California’s Best New Restaurant Quietly Ups Sonoma’s Culinary (and Hotel) Game
Is SingleThread Farms the new French Laundry? JS correspondent Jenna Scatena gets a first look at the Sonoma restaurant-hotel hybrid, the best new restaurant in California—and possibly the country.
One block off Healdsburg’s leafy main street in sleepy Sonoma County, in a discreet, rehabilitated corner post office, is California’s most talked-about culinary opening of 2016. Like Napa’s Yountville a few decades ago, Healdsburg has steadily been building its way toward becoming Sonoma’s epicurean capital—a charming, walkable village where promising chefs come to tinker on their farms and test out new culinary theories. But two-month-old SingleThread Farms is more than just a place to eat. It’s a trifecta—a restaurant, a boutique inn, and a five-acre farm—born from the minds of chef Kyle Connaughton and farmer wife Katina, who stand at the precipice of doing for Sonoma what Thomas Keller did for Napa: open an innovative, ingredient-focused, fine-dining restaurant with enough gravitas to singlehandedly put its overlooked wine region on the culinary, and global, map.
Destination restaurants and culinary high-mindedness have deep roots in California, especially in neighboring Napa, where The French Laundry and the Restaurant at Meadowood have long garnered international appeal. (Napa has been the mecca for high-end California wining and dining since the 70s, whereas Sonoma, its scruffier stepsister, has sat in second place.) While SingleThread’s farm-to-table sentiments are more in line with other Northern California heavyweights like Chez Panisse and Saison, the most expensive restaurant in the state, chef Kyle Connaughton (as Eater put, "the best chef you’ve never heard of") and wife Katina brought their personal histories to the mix, with more eastern influence than the usual Mediterranean-leaning menus. After spending some time in Japan and England, where the chef worked for five years at Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck, the couple gravitated toward Sonoma County, whose idyllic farmland, craftspeople, and dynamic wines now lend themselves to their unique culinary style.
Securing a reservation is your first indication that there’s something special about SingleThread. After securing a table online, the maître d’ reaches out for an "intake interview" in order to determine each guest’s culinary preferences. From there, the chef and his team begin conceptualizing the 11-course, three-hour experience—“experience” not being an understatement.
In actuality, arriving at SingleThread feels like showing up to a friend’s dinner party. Shortly after entering the building, guests are shown to the rooftop terrace, where string lights, potted kumquat trees, and planter boxes sprouting seasonal produce give the space a living room-type vibe. Wine is passed around and enjoyed alongside a 360-degree view of Healdsburg that extends over the rooftops of downtown to the forested hills in the west. To the east is the ridge-line where SingleThread grows the ingredients for their meals. The sun just begins to set as guests finish off their glasses.
Downstairs in the dining room, the concept continues. Custom-made chairs—including some sofas—are comfortable and upholstered, while an open layout allows for the studious cooking to feel like a quiet dialogue between the kitchen and the guests. All around, fabric chandeliers subtly mimic Japanese lanterns, and loom-like threading partitions the rooms. The residential-like ambiance is intentional, influenced by the intimate ryokans guesthouses of Japan where chef Connaughton spent his formative cooking years.
The first course unfolds on the table among a scene-scape of small Japanese pottery and bushels of moss, lichen, and florals harvested by Katina Connaughton, the restaurant’s culinary farmer and chef’s wife. It serves as more than an appetizer; the layout and dishes are a conversation starter—like being welcomed home for dinner.
What follows is a story of Sonoma’s farm-to-table ethos, married with eastern aesthetics. Think Japanese tagine with scallions, leeks, and black cod prepared in a donabe (a Japanese clay pot, and a staple of the food at SingleThread) and beef strips cooked in eucalyptus bark in the kitchen’s open-flame hearth. “The architecture of the meal is a narrative—like a novel, there is progression, an arc, a contrast between scenes,” chef Connaughton says. Every aspect, from the food to the floral arrangements, showcase the very best of the land. “Each bouquet is a microcosm of what Katina sees in the garden—maybe this little branch is where a bird would land. We just bring it inside, into one space.”
And at the end of the meal, there is no fumbling for the check or calculating the tip. The experience is paid for beforehand. “You wouldn’t present guests in your home with a check at the end of a meal,” chef Connaughton says. It’s the next-level version of the all-inclusive.
Instead, the meal concludes languidly, and guests are free to leave at leisure—be it to their cars, or upstairs to one of the five guest rooms above the restaurant.
“We always wanted a restaurant with guest rooms, rather than a hotel with a restaurant,” chef Connaughton says. Upstairs, the line between the two is intentionally blurred: mini-fridges are stocked with home-spun ice cream and chocolates from the restaurant, as well as local kambucha, craft beer, and Sonoma Coast nori. The owners even let guests use their Netflix and Amazon Prime accounts at no additional cost. It’s a best-practices approach gleaned from their favorite Japanese ryokans and European countryside inns, blended with Sonoma’s micro-seasonality.
“There’s more to it than just saying the menu is seasonal,” the chef says. “I wanted to capture Northern California’s ephemerality in the food, those fleeting moments in time and place. Each course is a snapshot of that particular day in Sonoma, just as each dish is a reminder to be in the moment, that—just like the changing menu—today won’t come again.”
Unless, of course, an overnight stay is in the cards. For your sake, we sure hope it is.
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