed a strong local following. “We build our restaurants to appeal to our local residents, and our tourists supply us with a great nine months’ support, she says.”

The whole idea of Willi’s Seafood, as Terri describes it, is to provide a fun place, open all day, where you can pop in and have a couple of small bites in between lunch or dinner. The menu, which Mark develops, is heavily inspired by his upbringing in southern Maryland, where oysters and blue crabs are a defining part of the culture. “He always brings in soft-shelled crabs when they’re in season,” says Terri.  “The crab-cake (with no filler), and the lobster roll, also reflect that east coast feeling.”  The menu is welcoming to the gluten free and allergy folk, and Willi’s conveniently has separate menus for each. “It’s helpful for us to have that all up front,” she says. “It’s a serious issue.” The prawns and the sautéd spinach with Meyer lemon marmalade are a perfect combination, and a memorable one, too.

As proprietor, what is Teri proudest about? “I think the biggest thing is that we’re successful as a married couple, running five restaurants with two on the horizon. We have the same philosophy for the way we run our companies,” she says. “Our key to success is that we are all employee focused. I feel our restaurants are family oriented, even though we have 400 employees. We take on the roles of mom and dad.”

Charlie’s Grill

If you love walking in grass and listening to live music and watching the evening light play on a little lake surrounded by manicured golf course grounds and woods, you’ll want to discover Charlie’s Grill at Windsor Golf Club on a Wednesday night in June. This is not your usual “golf course restaurant,” according to the general manager Tami Sullberg. At Charlie’s, you won’t find pre-made meals or cheap snacks. Some of the all-time favorites are the classic dishes—the Angus steak, rib eye or hanger steak, or the chipotle honey orange baby back pork ribs, for a hearty meal. The pizzas are always popular with families and kids. And for heart-healthy dining, the blackened salmon salad is one of the many favorites. Sullberg’s background is in fine dining. She and chef Don Horton, whom she’s worked with for 15 of her 20 years with Charlie’s, are proud of their menu, which is designed to please not only visitors who come from all over the country, but also their regular customers, who come back week after week, year after year. “There’s something for everyone,” she says of their extensive menu and wine list.  “We serve food all day long, and we have one of the loveliest patios around.”

The grounds are beautiful and tranquil, and the patio is spacious, facing a lake with a little spouting fountain, and the redwood-dotted golf course beyond. You can sit out in the sunshine or in a shaded area covered by a trellis roof.  It’s a great place for a tranquil lunch, and if you’re one of the people working at the nearby Airport Business Park, a great place to escape the office. In June, on Wednesday nights, they feature live music out on the patio. And if you’re lucky, you’ll arrive on an evening a when Chef Horton is on the patio making his famous barbeque.

The North Bay is world famous for its food, wine and beauty. Check out these al fresco finds for yourself, and bon appetite!




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