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by Erika Lenkert



VIP Dining in Wine Country


As a young girl in San Francisco I, along with the rest of the Bay Area, anxiously awaited the arrival of Wednesday's San Francisco Chronicle. Within its pages were (and still are) the highly anticipated food section, its weekly restaurant review, and its column "Inside Scoop"—a dishy collection of tidbits highlighting the latest comings and goings of chefs, restaurants, and dining gossip. In my young foodcentric world it was nothing less than my civic duty to know the next hot place to go, the chef who skipped town with everything but the kitchen sink, and most importantly, the names, pedigrees, and talents of our local superstars.

Living in Los Angeles later in life, it occurred to me that chefs are Northern California's answers to Hollywood's celebrities. While the rest of the world hangs on every entry on PerezHilton.com for the latest Tinseltown dirt (okay, sometimes me, too), we locals are pontificating on the newest restaurants on Chowhound.com and Yelp.com, whispering among ourselves about the latest dining fascinations and foibles, or dining out enough to stay in the know, which in these parts is the next best thing to being an A-lister. Getting close to some of the world's greatest chefs is our "Almost Famous" moment.

I vividly remember the first time my mom hauled us up to Napa Valley's Domaine Chandon winery and restaurant for white-glove service and legendary tomato soup crowned with a cap of puff pastry. It was more than 25 years ago when Wine Country was only starting to become a new culinary territory worthy of exploration. Since then the epicurean world's eyes and stomachs have increasingly turned to Napa and Sonoma with the kind of interest usually reserved for the latest news on Brad and Angelina.

Fortunately for any Northern California visitor or resident, brushes with greatness here are not blocked by bodyguards or gated communities. VIP access requires little more than a reservation request and a commitment to break out the credit card. More of an ordeal is deciding whose fare of which you'd like to be a fan, as we have a surprisingly large amount of world-class chefs tucked among the vines.

Should you want to have the kind of dining experience that may turn you into a bona fide groupie, do your homework on the following restaurants. Make a reservation well in advance and don't be surprised the likes of Brad and Angelina happen to be seated next to you. After all, stars tend to be attracted to the limelight and in the culinary world it's perpetually shining down onto Northern California Wine Country.

The French Laundry
The restaurant that launched Chef Thomas Keller into the realm of the world's top toques continues with unparalleled culinary artistry.
6640 Washington St., Yountville, Napa Valley, 707-944-2380, www.frenchlaundry.com.

Cyrus
Chef Douglas Keane and maitre d' Nick Peyton are the masterful duo behind Healdsburg's most haute haunt.
29 North St., Healdsburg, Northern Sonoma, 707-433-3311, www.cyrusrestaurant.com

Redd
Richard Reddington's exceptionally refined seasonal cuisine is backed by a sleek urban setting.
6480 Washington St., Yountville, Napa Valley, 707-944-2222, www.reddnapavalley.com

Terra
Japanese chef Hiro Sone's magical menu showcases his mastery of French, Italian, and Japanese cuisine in indescribable harmony.
1345 Railroad Ave., St. Helena, Napa Valley, 707-963-8931, www.terrarestaurant.com

Dry Creek Kitchen
Chef Charlie Palmer's West Coast destination fuses formal food with country-chic comfort.
317 Healdsburg Ave., Healdsburg, Northern Sonoma, 707-431-0330, www.charliepalmer.com