We don't just cover the North Bay. We live here.
Did You Know? In the first 10 days of the North Bay fire, nearly 1.5 million people used their mobile devices to visit our sites.
Already a subscriber?
Wow! You read a lot!
Reading enhances confidence, empathy, decision-making, and overall life satisfaction. Keep it up! Subscribe.
Already a subscriber?
Oops, you're out of free articles.
Until next month, you can always look over someone's shoulder at the coffee shop.
Already a subscriber?
We don't just cover the North Bay. We live here.
Did You Know? In the first 10 days of the North Bay fire, we posted 390 stories about the fire. And they were shared nearly 137,000 times.
Already a subscriber?
Supporting the community that supports us.
Obviously you value quality local journalism. Thank you.
Already a subscriber?
Oops, you're out of free articles.
We miss you already! (Subscriptions start at just 99 cents.)
Already a subscriber?

Now that Sonoma County has become a Mecca for "Foodies," we take our restaurants very seriously.

Truth is, we always have.

Even before the pairing of wine and California cuisine sent us into the gourmet stratosphere, we locals knew what was good where.

I remember the spin I went into in my daily days when a food critic from the Marin Independent Journal referred to Sonoma County as "a culinary Beirut." (Beirut was not great in those days either.)

The insult triggered an explosion of indignation and a lot of supportive letters from readers offering their favorite dining spots as rebuttal.

We all have our favorites. And when they go away, either from natural causes or in a cloud of competition, its a bend in the road, a new pattern in our lives.

We've had several opportunities to mourn the passings of restaurants in recent weeks. Los Robles Lodge, where Claus Neumann and Tony Vicini opened 45 years ago as the second sophisticated dinner house in town (the Topaz Room being first), stands empty behind a chain link fence, awaiting the wrecker's ball.

Heavenly Hamburger, Chris Smith tells us, is closing after more than 50 years as a Rincon Valley landmark.

Emile's Bistro, the evening version of Hank's Creekside, stopped serving last week, as did Lucy's in Sebastopol.

The news has impact. People are missing them already. Every restaurant has stories. Take Los Robles. How many club meetings? How many after-dinner speakers? How many raunchy Empire Breakfast Club jokes could those walls tell?

Ask around about the elegant seafood buffets at Los Robles, which packed the dining room every Friday night. As I recall it was $6, including salmon, crab, scallops and, for a short time, even caviar - until a teenager took a scoop of Beluga about the size of a serving of mashed potatoes, took one taste, and left it on his plate. The owners estimated it was about $80 worth of the delicacy and that ended THAT custom.

Or, you can ask John Burton, the longtime Los Robles bartender, and he'll tell of the Great Football Riot of 1971 when the NFC championship football game between the 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys was blacked out in the Bay Area and hundreds of people - mostly males - packed Los Robles to watch on a Chico channel available on Santa Rosa's cable.

Then the cable went out and they rioted, throwing furniture into the swimming pool, even threatening personal violence to owner Neumann as he stood at the door, frantically handing out refunds of the $2 cover charge. He hasn't watched a football game since.

What retired Press Democrat reporter Bony Saludes remembers are the costume balls benefiting the Boys Club held at Los Robles for several years in the early '60s. Bony was a judge at the first of these, which may have been the first $100 fund-raiser in the town's history.

He remembers it well. "Liz Mulkey as Cleopatra and her entourage was the hands-down winner, as was the Headless Horseman (whoever he was) as runner-up. Coddingtown wasn't quite developed, and he came galloping across an empty lot up to Los Robles. I went wrapped as a mummy and many people (maybe because they had too much to drink) thought I should have won a prize, but, of course, that would have been a conflict of interest."

STORIES. The closing of Heavenly Hamburger caused a transcontinental pang for Bob Wright, a writer who lives in Princeton, N.J.

Wright, whose work appears in Time magazine, is a contributing editor at the New Republic and author of two books (The "Moral Animal" and, more recently, "Nonzero"). He has two sisters, Linda Aylor and Becki Schmidt, who live in Santa Rosa.

In the 1970s, their parents, Ray and Moselle Wright, now deceased, moved from Texas and bought a house in St. Francis Acres. Wright, who was a college student at the time, came to help with the move. In an e-mail last week, he recalled:

"The first meal we ate in Santa Rosa was hamburgers from Heavenly Hamburger. Not coincidentally, I think, the real estate agent who sold us the house had a daughter who worked there.

"Even back then, more than a quarter of a century ago, mom-and-pop hamburger places were an exception to the rule of franchise fast food. Now, of course, they're an endangered species. ... I may be romanticizing this in my memory, but I think the green (?) Heavenly Hamburger sign had the circular 'Coca-Cola' logo at each end - the classic mom-and-pop sign, which even in the 1970s was starting to acquire the status of an antique.

"Anyway, I remember that we all liked the hamburgers, and we ate there again and again. And I don't think we were romanticizing that. They really were clearly better than franchised fast food. My parents' very first meal as Santa Rosa residents struck us all as a good omen, I think, and their time in Santa Rosa lived up to that portent."

THERE IS a commercial on KCBS for an East Bay restaurant that ends its pitch with, "It's not just a meal, it's a memory."

It does seem that those meal memories linger, long after the neon sign is turned off and the menus are tucked away as keepsakes. Think for a moment of the dining, fine and otherwise, that has come and gone in a single lifetime.

Steamed clams at Lena's in Railroad Square (before it was Railroad Square) every Friday. The blood-curdling breakfasts of ham, eggs, red beans and red peppers at Ingram's Chili Bowl north of Santa Rosa. The ravioli at Frediani's on the long hill before Forestville.

Marico's with the blue "Italian Nightclub" windows on Redwood Highway North where Cricklewood is now. The French touches and fancy fare at Andy Fava's Guerneville Inn, which always took the new summer folk from San Francisco by surprise. Yvonne Boulleray's French kitchen in the unlikely surroundings of the Rustic Room bar on Mendocino Avenue. The foot-long baked potatoes at Highland House, which was the clubhouse for the first Santa Rosa Golf Club.

The master of the giant potato, Big Jim Mills, towering over your table in his white apron at Mills Patio; Jack's old-fashioneds at the Toscano Hotel on the Sonoma Plaza, Jackie & Charlie Trainor's rib eye steaks at the old Mark West Lodge, awesome smorgasbords at The Green Mill in Cotati and Golden Bear Lodge in Kenwood's Adobe Canyon.

Biscuits with honey butter at Bunny's, first on Mendocino Avenue, then in Kenwood, then in Montgomery Village, now gone forever, washed away, like its pan-fried chicken, in the wake of the low cholesterol wave that swept the West.

The Classic Grill, the classic Greek restaurant found in every town. Hagel's on Santa Rosa Avenue. Eisenhood's on Exchange Avenue where the Rotary Club met in the days before the Flamingo spread its pink wings on the Cullen's Nursery grounds. Clyde Chesney at the Village's Saddle 'n Sirloin, making his way from table to table, greeting diners with "Hi kids, howya doing?"

THERE'S A billboard on the freeway at Corona Road that tells us Petaluma has 142 restaurants now. None of them is The Little Hill or the Tivoli where lunch and dinner were family style, like Vineburg Inn. It was family-style, too, at the bargain basement dining room at the back end of the Occidental Hotel in my college days, when the whole SRJC football team seldom missed the $1.50 steaks on Thursday night.

Traditional Italian dominated the ethnic restaurants through the 20th century. Virginia and Santi Catelli's Rex in Geyserville, Mama Nina's in Cloverdale, Dinucci's in Valley Ford (another survivor), El Dorado in Sonoma, Lena's and Guidotti's at the railroad tracks in Santa Rosa. Fiori's as part of a triumvirate in Occidental where two-thirds (the Union Hotel and Negri's) are upholding the tradition.

The first Mexican restaurant in my memory (which is long and imperfect) was Santiago Peterson's Mazatlan on Fourth Street or, maybe, Rancho Mexicali in Windsor, famous for its tamales.

Jam Kee was indisputedly the earliest Chinese restaurant, dating to the Chinatown along Santa Rosa Creek. The Twin Dragons was the fanciest.

Finally, there were the diners: Santa Rosa was full of them. Dagwood Dunn's on Fifth Street next to the Post Office, Cross's Snack Shack across the street, The Circus on Third, Red & Evie's, in an old Petaluma & Santa Rosa Railroad trolley across from Fremont Park, another trolley (known to SRJC students as the Ptomaine Trolley) across from the campus, a milkshake and hot dog cubbyhole called The Student's Inn across from Santa Rosa High where Clark Gable and Carole Lombard once, inexplicably, stopped for lunch.

Enough, already. There's bound to be another full list in the ones we've forgotten. But because it's not just a meal, it's a memory, rest assured that someone out there remembers.

Show Comment