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March 21-27, 2007

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Best Safety Net for the Hungry Blue-Collar Diner

Photograph by Michael Amsler

The Bohemian's Best of the North Bay 2007

Food & Drink: Writers' Picks

Best Safety Net for the Hungry Blue-Collar Diner

In a small little building off of Santa Rosa Avenue, sandwiched between a smog shop and a dive bar, is the last vestige of a bygone road-stop era: Marvell's Cafe. Owners Don and Marvell Cox, both in their early 70s and married for 52 years, serve up no-frills grub to a daily crowd of tow-truck drivers, auto mechanics and other first-name-basis regulars, many of whom have their own coffee mugs hanging from a rack above the crock pot.

A recent weekday morning marked the 15th anniversary of Marvell's Cafe, but in the style of the place, there were no streamers, no cakes--just a trucker eating soup with the regulars, discussing various doughnut shops around town. Marvell took the opportunity to step away from the kitchen, where she's worked most her life. She took her first job at Sunrise Creamery on Santa Rosa's Fourth Street when she was 17, and though she lived on a succession of naval bases after marrying Don, it wasn't long before she put her grandmother's cooking lessons to work and began catering. Years later, when Don retired from the furniture business, the two settled into a mobile-home park in Santa Rosa. Marvell's Cafe was born.

The food and the atmosphere at Marvell's are of a similar aesthetic. The counter is worn in all the right places, the red vinyl stools and wood-paneled walls come from a distant, simpler time. When I first started going there, people still smoked inside. The cafe's rock-bottom prices are nicely outdated: a roast pork chop with stuffing and peas, homemade soup and a bread roll is $6.75; a burger and fries, just $3.95. Marvell admits that she can't keep prices low forever. "I raise 'em once a year," Marvell says, "five cents, 10 cents, sometimes even 15 cents, depending. We're lucky here, our overhead is low." Don contrasts it with "eating in Healdsburg, where it takes a bank loan to eat dinner," and points out that popular specials like fried chicken and meatloaf usually pack the room. "Believe it or not," he confides, "most places you go to eat, it's the shits. But here, you get a pleasant taste. It tastes like food."

The sounds, too, are unique at Marvell's. Johnnie Ray and Patti Page croon from a stereo in the corner, and thin walls emit the clamor of the graveyard-shift bar dwellers next door, who occasionally pop in to order omelettes. But the greatest sounds come from Don and Marvell themselves, who hold court on a wide range of subjects while the breakfast crowd helps with the crossword puzzle. "If we didn't have this, we'd go nuts," Don says. "It keeps you young, to get out and be around nice people. That's our reward."

Googling "Marvell's Cafe" won't get you anywhere at all, nor will the phone book; you just have to know where it is--on Barham Avenue, between Santa Rosa Avenue and Petaluma Hill Road. Open from 6am to 2pm, Monday through Friday.--G.M.

Best Sandwich Place and Makeshift Cycling Gallery

Photograph by Nina Zhito

Best Sandwich Place and Makeshift Cycling Gallery

You know a sandwich is good when the customers want to buy the supplies, which is what happens all the time at Michael's Sourdough in Novato. Freshly baked there every day, their sourdough rolls are the perfect combination of crispy and soft that would make the earl himself rise from his grave. The bread is an old family recipe of Michael Braun's, owner of the original shop in San Rafael, which still serves as a lunchtime oasis for countless Francisco Boulevard area workers. The carb-weary will be addicted to the dressing for the organic spring greens salad with feta cheese, walnuts and dried cranberries. Very much a family affair, the Novato store is owned by Braun's brother-in-law and cycling enthusiast Corrado Fabbro, who decorated the shop with posters of Andy Hampsten, Gino Bartali and of course Lance Armstrong. "It's another thing that brings me closer to all my customers," says Fabbro, who prides himself on his close relationships with both customers and staff. Next time you're riding nearby, stop by for a sandwich and some rolls for home (if they're somehow not sold-out for the day). Michael's Sourdough, 42 Digital Drive, Novato. 415.883.5110.--D.S.

Best Place to Warm Up with a Bloody Mary After the Beach

With the fog lapping at your back, the brine stiffening your hair, sand working its way between your toes, and before you face humanity again, wouldn't it be nice to soften the edges with a wee drink (or a big one, even)? One of the biggest, spiciest and packed-with-your-daily-supply-of-veggies Bloody Marys around is served at Stormy's Tavern in the hamlet of Bloomfield. A family-run business for 47 years, Stormy's was purchased by Ellen "Stormy" Cramer, a tiny little sparkplug of a woman who passed away two years ago, in the 1960s as a beer and wine bar. No one thought it would survive, especially the previous owner Bertha, who had sold it and bought it back twice before. Twenty-five years ago, when Stormy's son Roger turned 21, he obtained a liquor license and built the restaurant. He and his wife, Carolyn, have been running the place ever since. Remote it may be, but when you're coming home from a chilly trip to the beach, the siren song of the huge, roaring fieldstone fireplace in Stormy's bar will call to you. Along with the fireplace and tasty Marys, they've got great martinis, big pours all-around, and if you're hungry, they're famous for huge slabs of perfectly cooked beef, which they age and cut in-house. Check out the prime rib, two inches thick and as big as your head, or if you're really ambitious, the at-least-32-ounce porterhouse. Stormy's Tavern, 6650 Bloomfield Road, Bloomfield. 707.795.0127.--M.T.J.

Best Place to Warm Up with a Bloody Mary After the Beach

Photograph by Michael Amsler

Best Way to Beat the Talkative Bar Crowd

During the second song of an acoustic set positively beleaguered by the chattering clientele of the Sweet Spot in downtown Santa Rosa in February, Des Ark (aka North Carolina singer-songwriter Aimee Argote) stopped cold, put down her banjo and, in her quiet but determined voice, made an announcement. "OK, bars hate it when I do this, but I can't even hear myself and I can't imagine you can hear me either," she explained. "So I'm going to go out on the sidewalk and finish my set, and if you want to hear it, I'll meet you out there." Hence, the strange sight of 50 diehards crowded around an alcove in front of Quiznos on Fourth Street late at night, hanging delightedly on Argote's every soft word as the Sweet Spot's doorman had a heck of a time justifying the cover charge to would-be patrons. Sweet Spot Pub and Lounge, 619 Fourth St., Santa Rosa. 707.528.7566. --G.M.

Best Example That Adherence to a Christian Doctrine Need Not Doom One to Bad Coffee

Sure, it's a stereotype, and we know that stereotypes are so very bad. But when I hear "Christian" uttered within the same sentence as "coffeehouse," I'm seeing a wheezing aluminum coffee urn on a fold-out table in a church basement. I'm also seeing styrofoam cups and nondairy creamer. Catholic Italy is the mother of modern espresso, but Evangelicals? I rolled my eyes when Holy Roast Coffee Co. opened up around the corner from me in Santa Rosa, hopefuls jumping into the lion's den. We're already haunted by locally owned joints that gave up the ghost, blaming their failure on that Goliath of mediocre (but consistent) coffee, Starbucks. What's owner Wayne Conley going on, faith? Maybe, but more importantly, great coffee and friendly service. He's done his homework. Holy Roast serves some of the best local beans, organic Ecco Caffee, and his baristas know how to use a steaming wand. There's a small selection of well-chosen deli items and wraps, and the new space is clean and comfortable, with a leather sofa. Perhaps previous ventures in that space went wrong due to the very wrong-sounding screech of scalding milk or viscous java brew produced that appealed to a limited base of crackheads. It even might have helped them if they'd staffed the counter with more than one beleaguered employee on busy days, d'ya think? It's not like a Great Mystery. Could be, He helps them that help themselves. Holy Roast Coffee Co., 490 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa. 707.523.3137.--J.K.

Best Childhood Memory in a Tube

After an almost 20-year absence, Flicks, the longstanding and beloved movie theater candy, are now available again at select theaters. First introduced to the world in 1904, the sweet chocolate drops brightened up the silver-screen experience for generations of moviegoers until the late 1980s, when the company's original machinery was severely damaged during an extensive move. Finally, the machinery has been replicated, and to many delighted and surprised eyes, the chocolate drops are available again--in the same cardboard tube and everything. "Many people at least my age and older see the tubes of Flicks and proclaim, with varying degrees of glee, 'You have Flicks! I haven't seen these in years!'" explains Ky Boyd, owner of the Rialto Lakeside Cinemas, where a large tube of Flicks costs $2.50. "Other people, mostly younger, look at the shiny tubes and ask what they are," he laments. Or, as a teenager working the concession stand recently related, "A lot of kids think they suck. They call them 'waxy discs.'" (One clueless customer actually thought the theater had started advertising for Netflix.) But for those of us who remember finishing off the candy and then watching movies through the empty tube as kids, the reemergence of Flicks makes every trip to the movies feel like Christmas morning. Rialto Lakeside Cinemas, 551 Summerfield Road, Santa Rosa. 707.525.4840.--G.M.

Best Place to Get Mired in a Time Warp

San Rafael's Thursday night downtown farmers market is the best place to run into people you miss from high school (and those you tried to delete from your hard drive). The Broken Drum Brewery between A and B streets was the best place last year to scan the crowds, sifting for old friends. As you spy the crowd from the sidewalk patio, sipping your pint of dark wheat Whamber, make sure to mind those who may be watching you, too. If you make unwanted eye contact, you can slip inside to watch a local DJ spin on the balcony. If you do get caught by an unwanted ghost, be careful of the wobbly tables (there's nothing cooler in front of your ex than spilling beer on your crotch). If you're hungry, try . . . oh, no. I can't believe this. Does she see me? "Hey, how are you? Wow, you look great! How long has it been?" The Broken Drum, 1132 Fourth St., San Rafael. 415.456.4677.--D.S.

Best Five Dollars' Worth of Odd

Posing a delicious threat to the burrito as the dominating quick-bite staple of choice in the North Bay is the pupusa, a masa tortilla filled with pork, beans, rice and sometimes lorocco, a vine flower bud. Only a small handful of pupuserias have opened around here so far, but if the full tables inside are any barometer, supply will soon have to meet the demand for this compact treat, served in El Salvador forever and finally making its way further north. The menu at the newest and best local pupuseria, Pupusas Salvadorenas, located in a small storefront across from the fairgrounds in Santa Rosa, is a shock: looking down the listing of small plates, the prices range from just $1.50 to $5 for pupusas, empanadas, tamales, desserts and various combination plates. On a recent visit, I chose a menu item at random, and it turned out to be a heaping plateful of pasteles: meat pies and Salvadorean slaw enveloped in potato casings and deep-fried to perfection, served with an orange-flavored salsa. The cost? $5. My allegiance? Instantly won. Pupusas Salvadorenas, 1403 Maple Ave., Santa Rosa. 707.544.3141.--G.M.

Best Cafe to Forget Camus

Not that Sweetie Pies didn't deserve a Best Of before (in fact, for the past few years, it's been a sweetheart of the New York and Los Angeles Times' as well as the Food Network); it's just that it always wafted out more of a bakery vibe than a workaday cafe air. But after Napa's make-believe-Parisian Cafe Society closed, we came back to Sweetie Pie's, hoping that maybe it would have another dimension. Although the heliotropic tarts, cookies and cakes are undeniably precious, the bakery also carries a decent-sized lunch menu, from the Reuben panini (one of Napa's few "ethnic foods") to the curried chicken salad and classic tuna sandwich. Order from a bevy of coffee and drink options written in elaborate script on the chalkboard, plop yourself at one of the country-chic tables and chomp down on some substantial grub. Crack a book or mag, but understand: Martha Stewart Living or Gourmet would be the most appropriate choices here. Sweetie Pies still isn't a proper cafe--no self-respecting existentialist would come here to smoke and moon about Sartre or Camus--but then again, nor would they have gone to Cafe Society. Sweetie Pies, 520 Main St., Napa. 707.257.8817.--B.A.

Best Place to Wonder How the Chef Does It

At his Cafe Saint Rose, chef and owner Mark Malicki serves consistently uncompromising, gourmet three-course meals for so little money it's hard to understand how he's doing it. Despite how much I love this place, I have to say I've had a few misses here. Funny thing is, I keep going back anyway and I can't say this about too many other joints. You see, the chef aims high and he's so creative and the changeable menu so stirring that I can't help being drawn back--for that, and for the adorable side-street location with only a handful of tables, the great cappuccinos, and, yes, the changing array of vinyl that you can play yourself on the lil' toy turntable. I mean, it's like waiting for the new Prince album to come out: sometimes he hits it out of the park, sometimes he'll only have one good song on an album, but the guy's inspired and you can't wait to hear what he comes up with next, right? That's how I feel about Cafe Saint Rose. Cafe Saint Rose, 465 Sebastopol Ave. (between Santa Rosa Avenue and South A Street), Santa Rosa. 707.546.2459.--M.T.J.

Best Places to Pretend You're a Mad King

In 1869, Ludwig II, king of Bavaria, began constructing an enormous, Romanesque castle. Poor Ludwig died before his dream house was finished, and his extravagance earned him the epithet Ludwig the Mad. On a happier note, Neuschwanstein, his now-finished castle, attracts hordes of visitors each year and is purported to be the most photographed building in all of Germany. Disneyland's Sleeping Beauty Castle is more or less modeled after it, and it even got screen time in the movie Spaceballs. A host of vintners seem to have caught mad Ludwig's bug in recent years, building faux chateaux willy-nilly all over wine country. Our picks for the most outrageously anachronistic wineries are Chateau Boswell, where you'd expect to see French tapestries depicting a virgin with a unicorn in her lap (3468 Silverado Trail, St. Helena, 707.963.5472); Ledson, the 16,000-square-foot French Normandy, aka Addams Family-style, home which the winery's own description allows emerges "like a gothic blast from the past" (7335 Sonoma Hwy., Kenwood, 707.537.3810); and Castello di Amorosa, Daryl Sattui's crenelated Italianate palace, which is finally expected to open this April (4045 N. St. Helena Hwy., Calistoga, 707.942.8200).--B.A.

Best Big-Tab Neighborhood Napa Restaurant

Thomas Keller, the chef-god of Yountville, has outdone himself with Ad Hoc, which once temporary is now gratefully permanent. Finally, our hunger for a neighborhood restaurant in Napa Valley is sated! We know--Keller tends to make his restaurants a bit over-the-top, but trust us on this one: Ad Hoc is comfy-cozy with friendly, unpretentious waiters who actually dress down for the occasion. The restaurant's atmosphere is casual, without being (shudder) "family," and it serves high-quality comfort food that will appeal to the foodie, the cynic and the one who believes that food should, first and foremost, adhere firmly to the ribs. On our last visit, the beverage list included Vernors ginger ale, so Midwestern visitors should feel at home, too. For all four courses you'll get and love, the tab isn't all that inflated, but hey, we had to have at least one tri-tip bone to pick. We're just like that. Ad Hoc, 6476 Washington St., Yountville. 707.944.2487.--B.A.

Best Small-Tab Neighborhood Napa Restaurant

We're still looking.--B.A.

Best Half Portion of Gnocchi

Fact: Sometimes being in Napa is like being in Italy. Fact: Napa has a great foodie culture with lots of restaurants. Fiction: Most of them are totally affordable. Factoid: Italy, Napa and moderate prices actually do come together at Uva. Not only is the food pretty delish, but the menu offers half-portions of some of i nostri preferiti, like the gnocchi al Gorgonzola ($9.25 half; $14.50 whole) and for the same prices, ravioli d'erbè, coated with brown butter and sage, a divine but underrepresented sauce that Marcella Hazan finally shared with Americans in her landmark cookbook Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, now in the culinary lit canon. Another nice thing about Uva is that although it's often bumpin', the hostess can almost always find a place to seat you. Uva Trattoria Italiana, 1040 Clinton St., Napa. 707.255.6646.--B.A.

Best Place to Remember Why You Loved Grilled Cheese Sammys

So maybe it is $11. But isn't that a small price to pay for a reminder of one of the greatest simple pleasures in life? The grilled cheese sandwich served at Della Fattoria on their freshly baked bread makes my mouth water just thinking on it. The cheese is molten and tangy, with nuggets of crisp prosciutto floating about in it; the chewy pressed bread is browned, buttery and salty; and you can sit at the beautiful 12-foot slab-o-wood communal table, like snack time at kindergarten, only better. Ingredients are top-shelf and organic. Surroundings, lovely. Not only that, when you're done with your grilled cheese, you can take home any number of Della Fattoria's organic fresh-baked breads and knee-weakening pastries. Della Fattoria, 141 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma. 707.763.0161.--M.T.J.

Best Hangover Grease Fest

Ah, Sunday morning. It means redemption for some, purgatory for others. Thankfully, the Depot Garden Restaurant offers a relaxing atmosphere for that slow Sunday morning journey to sobriety. Dimly lit with white walls that seem to sooth your spinning head, Depot Garden provides hearty, no-nonsense breakfasts and lunch. Formerly a Cajun restaurant with the same name, it was purchased by Nam and Nan Chung in 1988. Nam is the sole cook, explaining the consistency that's kept regulars coming back year after year. In addition to the delicious crab and avocado eggs Benedict, a highlight is the French burger, which gets its name solely from the French roll on which it's served (or perhaps the French door entrance). If the many police officers who frequent the place make you nervous, you can always eat at the back patio and brave the piercing sunlight instead. The Depot Garden Restaurant, 718 B St., San Rafael. 415.456.9151.--D.S.

Best Standby

Another night in Napa, another quandary about what to do for dinner. Part of the PlumpJack kingdom, the Boon Fly Cafe boasts smiling service and an atmosphere that's totally solid, industrial farm-chic. Splurge on the grilled hangar steak ($21.50) or go for the dependably good edibles: a vast Kobe burger on a brioche bun with choice of cheese (get the bleu) and baby greens ($12.50), or for smaller appetites, the flatbread with Cowgirl Creamery farmers cheese, lox and lemon cream ($11.50). The full bar serves mojitos and other rarer goodies, plus an up-to-date wine list often boasts a few pleasant surprises. Maybe it deserves to be thought of as more than just a standby, but we just go there so often that that's what it's become. The Boon Fly Cafe, at the Carneros Inn, 4048 Sonoma Hwy., Napa. 707.299.4900.--B.A.

Best Marine Imitation of Marie Antoinette

Believe it or not, half-priced sushi joints are popular in some parts of the world. As iffy as sales on raw fish sound, the discount sushi we've eaten has always been solid, if a little limp, the miso generally reliable and the green tea often free. Shiso, Sonoma's new sushi restaurant, is far from half-price, but the difference in flavor and texture makes up for the increase tenfold. The succulent toro best shows the difference. The tuna belly is like how Sofia Coppola imagined Marie Antoinette: pink, rich and freshly decadent. Just what makes it so swimmingly good? Shiso mostly stocks o-toro, the fattiest of three varieties, and it's farmed year-round in Croatia. The o-toro comes from tuna that live in deep waters, hence the insulating layers of fat. As an introduction, try it in the nigiri form (approximately $10 for two pieces on rice), or make the commitment and get the sashimi (roughly $24 for five pieces, straight up). Seasonally, Shiso also stocks medium toro and tru-toro, the latter of which owner and chef Ed Metcalfe describes as "really well-marbled, like New York steak." But he probably doesn't mean the kind from a half-price steak house. Shiso Modern Asian and Sushi Bar, 522 Broadway, Sonoma. 707.933.9331.--B.A.

Best Culinary Civil Rights Fantasy

For 28 years, San Anselmo residents who have big appetites and a love of '50s nostalgia have been flocking to Bubba's Diner. Current owner and Fairfax resident Johnny Sarran used to frequent the short-order-style diner himself before donning the signature white hat. But the good old decade of rock and roll (and of segregation, Jim Crow laws, cops hosing protesters, etc.) was never this good for you. With extra time on his hands after the flood damage last year, Sarran made Bubba's renowned all-day breakfast completely natural and organic. There are even dishes for vegans and vegetarians--two terms that would surely have sounded sinister to McCarthy. "We try to honor all requests," Sarran says. "All they got to do is speak up." Too bad the Civil Rights movement wasn't this easy. Bubba's Diner, 566 San Anselmo Ave., San Anselmo. 415.459.6862.--D.S.

Best $10 Martini

The classy but eerie new bar Upper Fourth, located just upstairs from Flavor, overlooking Courthouse Square in downtown Santa Rosa, is a throwback to the old lawyer-and-doctor bars of a more genteel time. Since opening in December, it has become popular with downtown office workers, who begin to pack the place after 5pm on weekdays, eager for a sophisticated, pleasantly old-fashioned environment in which to sip well-crafted adult beverages. Speaking of which, Upper Fourth, owned by Ivan Richard and Molly Gallaher, has developed a first-rate martini, both the gin and the vodka varieties, with at least two olives (unless you are the kind who does twists) and, if served up, at just the right temperature. The bar itself is particularly trippy, with light shining up under the chins of the drinkers, casting them in decidedly Edgar Alan Poe-ish light and making the place look as if it is populated by well-heeled vampires, the kind who've grown weary of the boring, punkish vampire clubs populated by ravers and goth wannabes. Aside from the main room, there are a series of little nooks, each with its own personality, including one with a fireplace and another with a poker table. The food, an assortment of $10 appetizers to go with that $10 martini, is also good, but the wine list is on the skinny side, and the bartenders are sometimes a little slow on busy nights. But, of course, the place is new, and like vampires and rookie bartenders, Upper Fourth has plenty of time to work out the details. Upper Fourth, 96 Old Courthouse Square, second floor, Santa Rosa. 707.573.0522.--D.T.

Best Oregano-Free Pizza Pie

The last time I ate a pizza in New York's Little Italy (OK, Chinatown), I was struck by the lack of heartburn afterwards. My Italian tour guide enlightened me to the fact that there was no oregano in the tomato sauce. Amici's East Coast Pizzeria on San Rafael's Fourth Street offers a similarly indigestion-free pie. Owners Mike Forter and Peter Cooperstein opened the first Amici's over 20 years ago in San Mateo to replicate the pizzas of their respective hometowns back east. And they succeeded, with everything from the tables to the photos of the old Yankees evoking East Coast nostalgia. Their no-charge delivery service is the bulk of their business, and on busy nights you can see up to 24 Amici's cars driving around Marin. "We only take one order at a time," says manager Quiros Fabian. "We like the customer to get their pizza as quick as possible and as fresh as possible." And they feature many low-carb dishes for us California sissies. Amici's, 1242 Fourth St., San Rafael. 415.455.9777.--D.S.

Best Hot Chocolate in the World

La Dolce V, squeezed between the Sonoma County Repertory Theater and Incredible Records on North Main Street in downtown Sebastopol, serves up a magnificent French hot chocolate that is thick, creamy, aromatic, sweet and steaming hot, practically a food group all in itself. It is to hot chocolate what Tiffany's is to rocks. La Dolce V (a play on La Dolce Vita, with the V being the longtime nickname of owner Victoria Bowers) has become destination for locals and lucky passersby, a charming pastry and candy cafe run with obvious pride and affection by Bowers, a former corporate worker bee turned passionate pastry chef and chocolatier. The place is not large, but there are a few tables by the window for those who want to sip their chosen beverage (La Dolce V also serves an array of coffee drinks) while munching a croissant and scanning the newspaper. Thankfully, the place stays open late on weekends for theatergoers eager for a snack after the show. La Dolce V, 110 N. Main St., Sebastopol. 707.829.2178.--D.T.

Best Way to Warm Your Surfing Body and Soul

Me, I don't surf, but on one of those stormy days last December with the record wave heights, my surfer buddy dragged me out to the coast to check out the waves. Doran Beach wasn't good enough, no; we had to march out to the tippity-tip of Bodega Head to see the action. Driving sleet pelted my face and body for the long march, completely blinding me in my spattered glasses, my jeans and cotton jacket clinging clammily. True, the waves were epic, but without my glasses it was a little hard to tell. Plus, my friend's perennial line about how it's crazy that I don't surf wasn't working today, because what I could see through my rainy glasses was my sorry, middle-aged self being hurled against the craggy Sonoma Coast, then bobbing about in the frigid sea like a little shark-sicle. It wasn't till he handed me a steaming container of Spud Point Crab Company's clam chowder through my reluctantly lowered car window that I understood. All was forgiven. Yeah, it's off the beaten track on the way out to Bodega Head, but if you want a thick, garlicky, clam-studded, soul-warming experience, your best bet on the bay is here. Spud Point Crab Company, 1860 Westshore Road, Bodega Bay. 707.875.9472.--M.T.J.

Best Place to Embrace Carbs

Caffe Citti in Kenwood is a nothing-fancy, inexpensive, low-slung Cali-Itali roadhouse serving perfect, tender gnocchi with Bolognese sauce, shockingly good thin-crust pizza, sinus-clearing garlicky caesar salads (with actual anchovies, thank you) and a damned good spaghetti carbonara that's not on the menu, but now you know to ask for it. And if you're really serious about the carb thing, order the moist 'n' crisp rotisserie chicken and any number of fresh salads from the deli case, and you won't be disappointed. If you feel like eating in, they also offer some of their sauces to go. There's tumblers of wine, beer on tap and big slabs of tiramisu if, you know, you go in for those sorts of things. Cafe Citti, 9049 Sonoma Hwy., Kenwood. 707.833.2690.--M.T.J.

Best Place for a Cinnamon Bun Run

Following a fire that kept it closed for two years, the Golden Egg Omelet House in Novato reopened in June 2005, bringing long overdue sighs of relief to locals who missed its delectable walnut cinnamon buns. "We pretty much sell out of them every day," says Angie Purdy, daughter of owner Susan. The apple bear claws are a distant second to the buns, which are large enough to possibly last more than 30 seconds (I don't think many people have tried). If you're in the mood for a sit-down breakfast, there are 101 (yes, 101) different omelettes from which to choose; your own further experimentation is encouraged. As you walk out into the heart of Old Town Novato, you'll smile at the fact that the Golden Egg is still here after 20 years, along with other things about the town we hoped would change. The Golden Egg Omelet House, 807 Grant Ave., Novato. 415.987.7707.--D.S.

Best (and Tastiest) Result of Being Pissed Off

If you think quality and speed are inversely proportional when it comes to lunch, try the all-you-can-eat $7.95 lunch buffet at Lotus Cuisine of India. For eight years, the San Rafael restaurant has featured an impressive offering of rice pudding, salad, chutneys, tandoori chicken, chicken curries and vegetarian curries all designed for your all-too-short lunch break. A large staff allows Lotus to accommodate up to 200 for lunch each day, for as little a time as half an hour if needed. Owner Surinder Sroa oozes this kind of dedication to the customers' schedule. "We'd gone to a few Indian restaurants, but we didn't find the service or quality of food," says the North India native. "That kind of ticked me off." Sroa's righteous anger has resulted in Lotus offering many vegan and vegetarian meals, and his kitchen cooks without peanut oil (to which many are allergic), thus inspiring regular lunch customers from as far away as Berkeley. Lotus Cuisine of India, 704 Fourth St., San Rafael. 415.456.5808.--D.S.

Best Place to Update Hopper

If Edward Hopper were to paint his famous diner picture today, I'm sure it would be like this: lights from above illuminate the taco-seeking public, and a large electric sign over the former burger stand brightly proclaims "Tannya's." Viewed from the street, the hungry are pictured in the same modern chiaroscuro as they awkwardly order and wait, deciding whether to sit on one of the original-looking built-in stools. But the real star is the food, not the ambiance. It's places like this that make me thankful I moved to California: huge burritos filled with guacamole and cilantro for under $6. A great, and enormous, taco salad for less than $10. Ditto for nachos and Mexican sandwiches. And then there's the chile relleno burrito. The concept is a surefire winner: take one gut-busting, delicious specialty and stuff it with a slightly smaller but still deep-fried and cheese-filled other gut-busting, delicious specialty. One is sure to gain from the experience. Tannya's is no one-trick pony, however, and I would be remiss if I didn't mention their chicken mole. Although the al pastor and asada are certainly above average, the chicken mole is the outstanding choice here among the meat selection. With a bit less chocolate and more chile than I would have expected from a mole sauce, it provides a slow burn that builds as you get closer to finishing your meal. Throw on your huaraches, fire up the '57 and head down to this accidentally retro spot for an unironically delicious experience. Tannya's Taqueria, 1601 Jefferson St., Napa. Open daily, 10am to 8pm. 707.224.9000.--E.H.

Best TV Tacos

Once upon a time, we hunted taco trucks professionally. But there remained one we couldn't pin down. We'd seen Tacos Chavez parked during the day, just a street or two from home. But the truck was always closed. Like a bat, it just slept there during the day. But where did it go at night? Did it ever gain the capiscum-sparked consciousness of the others? Then one fateful night, we spotted it open--lights on and everybody home--parked outside of Napa's old tannery building, since converted to artists studios. The majestic truck with the campesino mural was serving some kind of mean beef taco. Turns out that's the only thing on the menu. Good thing we like beef. But the most unique thing about this ephemeral truck was its flat-screen TV. (No other truck we've found so far boasts even a regular TV.) Patrons, artistic or otherwise, can order up a few of the mouth-blazing hot snacks (three or four should be plenty) to fuel them through a match of televised fútbol. Until about 9:30pm or 10pm, Monday through Saturday, you can eat at Tacos Chavez, too. It usually parks on the street in front of 68 Coombs St., Napa. 707.253.1279.--B.A.

Best Human Incarnation of Her Food

If people could be zingers, Anna Shepley would be one. The chef and owner of Annaliên, the only Vietnamese restaurant in Napa, is hands-down the most enthusiastic person we've ever met. She's crazy, but crazy in a good way--like, awesome-crazy. Ask her about almost anything that matters--politics, art, food--and she sputters and pops with the answers. Shepley also happens to make a damn good dinner; the contemporary Vietnamese soups and meals she serves are almost as zesty as she is. On the quieter side, she went to school for visual art way back in the day and still keeps some of her favorite drawings. She also keeps a portrait her father drew of her when she was a young girl in Vietnam squirreled away in the back of the restaurant, a memento of quieter times. Annaliên, 1142 Main St., Napa. 707.224.8319.--B.A.

Best Half Portion of Gnocchi

Fact: Sometimes being in Napa is like being in Italy. Fact: Napa has a great foodie culture with lots of restaurants. Fiction: Most of them are totally affordable. Factoid: Italy, Napa and moderate prices actually do come together at Uva. Not only is the food pretty delish, but the menu offers half-portions of some of i nostri preferiti, like the gnocchi al Gorgonzola ($9.25 half; $14.50 whole) and for the same prices, ravioli d'erbè, coated with brown butter and sage, a divine but underrepresented sauce that Marcella Hazan finally shared with Americans in her landmark cookbook Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, now in the culinary lit canon. Another nice thing about Uva is that although it's often bumpin', the hostess can almost always find a place to seat you. Uva Trattoria Italiana, 1040 Clinton St., Napa. 707.255.6646.--B.A.

Best Pre-'Music Man' Renovation

After a brief renovation in January, perhaps the most notable change at Bistro Zaré (formerly Zaré Napa) is the bar, which has been modernized to include a leopard-skin carpet and a silver surface for drinks. Meanwhile, the tamer atmosphere of the restaurant backgrounds food that reflects the Persian roots of its chef-owner, Hoss Zaré. A toothsome beef sirloin meatball appetizer ($9) ground with pistachios and cumin and covered with a spicy pomegranate glaze is one of our picks. Sometimes the specials are Persian, too--like chicken stew ($19) with sour grapes, eggplant and tarragon-spiced rice. But otherwise, the food is Cal-Med and the atmosphere Club Med lite--at least, on the weekends, when a DJ spins until the wee hour of 1am; happily, Wednesday through Sunday the restaurant never closes before midnight. Next month, proprietors plan to break ground on building a new Music Man-inspired complex of restaurants and a B&B, but they probably won't be complete for another year or so, hence the recent leopard-skin remodel. Trivia: Zaré wanted to play pro soccer before he discovered cooking, and, as if that weren't enough, he makes excellent chocolate truffles. Bistro Zaré, 5091 Solano Ave., Napa. 707.257.3318.--B.A.

Best Cheap Drinkin'

Next time you take your sweetums out for dinner and have to sacrifice the entrées to afford the Chateau Margaux-level wine list, let the restaurant in on your frustration by leaving a Wine Patrol card when you pay the bill. Masterminded by Lance Cutler, the erstwhile winemaker of Gundlach Bundschu, the Wine Patrol Approved List (WinePAL®) program aims to cajole restaurants--which can mark up wine prices by as much as five times wholesale--into broadening their wine lists to include some less expensive options. The anonymous group of Wine Patrol "deputies" demand that eateries offer at least one wine in each category costing less than 30 bucks and that at least 10 percent of the wines overall ring in under that threshold. While obviously opposed to corkage fees, the deputies do understand if restaurants have to charge $10 for the service. How else is a restaurant supposed to break even. Off the food? No way. Getting "deputized" in the Wine Patrol costs just a fiver, a small price to pay for smaller prices.

Best Late Night Burger (Maybe)

Napans whose appetites don't kick in till near midnight don't have many dining options. But Nation's Giant Hamburgers, the California chain which has an outpost in the deader part of downtown, is one of the few. Open daily at 6am, the retro joint doesn't shut until midnight on weekdays and 2am on Fridays and Saturdays. It can be a little sketchy that late, but the three-quarter pound burgers ($3.60) are cooked to order. Order a side of chili fries ($3.05), split a strawberry shake with your date ($2.05), and you're set for the night. This extremely wallet-friendly place also caters to vegetarians with a meatless burger and to non-red-meat eaters with chicken and salmon options. If you don't mind eating while a guy stands by the entrance talking to himself, this is the place for you. Nation's Giant Hamburgers, 1441 Third St., Napa. 707.252.8500.--B.A.

Best Place to See Bigfoot in the North Bay

Science and history tell us that Gigantopithecus, a tall, massive superape who left behind only some of its teeth, may be the catalyst behind the enduring belief in Bigfoot. One would think the best place to hunt for ol' Bigfoot might be Armstrong Woods in Guerneville, but an effigy of the mythic beast was seen recently on a box of SAC Squash brand squash at Pacific Market, in the wholesome vanilla suburb of Rohnert Park. The box had a crudely drawn rendering of Bigfoot, aka Sasquatch, but grocery worker David didn't know anything further about the mysterious vegetable company. He did report, however, that he had heard strange howling noises in the back loading dock area of the store, and that some of his produce had huge, unexplained bite marks out of them. He shrugged and told me all he knew was that the squash originally came from Mexico before being boxed in the "SAC Squash" boxes by a distributor. My journalistic training led me to deduce that SAC Squash might be grown in Sacramento, but I decided against an investigative jaunt to Mexican soil out of dread fear of the goat-sucker, chupacabra. If you don't spot Bigfoot or a likeness at Pacific Market, grab a few prosciutto-stuffed peppers marinated in oil and a local microbrew, and call it a day. Pacific Market, 901 Golf Course Drive, Rohnert Park. 707.585.9643.--M.P.

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