It's stunning how many times I've heard the following phrase: "I thought we were in a recession, but I can't get a table at (insert favorite restaurant) to save my life!" Although 2010 and its economic doldrums won't go down in history as the best year ever for restaurants, it also hasn't been the worst.
Favorite local restaurants continue to pack in the crowds and no matter what the economic forecast, a new crop of restaurants emerge each year, dewey-eyed and optimistic. Statistically, there's a standard 60 percent to 90 percent failure rate for these culinary infants, according to industry pundits, but what that also means is that at least a handful stand a pretty good chance of sticking around.
Here are some of the best area restaurant openings of 2010, worth posting to your to-do list for 2011 if you haven't already checked them out.
Hot Box Grill: With help from his brother Will Forbes and wife, Addie, Norman Owens spent the summer gutting the once-dreary Thai restaurant in the upcoming "gourmet gulch" of Boyes Hot Springs. It's now an airy, open eatery with chalkboard paint on several walls with handwritten daily specials. There's so much to love about this menu: Duck-fat fries with bearnaise sauce ($6); ricotta gnocchi with golden beets, pea shoots and oregano oil ($9); fried Cornish game hen with sweet potato gratin and Hot Box Hot Sauce ($20); the porktactular cider-brined tenderloin with apple/bacon pan sauce, butternut squash and Brussels sprouts ($21). 18350 Highway 12, Sonoma, 939-8383.
Shimo: Named for the glistening frost, as well as the white marbling of beef, Shimo Modern Steak is the third Healdsburg restaurant for Chef Douglas Keane. (The others? Cyrus and the Healdsburg Bar & Grill). Chef de Cuisine Kolin Vazzoler brings a fresh perspective to the menu, but pays homage to many of Keane's meticulously executed trademarks: tweezer-perfect plating, table-side composition of plates and ever-present Asian flavors. Considerable cuts of wet- and dry-aged beef are what's for dinner, including precious Wagyu. Inspired sides include twice-baked potato gnocchi and a clever deconstruction of shrimp cocktail. 241 Healdsburg Ave., Healdsburg, 433-6000.
Fresh by Lisa Hemenway: Part market, part restaurant, local restaurateur Lisa Hemenway's Skyhawk gathering spot was the talk of Santa Rosa before it even opened in September. With a focus on local purveyors and her signature grab-and-go salads, deli case and desserts, this eat-in, take-out concept market has knocked it out of the park. Don't miss the fresh wood-fired pizzas, homemade cakes and morning coffee bar with fresh pastries. 5755 Mountain Hawk Way, Santa Rosa.
Rustic: A personal project inspired by family recipes and his travels around the world, Francis Ford Coppola's finally completed winery restaurant has been well worth the wait. Putting his personal stamp of approval on all the menu items, the not-so-subtle subtext of the menu is that these are Coppola's favorite foods. Destination-worthy Italian dishes, cracker-crisp Neapolitan pizzas, simple pastas, hearty burgers, Argentine short ribs (from a center-stage parrilla, or Argentinean grill), salads and the daily "favorites" (Chicken Mattone, Mrs. Scorsese's Lemon Chicken, goose-fat roasted potatoes, Marrakesh Lamb, rigatoni in meat ragu). 300 Via Archimedes, Geyserville, 857-1485
Sazon: Kin to the popular San Francisco Peruvian restaurant Fresca, Roseland's Sazon is a clean, compact and modern spot awakening local taste buds with its take on South America's multicultural cuisine. Using native ingredients (corn, root veggies and beans) as the base, immigrant influences from China (rice), Japan (raw fish, seaweed), Spain (rice, wheat, beef), Italy and West Africa lend depth and complexity to contemporary Peruvian comfort cuisine. Ceviche Mixto and pisco ice cream are best bets. 1129 Sebastopol Road, Santa Rosa, 523-4346.
Santi: The move from Geyserville to Fountaingrove brought a fresh update to the traditional Italian menu. Santi regulars still recognize many of the regional dishes, but there's a lighter, more modern feel to dishes. It's been a challenging year for the restaurant, facing parking woes in the new location and the forthcoming loss of longtime chef Liza Hinman, who is expecting a baby in March. Things should settle, however, as the restaurant's well-respected sous chef takes the reins. 2097 Stagecoach Road, #100, Santa Rosa, 528-1549.
Sarah's Forestville Kitchen: Chef Greg Hallihan (formerly of Stella's Cafe) returns to the kitchen at this breakfast/brunch/lunchery in the heart of Forestville. Locals may remember it as the former Tin Pony, with a smashing outdoor courtyard just off the main drag and now-revamped indoor dining room. Here, Hallihan brings his solid kitchen skills to the table, pulling off a globe-trotting menu that ranges from fried chicken and grits to homemade corned beef to Thai curries. 6566 Front St., Forestville, 887-1055.