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Bite club: St. Francis Winery again named No. 1 restaurant in US

HEATHER IRWIN ,

For the second time, OpenTable.com has tapped St. Francis Winery in the Sonoma Valley as the nation’s number one restaurant, beating out culinary superheroes in New York, San Francisco and Napa Valley.

You read that right. A winery has been named best restaurant in America. Twice.

"We are still pinching ourselves," said Chris Silva, president and CEO of St. Francis Winery and Vineyards. "The real irony is that we aren't actually a restaurant," he added, acknowledging the uniqueness of his situation.

But it also isn't an accident that Executive Chef Bryan Jones' luxe five-course tasting menu and wine pairings have attracted a lot of attention. Using ingredients from the winery's 2-acre garden, classical fine dining techniques and luxury ingredients ranging from local Wild King salmon and braised duck to local blackberries, carrots and chanterelle mushrooms, this isn't exactly picnic fodder. And then there's idyllic scenery surrounding the dining room, with million dollar views of Hood Mountain, local vineyards and the historic winery. At $68 per person, it’s a relative steal for this kind of dining experience.

But still, a winery?

We asked Opentable.com spokesmen for some answers.

"While St. Francis isn't a traditional restaurant, they offer a positively magical dining experience," said Caroline Potter, chief dining officer for Opentable.com, who has dined there herself.

“It truly dazzles all the senses, from the sublime wines and delightful seasonal plates to the welcoming hospitality and pastoral setting. When you dine there, you are part of an intimate group sharing a journey through local food and wine with expert guides, and by the time you leave you feel as if made new friends with the St. Francis staff and your fellow diners.

“In fact, my husband and I are still in touch with our table-mates.”

Silva agrees that the kinship, as well as the wines (it is a winery, after all) are really what makes the experience. “We have received a lot of attention over the fact that one of the key themes of this experience is that of community,” he said. “Sixteen guests sit together at a round, communal table with one of the best vineyard views in the world and share about 90 minutes of world class wine, food and conversation — and what we hope will be a sense of awe — with people they have never met.”

So, how did St. Francis get to first place?

OpenTable generated its list of the 100 Best Restaurants in America from more than 5 million restaurant reviews collected from verified OpenTable diners between Nov. 1, 2014 and Oct. 31, 2015. Reps tell us that restaurants are sorted according to a score calculated from each restaurant's average rating in the “overall” category, along with that restaurant's rating relative to others in the same metropolitan area and the average number of restaurants reviewed by diners who reviewed that restaurant.

A quick look online reveals that St. Francis has about 462 reviews, with an average of 4.9 stars. Rutherford's Auberge du Soleil, which also made the Top 100, has more than 2,000 reviews but ranks an average of 4.7 stars.

Outsiders also seem to see something that locals may have become accustomed to. “The experience provides a great deal of value to diners with its modest price, but they don't skimp on time or attentiveness,” Potter said. “You are treated with so much care. Questions about the wine and the pairings are not only encouraged, they’re solicited. And you really come away not just satiated but also enlightened."

Adds Silva, “We have the dream team at St. Francis right now, and to be named No. 1 Restaurant in America is really the icing on the cake.”

St. Francis Winery, 100 Pythian Road, takes reservations for food and wine pairings Friday through Monday (closed Tuesday and Wednesday). 538-9463, stfranciswinery.com.

Still hungry? Check out Heather's always-updated food and dining blog at BiteClubEats.com.