NAPA SONOMA MAGAZINE: June, 2022
It’s especially hip to be square when you’re the eight-acre Sonoma Plaza, the vibrant town center of Sonoma, where historic sites meet top-rated restaurants, noted tasting rooms, stylish boutiques, lively farmers markets, and more.
What’s unique about this gem of a plaza in the heart of Sonoma? Only everything! From its botanical park and duck pond to the bustling four corners of commerce that flank it, not only has Sonoma Plaza survived the challenges of the past two years, it’s more appealing than ever.
“The city is known for its nice people, wine, good food, colorful history, and art,” says Sonoma resident Pat Meier-Johnson, who was recently honored as Sonoma’s Treasure Artist for 2022.
Pat and her husband, Russ, live near the designated bike path to Sonoma Plaza and historic Sebastiani Vineyards and Winery. They’ve taken countless friends to the plaza and stopped for selfies on the park bench next to the statue of General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, who is credited with founding Sonoma.
They’ve shown off Mission San Francisco Solano, built in 1823 and part of Sonoma State Historic Park on the northeast corner of the plaza. And they often share a bit of architectural trivia about City Hall, in the center of the plaza, which was built with identical facades on all four sides so that no one can see the back side of the building.
Near that handsome brick building is the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau, where executive director Tim Zahner runs the region’s marketing. He rides his bike to work and can feel the pulse of the plaza from all four corners.
“Sonoma Plaza echoes the energy around it. You see a lot of people having picnics and a lot of people with kids here,” he says. “And then you can walk along the periphery and look in the shops and go to restaurants and galleries.”
On any given day, an ambassador from the Visitors Bureau is set up in the plaza, answering questions and handing out brochures and maps. There’s even a self-guided Tree Tour that includes a list of birds you might see in the plaza. Among the notable trees is the coastal redwood in the southwest corner, planted in 1948 and dedicated to General Vallejo. On the park’s northwestern flank there’s a giant sequoia with a monument to Colonel Agoston Haraszthy, considered the father of California viticulture and the founder of nearby Buena Vista Winery.
Perhaps the single biggest draw to the plaza is the weekly farmers market, typically held on Tuesday evenings during the warmer months, starting in May. There’s also an amphitheater in the park for live music, both scheduled and improvised by local musicians.
And while the historic sites and natural treasures serve as the plaza’s enduring anchors, there are always new restaurants, shops, and tasting rooms to explore. Here’s a look at some of the highlights you’ll find as you circumnavigate the plaza.
Starting in the southwest corner, you’ll come across Taub Family Outpost, a retail market and restaurant with indoor and outdoor seating and a speakeasy in back. On the same block are noted restaurants like Valley Bar and Bottle (California home cooking and wine bar) and Tasca Tasca, serving Portuguese small bites. For sparkles, there’s a purveyor of bubbles next door called Sigh Champagne Bar.
History and fine wine combine for a more upscale experience at Three Sticks at the Adobe. Three Sticks produces exquisite estate-grown pinot noirs and chardonnays. They claim that they are obsessed with Sonoma, wine, and history—and it shows. Careful attention to detail is seen in the 1842 adobe they remodeled for their tasting experiences, which are by reservation only.
For a more casual tasting, Sosie Wines (which offers French-style wine with California grapes) has opened along Vine Alley, one of the many “hidden passages” along the plaza’s perimeter. Elsewhere on Vine Alley are several other tasting rooms, making it easy to try a variety of fine wines in one outing.
On the west side of the plaza are two other alleys, El Paseo and the Mercato. The Mercato has a popular spot called Prohibition Spirits, started by distiller Fred Groth and his wife, Amy. Their many trips to Italy inspired them to make their flagship product, a California-style limoncello called Limoncello di Sonoma. They have since expanded their offerings to include whiskey, rum, gin, brandy, and specialty spirits.
La Prenda Wines is a not-to-be-missed tasting room located next to the Red Grape, a popular pizza restaurant, on the southwest corner. On the west side, there’s also Rancho Maria Wines, where winemaker Sebastian Juarez holds court in the tasting room, pouring flights and telling stories about this small family winery.
One spot creating a buzz in the plaza is the Sausage Emporium, which serves artisan sausages along with craft beer, local wine, and champagne. One of the woman-owned businesses in Sonoma, the emporium also features a marketplace and takeout for these tasty meats.
Perhaps the most recognized woman-owned business in the plaza is the Girl and the Fig, the groundbreaking French-influenced restaurant that Sondra Bernstein started a quarter century ago, first in Glen Ellen and then in the plaza after moving here in 2000. Bernstein turned over the day-to-day operations last year to founding partner and chef John Toulze, who is honoring the restaurant’s 25th anniversary this year with special dinners featuring greatest-hits recipes from the past.
Any mention of food in the area must also include El Dorado Kitchen, across the street from the Girl and the Fig. Here, executive chef Armando Navarro creates farm-driven cuisine in a handsome boutique hotel with its own saltwater swimming pool and lush gardens.
For fresh pastries, breads, sandwiches, soups, and specialty coffee, don’t miss the Basque Boulangerie Café. Located near the historic Sebastiani Theatre on the east side of the plaza, the café is a local favorite, with the seductive aroma of baked goods emanating from its shop.
Sonoma’s sizable Sherpa population, an ethnic community from Nepal, is represented in the Taste of the Himalayas Nepalese restaurant nearby. It’s a little-known fact that some 50 Sherpa families live in Sonoma, and restaurateur Pemba Sherpa, who came from Nepal in 1997, says those who share his last name are known for their hospitality.
For unique gifts, J. James Sonoma has one of the plaza’s most eclectic shops. Over the past 10 years, owners and world travelers Jon and Carole Shearer have curated a collection of unique gifts—everything from vintage cordial glasses to high-quality clothing and jewelry. Scott Nichols Gallery, also on the plaza’s east flank, features some of the top black-and-white photography in the world. And on the west side, Sign of the Bear is a family-run culinary shop where a lot of attention is given to making the store fun.
It would take hours, maybe days, to explore Sonoma Plaza’s one-of-a-kind shops and taste the fruits of some of Sonoma’s best chefs and winemakers. Even there, the town has you covered, with three hours of free parking on the streets flanking the plaza. Think of it as an added bonus to a day full of history, shopping, and the best of Sonoma Wine Country fare.
A short walk from the plaza, the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art has been a fixture in the art community for 23 years. And 99 percent of its exhibitions are curated at the museum, giving visitors a show they’re not likely to see anywhere else.
The museum’s portable walls can be reconfigured to house five or six new shows annually, and the building’s air-conditioning system is engineered to accommodate the standards of world-class art exhibits. Executive director Linda Keaton says one positive thing that came out of the pandemic is that 25 new volunteers have been trained to be guides. The museum also has an excellent on-site shop and offers several art-making classes to the public. One of the more eclectic of these is the “Look Club,” in which attendees look at a work of art in the museum and then discuss it with the artist or curator. svma.org.
Also a half block from the plaza, the Arts Guild of Sonoma is one of California’s oldest art cooperatives. A walk through the collective is a don’t-miss experience, with walls of affordably priced paintings and shelves of unique jewelry, ceramics, and much more. Over 30 artists show in this collective, which is celebrating its 45th anniversary this year. artsguildofsonoma.org.