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Each night before bed, José Navarro gets on his computer to see what diners think of his Peruvian restaurant’s seven ceviches or dishes like Lomo Saltado, tenderloin strips fried in a wok with a soy/balsamic sauce.

Navarro, who with his parents opened Sazón restaurant five years ago in Santa Rosa’s Roseland neighborhood, said he welcomes the online praise and criticism because it comes largely from savvy customers with a passion for good food. The informed interaction is a reason he considers this a golden time to be a Sonoma County restaurant owner.

“We’re living in a time right now of the foodies,” said Navarro, seated outside his Sebastopol Road establishment as a guest sampled a delectable concoction of his mother Lucia’s purple corn lemonade.

The county restaurant scene keeps growing in size, variety and, its advocates say, quality.

Since the recession, eating and drinking establishments have far outpaced the overall economy in job growth and now employ one of every 10 county workers.

In the Food Network-era, Wine Country remains a prime location to run a restaurant because of the confluence of tourism with local farm products, craft beer and fine wine. Owners said success is by no means assured and the competition is stiff, but the wide array of choices is helping draw in a critical mass of food lovers.

“There’s so much talent in Sonoma County right now,” said Dustin Valette, former chef at Hotel Healdsburg’s Dry Creek Kitchen who in March opened Valette in Healdsburg.

The restaurant, he said, has been a longtime dream for half-brother Aaron Garzini and him. And the time is right because “people are really starting to care about where their food comes from.”

Cheaper gas, new jobs

The U.S. restaurant industry is on the upswing, with sales expected to climb 3.8 percent this year to $709 billion, according to the National Restaurant Association.

And for the first time on record, Americans now are spending more money each month eating out than buying food at the grocery store, the association reported this month. Experts see the milestone as a sign of an improving economy.

“The two big reasons are lower gas prices and new employment,” said restaurant consultant Darren Tristano of Chicago-based Technomic.

The national outlook nonetheless remains tempered by the economic upheaval of the past seven years. Nearly 4 in 10 Americans last fall told the association they’re not eating out as often as they wish. Even so, 7 in 10 say they are still holding back on spending in some areas.

Since the recession ended in June 2009, the county has added more restaurants and the size of the dining workforce has significantly increased.

The number of eating and drinking establishments in Sonoma County grew 10 percent to 1,055 between 2009 and 2014, according to the state Employment Development Department. The number includes 482 full-service restaurants, 318 limited-service eateries where customers pay before being served, 153 cafeterias and snack bars, 50 caterers and 52 bars.

Over that five-year period, these businesses hired workers at a pace twice as fast as the overall economy, expanding their workforce 23 percent to more than 16,800 people.

Wide variety of offerings

The county’s food scene varies from Michelin-starred restaurants to the “tamale guy” who regularly sets up an impromptu stand on Sebastopol Road near Sazón — “the best $1.50 you’re going to spend,” Navarro said of his neighbor’s offerings.

In interviews, owners spoke of both growing demand and diversity, as well as what county Economic Development Director Ben Stone called a “unique synergy” between the local eateries, related businesses and farms.

The number and variety of restaurants has become possible because of the county’s $1.65 billion tourism industry. This March, normally considered the off-season, a quarter of the diners at the county’s annual Restaurant Week were tourists, Stone said.

Also, the restaurants are among the biggest beneficiaries of tourist spending, second only to lodging establishments, said Ken Fischang, CEO of Sonoma County Tourism.

Restaurant owner Terri Stark said she has seen tourism get “incredibly strong” in Healdsburg. Stark and her chef husband, Mark, have opened five unique county restaurants, including Willi’s Seafood & Raw Bar in Healdsburg.

In 2004, business there could get so quiet in the cold, rainy months that Stark would begin to think it’s time to “check and make sure someone unlocked the door.” But slow times have been rare in the past few years.

“Now the winter is getting shorter and shorter,” she said.

Stark and other owners believe the dry days from four years of drought help explain some of the increased business in the off-season. But county tourism officials also take credit, saying promotional efforts boosted hotel occupancy rates in March for the first time to 70 percent. In comparison, the occupancy rate nine years ago would have been in the 40- to 50-percent range, Fischang said.

Besides tourists, demand for eating out comes regularly from working couples and families with little time or energy to cook during the week.

“We’re definitely seeing healthy growth,” said Stefanie Bagala, marketing director for Mary’s Pizza Shack. Founded in 1958, the Sonoma-based company has 20 locations from the Bay Area to Redding, including 11 in the county.

Whether it’s offering a pizza and toppings that kids can assemble themselves or an 11-item “Mediterranean Menu” that the company added this spring, Mary’s is serving families “things they could eat a couple times a week or once a week and not feel guilty about,” said Bagala.

Menu items woo customers

Variety today isn’t just found among eateries but also in the offerings on each restaurant menu.

Thai Time Asian Bistro in downtown Santa Rosa offers a “green menu” with many of its popular items specifically available as vegan, vegetarian or gluten free. Chef Olarn Tonverapongsiri said men often were happy to order off his regular menu, but their wives and significant others kept seeking out additional options.

“If you come here, the problem is solved,” he said.

Wowing customers today requires both good-tasting food and artful presentation. At Thai Time, a Best of Show winner for four straight years in various categories at the Harvest Fair’s commercial food competition, this means intricate vegetable carvings that the restaurant prepares both for diners and catering work. The creations include red or yellow roses carved from tomato skins or mango, as well cucumber “baskets” that hold Thai beef salad.

When the staff is carving, “people who come to eat, they want to come over to look,” said business partner Anders Bettum.

For the county, the dining choices keep expanding. In Cotati, St@x Social Eatery has been open just one month, offering diners the chance to select from seven themed platters with names like “Louisiana,” “Good Indian Stuff,” “N. Italy” and “Sliders!” Each contains 12 items composed of mains, sides, sauces and “platforms,” i.e. buns, chips or cakes.

The idea is for people to build their own bites and share them. An unexpected phenomenon is that diners often combine items from different platters, said Evan Kishineff, a business partner with Steve Mercer and chef Paul Croshal.

“We’ve hit the perfect time for this sort of thing because people want to be a part of what they’re eating,” Kishineff said. “They want to be ‘cheffy.’”

Looking ahead, the Starks by late summer plan to open their sixth restaurant in Santa Rosa, “Bird & The Bottle.”

Sazón hopes to expand its business and offerings into an adjoining space and Thai Time’s partners are seeking a second location.

New restaurants on tap

At the high end of dining, the county still lacks the three-starred firepower of Napa County’s French Laundry or the Restaurant at Meadowood. In that regard, some locals here look forward to the planned 2016 return at a new location of Cyrus, a two-star Michelin restaurant that closed in Healdsburg in 2012. Also in Healdsburg, acclaimed chef Kyle Connaughton and his farmer wife, Katina, plan later this year to open Single Thread Farms Restaurant and Inn, which many expect will be deemed Michelin-worthy.

At this month’s National Restaurant Association meeting in Chicago, the big trends were local and sustainable, consultant Tristano said. He joked that Sonoma chefs would respond, “Yeah, we’ve been doing that forever.”

Indeed, the restaurants are major customers for local farms, Stone said. During Restaurant Week, the participating eateries reported spending at least $100,000 on local products.

“They keep our local ag (agriculture) sector growing,” Stone said.

At the 9-year-old Harvest Moon Cafe on the Sonoma Plaza, chef Nick Demarest and his wife, Jen, purchase more than 80 percent of their produce from three local farms. Nick Demarest said it means he rarely serves tomatoes “until June or July, when I can get them right from Sonoma.”

While there will always be the very high-end restaurants, Demarest said he looks forward in the coming years to a food scene more like Portland, Ore., with plenty of “small, yummy, diverse” eateries that most locals can afford to frequent. He’s confident such places can find an audience.

“Going out to eat is still a way to maintain a human connection,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @rdigit.

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