Crowd into these Neighborhood Jewel Eateries

It’s cool to hang out at the North Bay’s hot spot restaurants, amid a trendy (often touristy) crowd. But sometimes, you want more of a kickback neighborhood vibe. Here, we’ve found the best of both worlds – gems that are favorites of well-fed locals, but still with buzz and groove, and of course, delicious food.

Diavola, 21021 Geyserville Ave., 707-814-0111,

Blink, and you’ll miss it. Not just the tiny Diavola trattoria, but perhaps all of Geyserville, a sleepy burg of just 2,100 souls. Yet occupying a space that was a 100 year-old smokehouse, Diavola (Italian for devil) harbors some of the best pizza in all the North Bay. Chef-owner Dino Bugica hand-pulls pizza dough at a wood-burning oven topped with a growling, tusked pig sculpture, producing near-perfect crust that’s charred and golden, crisp and pillowy. Forget dainty, these are hearty pies, like the rustic salsiccia piling on housemade sausage chunks, red onion and white pecorino cheese shavings bound with just a touch of delicious piggy grease. There’s also world-class salumi, crafted by Bugica’s own hand, and antipasti like citrus-kissed squid tossed with curled shrimp, black-eyed peas, mushy-mild anchovies alla povera and buttery cannellini.

Santa Rosa, Sebastopol, Healdsburg
Mateo Granados Catering, 707-433-2338,

There’s no brick-and-mortar address for this enormously talented chef, because his is a roving catering kitchen, packed-to-go to fancy events on the most remote vineyard mountaintops complete with a commercial multi-burner range. Yet insiders know to find him at a variety of Sonoma County farmers markets, where his catering tent sends out perfection on paper plates. These are white tablecloth-caliber modern Sonoma-Yucatan creations, sourced from farmstead purveyors like Occidental’s Black Sheep Farm pork, Sonoma’s La Bonne Terre produce, and Pug’s Leap chevre. Among the many delicious options, indulge in made-to-order gourmet huevos rancheros and Market Eggs (based on the best seasonal ingredients plucked that morning from neighboring food stalls). And later this summer, watch for more news on his very own restaurant, a gourmet taqueria/tequila salon in Healdsburg.

Calistoga/Napa Valley
Buster’s Southern Barbecue, 1207 Foothill Blvd., 707-942-5605,

Where to go for the most boss barbecue? Just follow the bikers to the tumbledown shed that is Buster’s. You order and pay at the kitchen, and then, because this is Napa Valley, you sip wine by the glass as you wait for your order. That’s Buster manning the oak-fired grill in the parking lot, slow cooking and patiently basting gorgeous meats like tri-tip, pork and chicken, or tossing hot links ‘til they sizzle, then piling them on crunchy garlic toast. Top North Bay chefs swear by the sauce, packed with pepper and vinegar, and if you order spicy, it’s a good idea to cool down with an icy beer or orange sherbet milkshake. For dessert, bust-a-move for Buster’s sweet potato pie.

Happy Dog, 18762 Sonoma Hwy., 707-935-6211

The name alone makes it a favorite; how can you not smile? But the substance behind the sign is what stands out, in the form of lovingly made, old-fashioned chili cheese dogs, hefty cheeseburgers, thick milk shakes, crunchy-sweet onion rings, and even archaic arcade games to work off some of the calories. This place has been around forever, and for good reason. Not that the sign isn’t great, too – the cheery white and red building sports a massive yellow and white, chef hat-wearing hound licking a window – but you’ve probably driven by a million times without realizing how yummy it is inside.

Le Garage, 85 Liberty Ship Way, 415-332-5625,

The setting is tres chic (hey, it’s actually a warehouse, with concrete floors and metal roll-up doors). The owners and servers are French, and likely won’t let you forget it, with, shall we say, a bit snippy attitudes? It’s impossible to find, unless you know Sausalito’s winding roads and harbor front ports like one of the yachtsmen that dock mere feet away from the dining tables. So what’s not to love? Add to the mix terrific French food like fried crispy squash blossoms stuffed with Dungeness and dunked in savory tomato basil coulis; duck confit served atop soft cannellini beans with bacon, peppery watercress, and sweet, syrupy apple cider gastrique; or, the piece de resistance: two hot, soupy soft-boiled eggs served in-shell in little cups with a Lilliputian spoon, paired with a row of skinny grilled asparagus, prosciutto, and mouillettes (toast fingers) spread thickly with black truffle butter.

San Rafael
Sol Food, 732 4th St.; also 901 Lincoln Ave., 415- 451-4765 (same phone for both),

This Puerto Rican experience is so popular that there are two locations just a block apart in order to cram everyone in. And it stays busy, often right up until it closes each night at 10, or at 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. What’s the fuss about? Organic and vegan plates that don’t taste vegan-bland, thanks to wonderfully seasoned beans and exotic goodies like mofongo. Study the blue plate list for specials like carne guisada beef stew with green plantain; or pernil marinated roasted pork, with rice, pigeon peas and Puerto Rican tamales. One of the best-sellers is the Cubano sandwich, a flattened French bread masterpiece of roast pork, ham, mustard, mayo, pickles and Swiss cheese. Sure, the stores are small and easy to miss, but just look for the thatch rooftops, and the crowds.

Tip: Get to your groovy ‘hood food in style. Pure Luxury Transportation is the perfect chauffeur for a smooth ride all across the Bay area.

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