First Taste: Healdsburg foodies line up for self-serve wine, fine dining + rooftop drinks at The Matheson
Flatbread from The Matheson's rooftop bar, Roof 106. (Michael Woolsey)

First Taste: Healdsburg foodies line up for self-serve wine, fine dining + rooftop drinks at The Matheson


After a lot of hype and four years in the making, The Matheson has finally opened in Healdsburg with three distinct concepts operating under one roof: a bar, a fine dining restaurant, and a buzzing rooftop lounge.

When I arrived at the restaurant for my dinner reservation on a Friday evening, I was surprised to find a significant line out the door, a rare sight for a small town like Healdsburg. But it makes sense, considering The Matheson is by far Sonoma County's most anticipated restaurant opening this year.

The Matheson is the project of beloved hometown chef Dustin Valette and his partner Craig Ramsey. Valette and his brother own the namesake restaurant on the other side of the Healdsburg Plaza known for its incredibly welcoming atmosphere (their father often greets you at the door with a glass of wine) and the scallops en croute dish that can't be missed. Their family has a long history in Healdsburg, dating back to a great-grandfather who operated his first bakery in the very space that this ambitious project now occupies. It doesn't get more full circle than that.

The Bar at The Matheson

(Michael Woolsey)

Featuring impressively high ceilings and chandeliers that resemble wine barrel staves, the first floor is anchored by a massive open kitchen in the center (The Matheson hired SF-based design firm Cass Calder Smith Architecture + Interiors, the same creative genius behind Twenty Five Lusk, La Mar, and Barbacco). The four-sided rectangular bar was absolutely packed during my visit. The walls of the restaurant are decorated with paintings by San Francisco artist Jay Mercado depicting scenes from Sonoma County's agricultural roots that are also deeply personal to Valette's upbringing.

Behind the bar is a wall lined with shiny wine stations, high-tech, self-serve systems that can keep prized bottles fresh for up to 60 days (they're all the rage in Europe, but still relatively new to the U.S.). These stations were such a fun way to pass the time while we waited for our table and it's definitely worthwhile to arrive 30 minutes before your reservation to give them a whirl (they also open at noon every day if you want to come just for that).

How it works: You'll receive a card that's (somewhat dangerously) linked to your credit card. You can use it to peruse more than 80 selections of wine without having to wait on a bartender. Select different-sized pours ranging from a few dollars to over $10, depending on the value of the bottle. While most of the selections hail from Sonoma County, you can also sample the likes of the venerable Opus One or a Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

The Dining Room at The Matheson

(Michael Woolsey)

The other side of The Matheson's first floor is occupied by a semi-formal dining space with about a dozen tables and booths, where reservations are required. As expected in the heart of Wine Country, there's an impressive wine list featuring more than 400 bottles, but since we had already adventured at the wine stations, we went for the cocktails, sectioned into "classic" and "contemporary." (If you are looking for some bubbly to kick off the night, I suggest the 2015 Lichen Grand Cuvee Rose from Anderson Valley on the by-the-glass list.)

From the contemporary side, our server recommended the En Honore (Argonaut brandy, Italicus liqueur, angostura bitters), and while brandy is not what I usually reach for, it was fantastic. I also enjoyed the mezcal-based Joya, and was intrigued by the Truffle Shuffle, a black truffle sazerac, deciding to save it for next time.

One of the most curious aspects of The Matheson is the sushi component. But if ordering sushi from a restaurant that's not a designated sushi house understandably gives you pause, I can reassure you that it's not only safe to do so here, but also rewarding. The sushi menu was designed by chef Ken Tominaga, of Rohnert Park's famed Hana Japanese Restaurant and Pabu in SF. Small and simple but dialed in, it's split into rolls and sashimi. They're not trying too hard, letting the fish speak for itself.

It was tempting to try it all, but my dining partner and I begrudgingly practiced restraint (knowing full well that there was a whole other menu to experience) and opted for the classic rainbow roll as a pre-starter. It not only hit the mark but also sparked an epiphany: I finally have a place to take my sushi-resistant parents for dinner when I'm in the mood for it.

From there, we moved on to the traditional menu, which also has its share of Japanese influences. The corn soup with shrimp chorizo was undeniably tasty, but the star of the starters list is definitely the Tamanishiki rice porridge, a standout on both the plate and the palate. Like a boat lost at sea, a single, perfectly golden day boat scallop rested atop a bed of black risotto-like rice (the rice is so dark that, from afar, it looks like black beans). The flavors were as intense and bright as the colors and played beautifully together, leaving a long-lasting impression. We added a side of the Japanese milk bread and butter for mopping up the final few spoonfuls of rice.

The entrees cover land, sea, and air. In the spirit of trying something less obvious, I resisted ordering from the trio of steak options and went for the aged Sonoma duck with turnip, plum glaze, and coriander. When the dish arrived, the plating was simply stunning, an artful intersection of spring and fall. The duck was perfectly cooked—not at all chewy as it tends to be—with a delightfully crispy and salty skin. It's a dish I'd definitely order again. We also tried the vegetarian option, pumpkin seed mole with Oaxacan cheese and tempura squash, which was a unique and tasty twist on squash blossoms.

If you're not a very decisive person, the five-course chef's tasting menu provides a great sampling of the menu and is also a steal at $95.

The Rooftop at The Matheson

(Michael Woolsey)

We saved dessert for our final destination, Roof 106, located up some stairs and past a mezzanine that has additional dining space for groups. Crossing over the threshold, there was an immediate shift in energy. While the downstairs was certainly loud and pulsing with hot new restaurant vibes, the rooftop was positively electric. It felt like we had walked into a completely different place—which is the exact effect Chef Vallette was going for.

It was suddenly clear that this part of the restaurant, which doesn't take reservations, was the reason for the line outside the door.

Roof 106 has an indoor space featuring another bar with avant-garde, electron-inspired chandeliers, and a covered and heated outdoor terrace with tables, lounge seating, and lots of greenery. Overlooking Healdsburg Plaza, it's the perfect spot for a casual date night or grabbing late-night eats and libations with a group of friends. It's also open for lunch.

Centered on a wood-fired oven that churns out fancy pizzas—I must return for the cured pork belly rendition with gruyere, roasted garlic crème fraîche, and red onion—Roof 106 has a mostly different menu from downstairs. Don't worry; you can still get a lot of the sushi in addition to the pizzas and small plates and snacks—think fried sweet corn and olives marinated in orange and rosemary.

For cocktails, they were out of the Panda Punch (makrut-infused vodka, watermelon, lime, pandan), but there's also a Matheson twist on an Aperol spritz and a hard horchata drink made with tequila. On chef's recommendation, we tried the Modern Margarita. Made with just tequila and clarified lime, the liquid was as clear as water, yet smooth as butter on the way down.

For dessert, the coconut rum mojito and yuzu-strawberry-flavored push-pops were a fun and nostalgic novelty, as was the lime posset topped with mint rock candy. But the clear winner was the Volo Chocolate s'more for two—pure perfection without the sticky fingers or campfire smell.

To make the trip out to Healdsburg worth it, book a room at either h2hotel or the Harmon Guest House—both are ultra modern, sustainably focused, and conveniently located one block from The Matheson. Before dinner, grab a flight or glass at the just-opened Marine Layer tasting room (not the clothing brand), which specializes in soothing vibes and pinot noir and chardonnay from the Sonoma Coast. Before you head home the next morning, stop by Quail & Condor bakery for a morning bun or pistachio croissant.

// The Matheson; 106 Matheson St. (Healdsburg),

(Courtesy of Michael Woolsey)

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