A fork in the dining road at Spoonbar
June 20, 2011
HEALDSBURG, US – My family roots run deep in the rich soil of Healdsburg, a picturesque town hugging the Russian River in California’s Sonoma County wine country. To escape the foggy summers of San Francisco just 75 miles to the south, my great-grandmother bought a sunny summer cabin in what was then a rustic farming town. My grandfather brought my mother there every summer, and I too grew up vacationing on the banks of the river.
Healdsburg has long been a viticultural haven–my grandfather, a wine zealot, often sampled from local wineries on his Healdsburg jaunts. But the Healdsburg of today is nearly unrecognizable from the one of my childhood. The ever-expanding wine industry and foodie revolution have brought wine tourism, celebrity chefs, chic hotels, avant-garde art galleries, and designer boutiques…a considerable change from the sleepy village square and local five-and-dime I grew up with.
That’s not to say the change is bad. The contrasting pleasures of nature and culture in Healdsburg seem to strike an ideal balance. But up until now, even the most chichi dining spots managed to preserve that sort of farmhouse feel, with quiet meals of delectable food and wine ending with little more than a gaze at the stars. There was never much “nightlife” to speak of here, aside from the local dive bar and a graying jazz trio over at the Hotel Healdsburg.
Enter the h2hotel, a spinoff of the Hotel Healdsburg, and its sprawling eatery Spoonbar. The restaurant has brought what I’d consider to be the first “urban” flair to this agricultural hamlet. It’s as if a New York establishment was ripped from its concrete foundation and transplanted like a foreign crop. Spoonbar occupies nearly the entire first floor of the hotel’s ultra-mod building. When I visited on a recent Saturday night, the restaurant’s multiple glass doors were flung wide open to the streets, revealing a stylish dining room (the freeform natural wood tables and turquoise-cushioned Eames chairs are striking) buzzing with what can only be called…nightlife.
In a town obsessed with wine, the focus on cocktails here was a refreshing change. The restaurant’s two bars overflowed with chic 20- to 40-somethings guzzling from-scratch “potions” made with fresh produce. We sampled the Cucumber Collins (Square One Cucumber Vodka, lemon, sugar, mint, seltzer, yuzu, and fresh and pickled Cucumbers–yum!) before settling into the small plates Mediterranean menu. All ingredients are sourced locally (natch!), but chef Rudy Mihal has a deft hand with exotic spices from turmeric to coriander that transport you as far as north Africa. An appetizer of Moroccan eggplant and an order of Tunisian beef skewers with yogurt sauce were superb.
At 10:00pm, when most restaurants in Healdsburg were mopping the floor, Spoonbar was still going strong. The restaurant definitely seems to be striking a chord with a certain segment of tourists and locals who welcome a taste of nocturnal urbanity along with their country serenity. And though I’d hate to see Healdsburg absorb too much of this influence, I’m truly glad that Spoonbar’s come to town. Like a fine wine, Healdsburg gets better and better as it ages and its many well-balanced flavors come to the fore.