The nation's favorite restaurant, at least according to one website's rankings, turns out not to be a restaurant at all.

The online restaurant reservation site Open Table has crowned Santa Rosa's St. Francis Winery and Vineyards as the favorite eating establishment in the entire country, with a near perfect 4.9-out-of-5-star record from diners who filed reviews. That's eight places higher than the closest other local standout, The French Laundry in Yountville, which came in at No. 9 with a 4.8 rating.

The victory left the winery management delighted but slightly perplexed.

"We are profoundly grateful for this," said Christopher Silva, president and CEO at St. Francis. "In fact, we're a bit overwhelmed."

The winery, he said, had at one point told Open Table that they aren't really a restaurant in a legal or technical sense, but the website said that any establishment that accepts reservations through the system is included in the rankings.

"It is a wine-and-food tasting," Silva said. "People can't come in and order off a separate menu."

The tasting costs $45 per person, $36 for wine club members.

Open Table did not make anyone available for an interview on Monday, but a spokeswoman confirmed that the service does not distinguish between types of reservation-based establishments, so St. Francis counts as a restaurant for their purposes.

The website did not provide the total number of votes counted for each establishment, nor did it lay out the exact formula used to calculate the rankings. It only said that there had been 58 reviews for St. Francis since Aug. 18. Of those, 55 were 5-star and three were 4-star.

St. Francis's rating on the review website Yelp, which does not tie votes to a confirmed reservation nor prompt diners for a review, are strong but slightly lower than Open Table's — a rating of 4 (out of 5) stars. French Laundry, meanwhile, performs slightly better there, with a 4.5 rating.

Open Table restricts reviews to users who made a reservation and actually showed up to dine. The site seeks users' opinions of their experience within 48 hours and asks them to write a review.

St. Francis is known for aggressive use of social media, but Silva said there was no coordinated campaign to earn high ratings on Open Table.

"We didn't expect this," Silva admitted. "There are a lot of good restaurants" in the area.

County zoning ordinances don't allow wineries to play host to full-service restaurants, but they are permitted to offer food along with their wine tastings. St. Francis is one of several wineries that have chefs on staff and provide high-end food pairings for customers interested in something beyond the usual tasting experience.

Executive Chef David Bush uses seasonal local ingredients, including food from the 2-acre garden planted on site in 2012, to create a rotating roster of dishes to highlight specific St. Francis wines. This is the reverse of the usual restaurant system, where the chef creates a menu and wine pairings follow, Silva said.

A recent menu listed Red Curry Braised Squashes, Mushroom & Ricotta Agnolotti, Bouillabaisse, Grilled Bavette of Beef, and a dessert of Peanut Butter Mousse.

The food pairings are offered five days per week, at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Monday and Thursday and 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. Friday through Sunday. The pairings are not available Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

Reservations are not required for the pairings, but there are only 16 places at each seating and Silva said that walk-in customers are finding it hard to get an open spot since the Open Table ranking was announced last week.

Unlike a regular restaurant, diners are seated at a circular table, family-style, and are encouraged to socialize, Silva said. While he couldn't say exactly why guests were so effusive on the Open Table reviews, he speculated that that configuration might have helped. Not only does it promote a social atmosphere, he pointed out, but every seat has a view to the vineyards outside, which creates a more memorable experience.

"Even if they're just there for a few hours, they feel like they've been on vacation," he said.<NO1>

You can reach Staff Writer Sean Scully at 521-5313 or sean.scully@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BeerCountry.