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BRAVAS BAR de TAPAS
Where: 420 Center St., Healdsburg
When: Open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., except to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays
Reservations: Call 433-7700
Price range: Tapas between $4 and $17 each; family style entrees are available
Website: starkrestaurants.com/bravas.html

Wine list: ★★★
Ambiance: ★★★
Service: ★★★
Food: ★★★
Overall: ★★★

KEY
★★★★ Extraordinary
★★★ Very Good
★★ Good
★ Not Very Good
0 Terrible

What has a hundred heads, all chatting happily at the same time?

Answer: the crowd that thronged Bravas Bar de Tapas on a recent night.

With its comfy interior and expansive alfresco backyard and bar, its interesting food and drink, and its zippy service, it is a real go-to spot for noshing and schmoozing in Healdsburg.

Inside, the walls are hung with psychedelic rock-concert posters and the dining area is presided over by the serious-looking, white ceramic head of a long-horned Spanish bull. This is the third year of operation for Bravas, one of Mark and Terri Stark’s five Sonoma County restaurants. The others are all just as popular and include Willi’s Wine Bar, Monti’s, Stark’s Steakhouse, and Willi’s Seafood and Raw Bar, with another — The Bird and the Bottle — on the way.

What accounts for such success? It’s easy. The food and drink are entertaining as well as delicious. Most of these restaurants serve small plates, so you can sample around the menu. The atmosphere is casual and relaxed. And these are not cookie-cutter knockoffs. Each place is unique. It all adds up to big fun.

The Starks toured Spain to gather ideas for Bravas and have brought home an authentic menu. In Spain, a tapa is a snack. Between two and four tapas make a light to medium meal — best eaten with friends, stretched out over a couple of hours, with good wines filling the gaps between snacks. The menu has local wines, but also Spanish sparklers, white, rose, and red wines, many in the $30 to $40 a bottle range.

Specialty cocktails are made with sophisticated ingredients and then given silly names. For instance, “Hello Cleveland” is made with vodka, sloe gin, sherry, grapefruit juice, rosemary honey, and bitters. “Mezcal Me Maybe” contains mezcal and Chartreuse along with basil, lime, and egg white.

And, of course, there’s sangria at $11 a glass or $39 a pitcher. The red sangria is made with saffron- and cinnamon-infused brandy, orange liqueur, a decent Spanish red wine, and sliced up backyard oranges. One sip and I was back in college, although in college we didn’t make sangria this good.

Or — and this is rare to find around here — choose from among 13 Spanish sherries, which pair up nicely with the flavors of the tapas.

Yes, you’ll have some choosing to do when it comes to the tapas. A ham and cheese bar offers six plates. From a list of four sandwiches called bocadillos, our table chose Long Cooked Pork Cheeks ($8 ★★½). Two sliders on little hamburger buns held fatty, shreddy pork cheek meat. Salsa verde was dressed in olive oil, and the combination of the pork fat and a superabundance of olive oil made for a tasty but greasy go of it.

An Andalusian-style gazpacho called Salmorejo Soup ($6 ★★★) was an intriguing drink of tomatoes, garlic, sherry vinegar, and crusty bread, all whizzed in a blender and served cold in a water glass. No visit to an authentic tapas bar would be complete without a plate of Jamon Iberico ($17 ★★★★), Spain’s famous cured ham that’s a costly gourmet treat and perfectly paired with Valdespino fino sherry. These tapas were served with marcona almonds, several of which were noticably rancid.

Among 12 warm tapas, our table chose Catalan Style Sautéed Spinach ($7 ★★½), a small plate full of tangy, salty, cooked spinach given toasted garlic, toasted pine nuts, and golden raisins, according to the menu, although we could find no raisins and the garlic was toasted until bitter. Much better was the House Made Garlic and Manchego Sausage ($9 ★★★) topped with pickled mustard seeds.

We didn’t choose any tapas “a la plancha,” (on a plank) but you can pick from the nine items that include prawns, scallops with romesco sauce, chicken thighs with candied garlic and sherry, pork riblets, a lamb porterhouse, and octopus with fingerling potatoes, among others.

There is Spain’s iconic dish on the menu: Paella ($24 for two people ★½). Our server said that a special paella would be available later in the evening, but that the five o’clock version was available right away. So we opted for paella on hand rather than paella in the future, and were sorry we did. Shrunken little mussel meats, bay scallops, two black trumpet mushrooms, small cubes of chicken meat, and lots of Spanish rice. No shrimp, no clams, no chicken leg sticking up, no sausage.

To sum up: There are a few misses, but there’s plenty to like at Bravas.

Jeff Cox writes a weekly restaurant review for the Sonoma Living section. He can be reached at jeffcox@sonic.net.

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