In every family the children grow up with memories of traditional gatherings and for my kids, dining at Union Hotel in Occidental for Grandmas birthday, is very traditional.
Grandma herself has been visiting the family style Italian restaurant since 1973. Surrounded by wooded hillsides and babbling creeks, Occidental is a small town along the Russian River in Sonoma County Wine Country.
Opening its door in 1879 as the Union Saloon when Occidental was still a railroad town, the food became widely popular. To this day, the restaurant continues to be run by family and most times I visit I am able to run into at least one family member. If the family is not there, the portraits on the wall will take you to them in spirit.
The walls of the Hotel are adorned with paintings, photos and murals of family members dating back to the 1800’s. Generations of families gather in the dining room at red-checkered tablecloth tables, dining by candlelight dripping over Chianti bottles celebrating life and family. Enormous silver candelabras that are fit for an over the top Phantom of the Opera setting, decorate each of the long tables for families in the dining hall.
Karin’s birthday falls a few days after New Years so the ambiance of the Christmas and New Years decorations were still present. A favorite tradition of the Gonnella family is the annual Christmas caroling in the Bocce Ballroom which is where the larger parties dine and where we were seated. The ballroom features a grand piano and high ceilings for great acoustics.
Their was a singing, dancing folk troupe on this night in full costume. Playing their string instruments and twirling in their layers of colored skirts and carnation flower covered headwraps, it was quite the show for the lucky guests.
One of the most charming or romantic spots in the restaurant is at the entrance where the fateful, steep, old staircase where the original owners fell in love. It is now the staircase to nowhere and ends in a wall.
The stairway itself remains and is another reminder to patrons that this is a place by family and for family. It is here that they honor the past and celebrate the present. On to the meal…and of course…the wine.
I was chosen to pick a bottle for the evening and I know the birthday girl likes red so I choose a couple of local Pinot Noir wineries that I recognized, Graton Ridge and another I can’t remember. Unfortunately, there were some changes happening to the wine list and so neither was in stock. Disappointing but offered me opportunity to pick Karins brain and find out what the birthday girl really liked in a red and it turned out, her vice is Chianti. This is not a wine I usually sip on so it was fun to browse the selection.
We decided on a 2010 Nozzole Chianti Classico Riserva – Tenuta Di Nozzole. It had a red berry notes maybe cherry and a fresh acidity and was quite lovely. Although the intial nose seemed strong it was a subtle soft wine and drank nicely for us Pinot Noir lovers out there.
The birthday girl was happy and that was what mattered. Karin was celebrating her 50th birthday (once again) and was all smiles with her grandchildren around. She loves my girls and the feeling is mutual.
Her son is also that apple of her eye, or “Tom Cruise” as she likes to call him and she was happy that Aaron (my kids father) was also there. Karin lived in California for the past 25 years but recently moved to Florida and was staying here in Wine Country at the beautiful Meritage Resort in Napa. The fact that she still wanted to travel to Occidental to this small family dining room, says something about the restaurant. Good things, of course.
Our server was very knowledgeable and able to review specials, suggest dishes and attend to our groups various needs well. We were a party of 9 and with the family style service, this requires a lot of running around. We were presented first with a free bruschetta appetizer plate with a Happy Birthday wish to Karin, nice. Wines, waters, apple juices were poured and out came the bread and minestrone soup. What an intoxicating smell.
The dining atmosphere offers for a family to chat and enjoy ones another with conversation while eating as food is brought out in many courses. In true italian style (minus the siesta) one is meant to linger and savor ones meal. We had the salad course next and I snuck off to whisper to our waiter to rush out some chocolate to the birthday girl after the meal with a candle and song…
Antipasto time…yum. Some of my favorite but save some room for the entree.
Roasted Garlic and Brie with French Bread
Toasted Homemade Raviolis Fried and served with dipping sauces
Chicken Picatta white wine with angel hair pasta
Rock Shrimp Pasta mushrooms, garlic, green onions served with a light cream sauce on fettuccine
Rib Eye Steak (my 12 year old is never a cheap date- warning to future suitors) topped with mushrooms served with rosemary garlic potatoes, fresh vegetables and house raviolis
Caesar Salad with homemade croutons and shaved parmesan
The food was good although nothing was in terms of outstanding and once the food arrived, the waitstaff were much harder to locate but overall the experience and meal was nice. A lot of the motivation for diners at this restaurant seems to be the ambiance, atmosphere and feel of italian dining in a room that holds a history. Don’t get me wrong, none of the food was bad but also none of it stood out and for me, who feels that the presentation of food plays an important role in the enjoyment, I would not rate the display of the food high. The Union Hotel also features a Pizzeria, Cafe and Saloon.
I like the idea of the history and decor but feel that it could really use some updating if they plan to attract new patrons or the younger generation that is moving into that area. Simple fresh paint here, new fixtures there could really boost business. Overall again, let me say the Union Hotel is always a fun family experience with good food and charming decor and we enjoy each trip we make out here to celebrate Grandmas 50th all over again…
*Clink *Clink Cheers all xo