Up in northern California, just about 10 minutes down the road from Occidental, the even tinier borough of Graton pops up full of small-town bravado. Yet for all its brash swagger, the town had never quite registered on my personal radar on earlier excursions to the area. Even though I’d visited Occidental and Freestone before, until recently, I’d never even heard of Graton. And to be honest, visiting Graton on this last trip was only a subtext for stopping in at the Underwood Bar & Bistro, a place about which so many locals had only the most superlative comments.
Per the instructions I received upon departing the Inn at Occidental, I headed back down to Occidental’s main drag, hung a right at the first stop sign and proceeded about ten minutes along a winding, wooded stretch to the next stop sign just beyond which Underwood and its accompanying hubbub came into full view. Even standing outside the restaurant, I could sense the vibe. In fact, looking around, there was little doubt in my mind as to the reason Wine Spectator had dubbed Graton as the place where “New York’s East Village meets the Wine Country in this hip gathering spot for local elite wine makers and wine travelers alike.” To be certain, there is definitely something that screams hipster about the narrow stretch of commerce, odd as that sounds given that it is plunked down as it is in the middle of Sonoma wine country.
Before stepping into Underwood, I walked the one block heart of the town. Across the street sits another über popular local eatery called Willow Wood Market Café, which is also owned by Matthew Greenbaum and actually preceded Underwood’s debut, paving the way for it to become the town’s star attraction. While the menu at Underwood is more inventive in some ways, the fare at Willow Wood is more comfort food oriented from what I could gather from a cursory comparison of the menus. For a moment, I was actually even torn but ultimately decided to stick with the plan and head back over to Underwood.
Once inside Underwood, I was more than enthused about my choice. It was just around Happy Hour on a Wednesday and the joint was already hopping. A far cry from its sleepy surrounding environs, the lively, inviting, almost boisterous Underwood Bar & Bistro was clearly as had been suggested many times over, the favored spot of locals from miles around. Nearly every seat at the bar was already filled and the restaurant was spiraling toward capacity when I sat down.
Confronted with the cornucopia of goodness that is the bistro’s menu, which includes everything from intriguing tapas like White Anchovy Crostini, Hoisin Glazed Baby Back Ribs and Harissa Fries to traditional bistro fare like Flat Iron Steak Frites and Pan Roasted Chicken Breast, I opted out of being adventurous and instead chose a sampling of oysters and the Grilled Hamburger topped with a local white cheddar and Applewood smoked bacon. The latter was served with fries and the restaurant’s signature sauces, the most enticing of which was deliciously laced with chipotle. For dessert, I couldn’t resist trying one of the brulees for which Underwood’s is known. On the evening of my visit Coconut Crème Brulee was on the menu and it was a sweetly comforting end to a perfectly comforting meal.
Sometimes it’s hard to believe the hype, but in the case of Underwood Bar & Bistro, it has not only been earned but it is also well-deserved.
Find out more about Underwood Bar & Bistro at www.underwoodgraton.com/.