Story and Photos by Stephanie Levin.
Like a beacon of good will that is anchored in the history of a bygone era, the Flamingo Hotel Spa and Conference Center, located in Santa Rosa, California, has been welcoming guests since 1957. Two years after it opened, word sifted south to Hollywood and “those in the know” traveled north to stay in the famed hotel. Today this historic landmark has retained old-world charm with 21st Century modernity. Located in the heart of Sonoma Wine Country, travelers, families, weekend escapees and conferences attendees mingle over breakfast, swim in the enormous outdoor L-shaped pool, lounge in the garden Jacuzzi, or treat themselves to spa, tennis or dining – literally from the pool to the table. As I relaxed outside under a dreamy spacious sky, surrounded by sycamore and cedar trees, a sense of well-being and contentment sifted over me.
Reflecting on my last visit to the Flamingo more than a decade ago, Santa Rosa once was a shy little sister to next door Petaluma and the closest airport was 55 miles away in San Francisco or Sacramento. That has all changed. Today, Santa Rosa has an airport, opening up flights across the country with Alaska, American and United Airlines. The city has shed its little sister image, evolving into a distinct community with a personality all its own.
If you live outside of California, you may not have been plugged in until two years ago when, on October 8, 2017, a tragic fire put Santa Rosa on the world map. Viewers were left with scenes of massive destruction, suggesting the town might have turned to ash and timber. It did not. The good news is that the majority of Santa Rosa was untouched by the fire; however, the hearts and minds of the community were not. The tight knit community busted open heart and soul to their neighbors in this time of need by creating access to hotels and restaurants. Today, as Santa Rosa thrives, this community link remains knitted tightly together. The phoenix has risen with a new vitality including revamped restaurants, wineries and salsa extravaganzas -to name a few. I always find the best way to get a feel for a place though is to head to the kitchen.
Friday night, and the center of Santa Rosa at Old Courthouse Square on 4th Street is hopping. When I strolled into Perch & Plow, it was every bit as lively as restaurants I’ve frequented in San Francisco, only more spacious and welcoming. Known for its farm-to-table cuisine, the Ahi Tuna Poke with a Ponzu sauce, radish, sesame and avocado is unforgettable. The pan roasted brussel sprouts with aged balsamic and whiskey maple bacon jam gives an entire new meaning to brussel sprouts. Small plate offers are popular, but so are burgers. I suspect the cocktail aficionados give 5-star reviews to the artistically crafted cocktails. The Smoking Gun – brown butter-washed Old Forester bourbon then infused with sweet vermouth, brown sugar and chocolate bitters – arrives with cherry wood smoke rising from the glass. This is a drink you will not forget. Lightweight that I am, I opted for the lighter side – a Carbonated Paloma created with a citrus-infused Frida Kahlo tequila tinged with grapefruit, lime and elder flower and crowned with grapefruit foam. (Perch & Plow, 90 Old Courthouse Square, Santa Rosa.)
If your tastes veer toward good craft beer and informal fare, Beer Baron Bar and Kitchen at 614 4th Street serves up good food with down home comfort and a hearty row of beers on tap. I couldn’t keep my chips out of the smoked olive oil guacamole before my three little tacos of beef, chicken and wild mushroom arrived. Beer Baron has a local, down-home feel to it.This is the place to hang your hat, peel off your jacket and settle in for brew and food. It is also a popular place for breakfast and brunch, as well as dinner. If you’re passing through on a Wednesday’s night, this is the hot spot for live music. (Beer Baron, 614 4th St., Santa Rosa.)
An arm’s stretch down 4th street from Beer Baron sits Belly-Left Coast Kitchen and Tap Room owned by award-winning executive chef Gray Rollin. Belly has personality, and so does Chef Rollin, who in his past life traveled for over a decade as executive chef to rock and roll musicians. He relates over 40 countries under his culinary toque, including a stunning stint in Hawaii where he dove into the art of Pacific fusion cooking. Great chefs have curiosity, wings and a zest for adventure -Chef Rollin fits the mold.
He left the Hawaiian islands for D.C. to open “Nage” in Dupont Circle. There he introduced his honed Pacific influence to D.C. palates before this California boy returned home to open Belly. Yes, all of Rollin’s culinary travels grace his dishes. The menu is extensive, so with choices galore, I started small with bacon wrapped dates stuffed with blue cheese, truffle maple honey and bound in Applewood bacon. (A word of caution – share this little dish, otherwise you will eat the entire plate.) For vegetarians there’s Rosemary Kale Fingerling with Parmesan and Sriracha ketchup or house-made hummus with veggies. Kudos to the pizza. I’m a pizza snob. I’ve eaten pizza from Italy to Argentina, and Belly’s, hands down, is a generous notch above them all. Our little party shared pizzas, so we splurged and ordered two off the menu: a Rustic Italian Cheese made with home-made tomato sauce, roasted tomatoes, herbs and fresh mozzarella; and a Wild Mushroom Truffle pizza topped with crimini mushrooms, arugula and maple honey. The pizzas were prepared to perfection. Belly’s also serves an extensive list of craft beers, and wines focusing on five Pacific states – Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California and Hawaii. ( Belly Left Coast Kitchen, 523 4th St, Santa Rosa.)
Not everyone dines in town. In fact, if you happen to be in Kenwood, a 15-minute drive from Santa Rosa up 4th street to Sonoma Highway (Hwy-12), stop in at Tips Roadside for casual comfort food with a Cajun bite. Like many creative people with a passion for food, Tip’s owners Andrew and Susie Pryfogle had a unique beginning in the kitchen. In the 2008 recession, both Andrew and Susie lost their jobs in the tech industry. While trying to figure out their unpredictable future, chance asserted itself. Andrew made a mean tri-tip sandwich and began selling them at street fairs, which later morphed into a good long stint at the Sonoma’s Farmers Market. Bingo, Andrew had an idea. Why not invest in 30-foot ruby red food trolley, a first in Sonoma County, and sell his tri- tip sandwiches on the road. Well, entrepreneurs can only stay in a food trolley for so long until a new vision takes hold.
The Pryfogles purchased a 90-year old building that had once been a one-stop gas station, and while waiting for the permits to build, the 2017 Santa Rosa fire broke out. Again, chance stepped in. Swift feet and muscle maneuvered the Tri-Tip Trolley out of harm’s way, and along with their executive chef and friend, Thaddeus Palmese, and a dedicated crew, Tips fed over 5,000 first responders at their food trolley. Once the dust settled construction began in earnest and the new Tips Roadside was born.
Chef Palmese’s New Orleans style cooking spices up some of Tips most requested dishes. The extensive breakfast menu hosts Shrimp and Grits – to Biscuits & Gravy with andouille red-eye gravy and green onion. Marinated grill tri-tip sandwiches and all-natural burgers are on the lunch menu too. Rounding out the menu are large plates of New Orleans barbecued shrimp or smoke braised ribs. If you have a hankering for food with a Cajun flair or comfort food such as house tater tots or mom’s old-fashioned tomato soup, this is your restaurant. There’s a homey feel to Tips Roadhouse as well as the spirit of the community. In case you are wondering about the red trolley that fed the first responders, it is now parked out back and used for catering events. (Tips Roadside, 8445 Sonoma Hwy, Kenwood, CA.)
IF YOU GO:
I don’t want you to think there nothing to do but eat your way through Santa Rosa, as there are also numerous breweries, in fact too many to list. Check some of the best here: Sonoma wineries for wine tasting. If you prefer the outdoors, there are hiking and bike trails, and everyone loves the Charles Shultz Museum where Charlie Brown’s Peanuts cartoons and characters reside.
Flamingo Resort and Spa offers live salsa on Saturday nights in the lounge; open to the public. 2777 Fourth Street, Santa Rosa.
Santa Rosa Beer Passport – Eleven local breweries created a “beer passport” to take brew lovers on a local craft beer adventure. Pick up your passport at one of the participating breweries.
On April 6, Sonoma County’s Fairgrounds hosts the 24th Battle of the Brews competition replete with local chefs adding their most delicious sandwiches.
On June 6, Luther Burbank Center for the Arts hosts Beerfest The Good One’s 60 brewery tasting event of rare and classic beers.
Hiking trails: Three of Santa Rosa city, county and state parks – Annadel Trione State Park, Spring Lake Regional Park and Howarth Memorial Park – are joined by an extensive trail system.
Prefer two wheels to your feet? Sonoma County offers 1,400 miles of traveled secondary roads and a growing number of off-road bike trails. Visitors can rent bikes at one of the numerous bike shops or book a bike tour in the wine country.
Luther Burbank Center for the Arts at 55 West Springs Road in Santa Rosa offers a variety of arts and entertainment.
The Charles Shultz Museum is home to Snoopy, Charlie Brown and friends.