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zazu restaurant & farm

Santa Rosa's Best Restaurants

By

Duskie Estes and John Stewart

Chefs/Owners Duskie Estes and John Stewart .

photo © 2006 courtesy of zazu restaurant & farm, licensed to About.com
3535 Guerneville Rd., Santa Rosa
707-523-4814
www.zazurestaurant.com

Hours: Wednesday through Sunday from 5:30pm

Reservations: Recommended

Price: About $40 for one dinner with one glass of wine. (Obviously, prices vary depending on what and how much you order. But, you can use this as a ballpark figure and compare it to the average prices for other restaurants on this site.)

Cuisine: “playful Americana and rustic Northern Italian inspired”
Menu: New menu made daily depending on what is fresh, in the market, and what the chefs feel inspired by.
Chefs / Owners: Husband-and-wife team John Stewart and Duskie Estes

Ambiance / Décor: Comfortable roadhouse
Outdoor Seating?: No
Parking: Ample, private lot.

Dress: The restaurant has a comfortable roadhouse look and appeal to it. But, the dress is more in line with the price range rather than the atmosphere. Stylishly casual would be fine.

Kids?: I’d feel comfortable bringing my children here. The chefs / owners have young kids of their own, so there’s a family feel to it.

Notes:

  • Zazu is generally considered one of the best restaurants in Santa Rosa, and throughout the Bay Area.
  • Zazu is changing it's name to zazu restaurant & farm. (yes, lowercase.)
  • Stewart is an avid gardener and many of the ingredients are grown in the garden next to the restaurant and often picked just minutes before serving it. For example, everything in the ribollita soup is grown there and picked fresh right before the soup is made.
  • The pastas are made daily with eggs gathered from the owners’ own chickens.
  • Stewart is also expert at curing pork.
  • The décor is warm and casual, with copper-top tables and ceiling fans. Large windows overlook miles and miles of vineyards.
  • The couple also owns and runs Bovolo in Healdsburg.
  • Duskie Estes has a long history of volunteering for social causes, particularly in the fight against hunger.
  • John Stewart was basically raised in the kitchen, as he comes from a four-generation catering company in New York that started business in 1919.
  • The two met while working in Seattle, where they were both rising stars on the restaurant scene.
  • They wed at a winery in Sonoma County. While here, they fell in love with the Willowside Café. Later, when they heard that the restaurant had gone up for sale, they bought it and turned it into zazu.
  • Opening zazu came at a difficult time. First of all, the couple had a newborn at the time, and Estes would man the kitchen while carrying her child in a babypack on her back. Also, zazu opened just two weeks before Sept. 11, 2001
  • Zazu restaurant should not to be confused with Zuzu restaurant in Napa.
Local Buzz:

Zazu is known for delicious food served in a warm and friendly environment. The couple who runs the restaurant is fun and energetic and people often comment on their “good vibe.” The wait staff is similarly affable. But, zazu is not just about warm fuzzies. Everyone here knows what they’re doing. The service is top-notch. And the couple, John Stewart and Duskie Estes, who both serve as chefs, are pros. They have the background and the training and the accolades. And they each had a long history of culinary success behind them before they became an “overnight” sensation.

But, at first glance, it does seem like they rose to prominence in the blink of an eye. They bought the old Willowside Café and moved here from Seattle in 2001. They didn’t have a lot of capital, so they left much of the furnishings and décor from the former restaurant. What they did have, was a newborn baby girl. And she got carried around and nursed while mom and dad cooked and cleaned and interviewed. And, to top it off, zazu opened up just three weeks before 9-11. Altogether, it didn’t seem like the best circumstances under which to start a new business. And yet, the next thing we knew, zazu was being heralded as one of the best eating establishments in the Bay Area.

The biggest part of this success is that Stewart and Estes run a great restaurant with excellent food. But, I think at least a little of their rise is due to the fact that everyone was rooting for them. They were a young, earnest couple with a dream and a strong work ethic. And, they were living out the proverbial American dream in which hard work and spirit overcome all odds. It seemed that whoever went to zazu and met the couple and tasted their food, wanted to help them by spreading the word.

About a year after the restaurant opened, Michael Bauer, food critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, stopped by and wrote a glowing review. Soon after, the Chronicle named zazu one of the Top Ten new restaurants in the Bay Area for 2002. And then in 2003, 2004 and 2005, the paper included them in their list of 100 Best Restaurants in the Bay Area, the only Santa Rosa restaurant to be so honored any of those years. Needless to say, zazu’s reputation soared.

These days, Stewart and Estes are no longer fighting against the odds as they once were. But, that doesn’t mean that they’ve lost their fighting spirit. They’re now using it to push zazu, and their new restaurant Bovolo in Healdsburg, to new heights. For example, they are growing some of their own produce in a garden by zazu, they’re raising their own chickens to have fresh eggs for the pasta, and Stewart is curing his own pork. This intensive, hands-on approach takes a lot of time and effort, and it’s reflected in the price. Some say that the taste isn’t so much better that it warrants all the extra work and higher prices. But, most of the local buzz seems to be that the food does taste significantly better, and that it’s fresher and healthier. And still others say that they feel better knowing where their food is coming from. As my friend Cathy said, “If I can look the chef in the eye and trust that he took good care of the land and he took good care of the chickens, then I can enjoy my meal that much more.”

Whether this all-round, hands-on, intensive approach to making food works in the long run remains to be seen. But, knowing Stewart and Estes’ passion and drive, I’d place my bets on whatever they have their sights on.

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