Why We Love Small Restaurants in Small Towns

  • Melissa Vogt

  • 18 Apr 2017 | Travel

Among all the wonderful towns to visit in wine country, there’s almost nothing we love more than the smallest towns. Why? Because small towns are home to small restaurants, and small restaurants mean you are guaranteed a personal experience with an insider’s vibe.

A Spotlight on The Fig Café in Glen Ellen, California.

There is almost no better place in Sonoma County for this kind of small town/small restaurant experience than Glen Ellen. A tiny, wooded hamlet situated on the back-country roads between two wine appellations, Glen Ellen is a treasure trove of tiny restaurants.

Take for instance The Fig Café, Owned by Sondra Bernstein and equipped with local rising-star chefs John Toulze (Executive Chef) and Matt Spector (Chef de Cuisine). The Fig Café has been delighting guests with their seasonal menu and Rhône-inspired wine list since its 2003 opening. “I love the off the beaten track feel of the location,” Bernstein replied when asked about why she chose Glen Ellen. Twenty years ago, when she first scoped out the area for the restaurant, “it was almost like you needed insider info to find it,” she says. And while it’s a popular wine-country destination today, Glen Ellen still very much feels like an insider’s secret.

Table Setting at The Fig—fully equipped with sophisticated stemware.

Much of what attracted Bernstein to the location twenty years ago still exists today, such as its proximity to Jack London State Park and the fact that it was “surrounded by so many wonderful wineries,” she says. Certainly, the Glen Ellen wine scene has exploded in the last twenty years, which inspired Bernstein to implement comp corkage.

“In the beginning I had comp corkage on Monday nights—my solution to Monday Night Football. When it turned out that Monday nights were rivaling Saturday nights, I felt like why not?” She decided to make all nights comp corkage. “Considering that most locals are in the wine business and are stacking up wine, and tourists are purchasing wine all day, it seemed like the right thing to do,” she furthers.

The bistro-style dining space.

Inside The Fig Café, it’s quaint, French bistro-style atmosphere is warm and inviting, with soft lighting and cozy decor of local art. The place is always bustling—even on weeknights—and although the space is small, it never feels overcrowded. Staff are friendly and eager to share the menu’s specials or the much-loved plats du jour. And while bringing in your own bottle of wine to enjoy the comp corkage is fun, the Rhône varietal wine list provides excellent drinking fare—so don’t miss out!

As with all good wine country restaurants, Bernstein is committed to supporting local as much as possible, and keeps the menu varied and seasonal. “We serve a menu that will allow our guests either to have a burger or pizza, or our three course Plats du Jour,” she says, and “no reservations, comp corkage and reasonable pricing gives both locals and tourists options.”

Fabulously fresh steamed mussels.

A few classic staples offer go-to favorites like their over-the-top chef’s burger made with top sirloin, garlic, shallots, Gruyère, grilled onions and secret sauce, or the delightfully fresh and flavorful steamed mussels served in smoked paprika, fennel, leeks and white wine, served with grilled bread. (For dipping, of course.) 

Seasonal offerings take the menu a step further in complexity and flavor, offering dishes like lamb stew served over a silky bed of creamy polenta with roasted carrots, asparagus and melt-in-your-mouth pearl onions; or the decadent duck cassoulet is sure to please with its tender flageolet beans, bacon, succulent ham sausage and seasoned bread crumbs. These dishes bring together the best of the culinary world with balanced flavor profiles and juxtaposing textures, making for a wonderful tasting experience.

And after dining at The Fig Café, you’ll not only be full and satisfied, you’ll also feel like a Glen Ellen insider.

*All photos by Megan Steffen, provided The Fig Café.

More articles from this author