Table Thoughts: Somms' Last Restaurant Hurrahs—and Reopening First Stops

6 restaurant pros reminisce about their favorite experiences dining out before the shutdown, from a lavish Tuscan feast to comfort steak frites

Table Thoughts: Somms' Last Restaurant Hurrahs—and Reopening First Stops
Sommelier Wendy Heilmann got a final chance to dine at Napa, Calif., pizzeria Redd Wood before chef Richard Reddington announced its permanent closure in March. (Nick Vasilopoulos)
May 20, 2020

You may know them as friendly faces and wise wine guides when you're eating out, but sommeliers are diners too. Before the sudden COVID-19 shutdown that put many restaurants—and their workers—in peril, wine pros were hanging out at favorite dives, trying to unlock unexpected new drink pairings and making new friends at the table, even as rumors of trouble began to swirl.

Wendy Heilmann, wine director for Pebble Beach Resorts in Pebble Beach, Calif., made an early birthday trip up to Napa and Sonoma just in time. "On the drive home on March 15, I listened to Governor Newsom’s order to close bars, restaurants, wineries, brewpubs, etc. I knew it was an ominous sign, but no one could have predicted where we would be today." But like you, these somms from six Wine Spectator Restaurant Award winners are thinking ahead to when they'll be able to book their next tables.

More Table Thoughts: We also asked restaurant regulars about their dining-out memories—and how they are helping their favorite spots.

And our editors shared some of their own all-time favorite dining experiences.

Wine Spectator: What's a favorite pre-shutdown restaurant wine-and-dining memory, or one you hope to recreate after restaurants reopen?

Amy Mundwiler, wine director at Best of Award of Excellence winner Maple & Ash in Chicago

I was at La Crêperie, a little French bistro a few blocks away from my apartment. It's kind of a dive—the best French dive in the city, if you ask me. The walls are papered with old, weathered French posters; spider plants hang in the front window; and French music plays in the background. The original owner is always a shameless flirt, and my favorite server always has something snarky to say to me.

I had a book, my journal and the evening all to myself. I luckily was able to grab the two-top by the fireplace and ended up staying for more than a few hours. I always get the same dishes and wines: a simple green salad and a glass of white Burgundy, French onion soup and red Burgundy, Rhône with steak frites, and a caramel-and-salted-butter crêpe for dessert with a glass of Calvados. The familiarity is comforting when Chicago is cold and gray out. The wines are not complicated, my steak is always overcooked and the butter for the bread comes in those small plastic containers with the foil you have to peel back. It's glorious. That was one of my last memories before the shutdown, and I hope with every ounce of my being that it will be one of the first when we reopen. I might leave the book and journal at home, though. I'd rather spend the night surrounded by friends, a snarky server and an elderly French man that flirts shamelessly with all of the ladies.

Wendy Heilmann, wine director at Pebble Beach Resorts and its four Restaurant Award winners, in Pebble Beach, Calif.

I was very fortunate to visit some of my favorite spots in Northern California in the days right before statewide closures went into place. My 50th birthday was on April 8, so a few weekends prior to that some female friends of mine and I planned a mini–early birthday spa getaway to Sonoma. I didn’t want to have to fight Saturday morning traffic from Monterey to Sonoma, so I drove up Friday afternoon, March 13, and stayed in Napa. I dined alone at the bar at Redd Wood, enjoying pizza, of course, and a few glasses of Italian wine. I didn’t know until I started chatting with a couple of locals next to me that [chef] Richard Reddington had announced the permanent closure of the restaurant. I’ve always been a fan of his cuisine, so I felt really lucky that I had a chance to dine there one last time.

Wendy Heilmann and friends
Wendy Heilmann (right) lifts a glass of Laurent-Perrier Cuvée Rosé on one last wine-country jaunt. (Courtesy of Wendy Heilmann)

The next evening we topped off a relaxing day with an excellent dinner at Valette, in Healdsburg. The restaurant was absolutely packed and alive with energy. We ate well, drank Laurent-Perrier Cuvée Rosé and Grand Siècle, and I finished the night with a birthday dessert. Little did I know it would be the only birthday candle I got to blow out this year.

Valette interior
Valette, a favorite of wine lovers in Healdsburg, Calif. (Courtesy of Valette)

When we return to some semblance of a new normalcy, the first place I plan on dining is La Balena, in Carmel. The ambience is simple yet quaint, and the food is fantastic. But it’s the owners, Emanuele and Anna [Bartolini], who bring authentic Italian warmth and charm to the place, and I miss them dearly.

Jill Gubesch, wine director at Award of Excellence winner Frontera Grill/Topolobampo in Chicago

One of them is just a place I long for in Valle de Gualalupe, Finca Altozano, which I go to every single time I go there, and it's always filled with all the local winemakers. Their Mexican wine list is all the experimental stuff, different kinds of barrels, stuff I've never seen before, but I love the Magoni Viognier-Fiano blend. [For food,] any of their ceviches or aguachiles and also their addictive wood-roasted pulpo with white wine and peanuts.

Jill Gubesch
Jill Gubesch gets a vantage over the vineyards at Finca Altozano, a farm and restaurant in Mexico's Valle de Gualalupe. (Courtesy of Jill Gubesch)

I hadn't been going to a lot of the high-end spots; I was mainly lured to the little neighborhood spots. I'm really looking forward to going back to the wine bar Joe's Imports. I go way back with [Joe Fiely]. It's just that sense of hospitality that I miss so much. The minute you walk in the door, you are a VIP whether he knows you or not, which is the thing I miss more than anything else. My favorite thing to have there was these little parmesan balls with this creamy melted cheese sauce called fonduta—everything you need with bubbles: deep-fried, salty, nutty, umami. I can't wait to have it again.

Andy Myers, wine director for José Andrés' ThinkFoodGroup, including nationwide locations of Jaleo and other José Andrés restaurants

I’m really fortunate to participate in the Cayman Cookout each January with José. This past January, [my wife] and I had the fantastic experience of dining at Blue by Eric Ripert. The meal was exactly as magnificent as expected, with chef Thomas Seifried sending one magical dish after another. But the class, grace and charm of the waitstaff blew us away. Wine pairings were a blur thanks to Juan Pacheco behind the bar creating some of the best cocktails we’ve had, but I recall an old Nikolaihof Riesling sneaking in there at some point. Add in the magical waters of Grand Cayman that we love to scuba dive in, and this is certainly the meal I’d most like to get back to soon.

Robby Younes, beverage director and chief operating officer at Crystal Springs Resort, including Grand Award winner Restaurant Latour, in Hamburg, N.J.

In New Jersey, I would love to go to a new restaurant that was opened by [former members of] the team of Daniel Boulud, a place called Faubourg, in Montclair, N.J. It is an Alsace-style modern cuisine. It was my Friday place. And the wine program is extremely exciting. I really look forward to going to the bar, having good oysters. They have a couple amazing crudité dishes and a baba ghanoush that they do so well smoked.

I am a big gin lover. I usually go to a place in New York City where I have an amazing traditional gin and tonic, and I switch after that to some great Spanish wine; the place that I love, in Chelsea, is called Socarrat. I know the owner well. The way they do their paella, which is burned paella, is extremely thin, like half an inch burnt. After that layer, their seafood one—and that's what the summer would be [offering]—has this beautiful fava bean and scallop roe laid over it, as well as octopus. I tell you, it is spectacular, one of the sexiest dishes you can have with a nice summer.

Victoria James, beverage director at Best of Award of Excellence winner Cote Korean Steakhouse in New York

Before quarantine, I attended a winemaker luncheon at King (on King Street) with Gregorio Boscu Bianchi Bandinelli from Villa di Geggiano in Tuscany. The restaurant is owned by three incredible women (cheekily named, since it's three queens of hospitality): Jess Shadbolt, Clare de Boer and Annie Shi. The first two worked at the River Café in London, and the food they serve at their restaurant is a British take on the Italian Riviera meets Provence, the sort of Mediterranean food that is always soaked in olive oil, fragrant with garlic and generous on the anchovies. … This specific lunch had one wine focus: the chewy and savory Chiantis from Gregorio's family. He worked the room with all of the charm one would expect from a young count working in a West Village restaurant; and with the food, his wines, especially his riserva served from magnums, perfectly exemplified the "what grows together, goes together" mentality.

Victoria James
Cote Korean Steakhouse beverage director Victoria James (Courtesy of Cote Korean Steakhouse)

Coniglio fritto, gnudi verdi with the estate's own olive oil that Gregorio suitcased in, and quail with roasted chickpeas—we felt as if we were in Tuscany. What's more, we seemed to pick up table guests as we went along. We met some friends there for the occasion and invited some other now-new friends to join. These are the sorts of meals I miss, ones that not only represent that sense of place but also time spent with loved ones. After this leisurely lunch that lasted until almost supper time, I turned to my husband, Lyle, and said, "Now that was something." We had no idea that this would be our last lunch in a restaurant for many, many months. And although we've had Villa di Geggiano wines since then, and Lyle, who is a brilliant cook, has made a few Tuscan renditions of those same dishes during lockdown, it isn't the same. Nothing will be the same until restaurants return, soaked in olive oil, filled with friends and dripping with lots and lots of good wine.

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