The Big 3 at The Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa serves one of the best breakfasts in Sonoma. For dinner, it's hit and miss.


The Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa is an upscale oasis in a downscale part of Sonoma, but it does have a casual bistro called The Big 3, known for its great breakfasts.

Today it's called The Big 3 because it combines a restaurant, wine bar and shopping area selling clothing and other SMI ware. But 40 years ago, according to people who knew it then, it was less genteel, combining a soda fountain, butcher shop and grocery store that served the inn's patrons as well as locals. And you hear stories, mostly likely apocryphal, that 100 years ago, when San Franciscans would come up to the spa villages of Boyes Hot Springs, Fetters Hot Springs and Agua Caliente to take the waters, it was a restaurant run by three husky chefs.

These days, its connection to the upscale inn is reflected in its prices – $20.50 for fish tacos, $18.50 for an entr? of mac and cheese, etc. While The Big 3 may combine excellence and disappointment in equal measure, SMI has one of Sonoma County's best restaurants in Sante, a renowned dining room in the main building. The spa facilities are world-class and the swimming pools are refreshed daily by the naturally hot water that runs underground throughout this part of the Sonoma Valley.

At The Big 3, the soda fountain is long gone, replaced by dining room tables. A wood-burning oven has been installed in the kitchen, turning out creditable thin-crust pizzas. The first one listed on the menu is "Classic Margarita Pizza." I think they mean a classic margherita pizza, not the Mexican cocktail. Our table ordered the Italian Pizza ($18.50 **?) and found the crust crispy, the mozzarella bubbled deliciously brown, and the toppings of canned, sliced black olives, pepperoni, Italian sausage, diced tomato and herbs to be yummy as well as pricey. On a second visit, the same pizza was just as good.

The wine list offers 45 bottles, 14 of which can be ordered by the glass, mostly from the Sonoma Valley but, strangely, without vintage years noted. Still, a glass of St. Francis Merlot turned out to be from vintage 2007, a fine year, and was a good match for the pizza.

A cup of Chicken Noodle Soup ($7 *) was so salty it was nearly inedible. Otherwise, the peas, carrots and potatoes in a clear chicken broth would have made a perfectly acceptable soup. For an appetizer, we tried the Buttermilk Battered Onion Rings ($10.50 **). The onion was cut in just two or three cross-sections, resulting in big, wide rings that were dipped in batter and rolled in panko. The large rings required a longer deep frying than would have been necessary for thin-cut rings, resulting in a dark brown and slightly bitter crust.

A Sonoma Organic Mixed Greens Salad ($11 **?) was refreshing after the deep-fried rings. The greens were fresh, cucumbers and cherry tomatoes added to the fun, and a light vinaigrette nicely finished the salad.

Chef Luis Sandoval de-bones a chicken breast and thigh combo and cooks the almost-half-chicken under a weight against a hot griddle. This was the Nightly Special ($26 ***) and the cooking method rendered the meat succulent and juicy, with a good, dark chicken reduction sauce intensifying the flavor. Sauteed collards, kale and chard, and buttery mashed potatoes completed the nutritious dinner.

We were excited to find Loch Duart Grilled Salmon ($24.50 **) on the menu, but disappointed at the overcooked result. Loch Duart salmon is farmed in a lake in northern Scotland and well-known for its high quality. A piece of filet four inches square by two inches thick was not only dry, but had an oily, fishy flavor, meaning only that it is a long trip from northern Scotland to northern California, and as you know, fish is best when it's flapping fresh.

Among our dessert orders, one person at our table ordered a Brandy Alexander ($16 *), usually a creamy smooth, cocoa- and nutmeg-flecked brandy drink, but here thin and watery and a poor excuse for the popular cocktail. An Organic Fuji Apple Crisp ($8 ***) was much better, especially as the hot crisp was topped with a cold scoop of Straus vanilla-bean ice cream.

To sum up: The Big 3 serves one of the best breakfasts in Sonoma. For dinner, it's hit and miss, so stick with the pizza.

(Jeff Cox writes a weekly restaurant review column for the Sonoma Living section. You can reach him at