There is perhaps no place in the United States where you'll find food that's as consistently excellent as it is in California's Wine Country. In part you can thank the vintners and other folks in the wine industry, who spend years developing their palates—they bring a keen, appreciative attitude to the table. These winemakers know that there is no better way to show off their wines than with creative cooking, so they've encouraged a lively, top-notch food scene.
But we can't give the wine industry all the credit for those organic frisée salads and galettes made with perfectly ripe peaches. California's unique climate nurtures a rich variety of produce year-round, so Wine Country chefs are able to take advantage of ripe, local fruits and vegetables and artisanal products that simply aren't available elsewhere.
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. One way to avoid sticker shock is to try restaurants at lunch, when prices are marginally lower. 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 famed French Laundry, you must call two months ahead to the day.)
Lunch is typically served from 11:30 to 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, or you might end up raiding your room's minibar. 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.
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 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 at the OpenTable and Urbanspoon sites.
Open Table (www.opentable.com.)
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.