Beef Don’t Fail Me Now

For eons, I’ve eaten ravenously in the spiffy restaurants on the plaza in Sonoma. From now on, however, my first choice will be Burgers & Vine (“B&V” to those in the know), the much buzzed-about eatery, saloon, live music joint, ice cream parlor and mini dance palace.

Co-created by Codi Binkley and Carlo Cavallo, B&V is sweeping stolid Sonoma off its feet. Sure, there are other destinations on the plaza that offer burgers, but there’s no real competition.

B&V is a bold experiment for Cavallo, though he’s already an award-winning chef who has prepared gourmet food for years at the Sonoma-Meritage Oyster Bar & Grille. “I’m going in a radically different direction from what I’ve done my whole career,” he says, a week before his new haunt opened to the public.

At B&V, the all-American hamburger is king, barbecue is the crown prince, and milk shakes—with or without booze—are a banquet by themselves. Beers, with names like Draft Punk Pale Ale, are brewed in the vast basement of the building, which was once the old Sonoma Creamery. At the elegant 42-foot-long burnished redwood bar, savvy bartenders serve exotic cocktails. There’s also an old-fashioned lounge on one side of the room and a nifty dance floor for romancing cheek-to-cheek on weekends when bands take the stage.

Seven years ago, Binkley, who was born and raised Dallas, Texas, and Cavallo, who hails from Verona, Italy, put their heads together and came up with the bright idea for a wine country barbecue joint that would appeal to kids, parents, tourists and townies. Texas barbecue and Willie Nelson’s brand of country music fueled Binkley’s boyhood; Cavallo didn’t wolf down his first hamburger (a Whopper at Burger King) until he arrived in America.

Still, barbecue isn’t totally new territory for the chef. In 2009, Cavallo won the top prize in the National Beef Cook-Off, sponsored by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. Now, after seven years of prep, he’s having the time of his life flipping burgers at B&V’s state-of-the-art grill. “If chefs like Thomas Keller at the French Laundry can flip burgers, I can, too,” Cavallo says.

Now he’s cooking juicy one-third-pound hamburgers that come with all the fixings on brioche or gluten-free buns ($8). The beef is locally sourced, and lovingly handled. There’s a tasty vegan burger ($10) and a scrumptious surf-and-turf plate with Kobe beef, prawns and truffle aioli ($16). The snazzy kitchen will also serve up hefty portions of oak-smoked brisket, ribs, prime rib and chicken (prices to be set).

“We’ve created a place for the whole community to relax, have a good time and feel at home,” Brinkley adds with a smile.

On opening day, I sample the spicy chicken wings ($6), the hand-cut fries ($3) and the wild Alaskan salmon burger ($13). I can’t resist a milkshake with bourbon, vanilla gelato and caramel ($6). Bartender Ashley Cuellar watches me eat with glee. “This place is very bohemian,” she says. “We’re going with the flow. I see you are, too.”