Excellent meals can be found in all the major Wine Country towns, and tiny Yountville has become a culinary crossroads under the influence of chef Thomas Keller. In St. Helena the elegant Restaurant at Meadowood has achieved almost as much critical acclaim as Keller's The French Laundry, yet is easier to get into. And the buzzed-about restaurants in Sonoma County, including Glen Ellen Star and the Farmhouse Inn, offer plenty of mouthwatering options.
The Wine Country's top restaurants tend to serve what is often called "California cuisine," which incorporates elements of French and Italian cooking and emphasizes the use of fresh, local products. If the restaurant scene here has a weakness, it's the absence of a greater variety of cuisines. However, the number of immigrants from Latin America ensures that in almost any town you'll find good, inexpensive spots selling tacos, fajitas, and similar fare.
Vegetarians shouldn't have any trouble finding excellent choices on Wine Country menus. The region's bounty of fresh produce and California's general friendliness toward vegetarians mean that restaurants are usually willing to go out of their way to accommodate you.
The Wine Country's restaurants, though excellent, can really dent your wallet. If you're on a budget, many high-end delis prepare superb picnic fare. Stopping for lunch or brunch can be a cost-effective strategy at pricey restaurants, as can sitting at the bar and ordering appetizers instead of having a full meal. It also doesn't hurt to ask about a restaurant's corkage policy: some restaurants eliminate their corkage fee one night a week, or even every night, hoping to attract locals in the wine industry who would rather drink bottles from their own cellar than the restaurant's.
The sheer number of restaurants means you can always find an empty table somewhere, but it pays to call ahead for a reservation, even if only a day or two before you visit. For the big-name restaurants such as Press, Terra, Goose & Gander, and Farmhouse Inn, calling a few weeks in advance is advised, though you can often get in on short notice if you're willing to eat early or late. (For The French Laundry, you must call two months ahead to the day.)
Except as noted in individual restaurant listings, dress is informal. Where reservations are indicated as essential, book a week or more ahead in summer and early fall.
Meals and Mealtimes
Lunch is typically served from 11:30 to 2:30 or 3, and dinner service in most restaurants starts at 5 or 5:30 and ends around 9 or 10. The Wine Country is short on late-night dining, so don't put off eating until any later than 10. Most hotels and inns offer breakfast service—anything from a basic continental breakfast to a lavish buffet to an individually prepared feast—but if yours doesn't, you'll find a good bakery in just about every Wine Country town.
Some restaurants close for a day or two a week, most often on Tuesday or Wednesday, when the number of visitors is fewest, so be sure to check in advance if you're planning on dining midweek. Unless otherwise noted, the restaurants listed here are open daily for lunch and dinner.
Almost all restaurants in the Wine Country accept credit cards. On occasion, you might find a bakery or a casual café that takes cash only.
Reservations and Dress
Restaurants throughout the Wine Country tend to be fairly casual, especially in Sonoma. This is less true in the Napa Valley, where you're unlikely to see jeans or shorts at dinner except at casual restaurants. Jackets, however, are very rarely required for men. At The French Laundry, though, they're necessary for both lunch and dinner. At top-tier restaurants like The Restaurant at Meadowood and the Farmhouse Inn, they would certainly be appropriate.
Regardless of where you are, it's a good idea to make reservations if you can. We mention them specifically only when essential (there's no other way you'll ever get a table) or when they are not accepted. For popular restaurants, book as far ahead as you can (often 30 days), and reconfirm as soon as you arrive. (Large parties should always call ahead to check the reservations policy.) We mention dress only when men are required to wear a jacket or a jacket and tie.
Online reservation services make it easy to book a table before you even leave home. Tables at many Wine Country restaurants are available through the OpenTable and Urbanspoon sites.
Wines, Beer, and Spirits
Nowhere in the United States are you more likely to see someone enjoying a glass or two of wine not only with dinner, but with lunch as well. Only the smallest dives and most casual cafés lack a wine menu; lists here are usually strongest in local bottles, with other West Coast wines and perhaps some French and Italian wines as well. Upscale restaurants generally have full bars. Though it's legal to serve alcohol as late as 2 am in California, most restaurants close down by 10 pm or so.