If you want to open a bar and restaurant in a small town, it helps if you recently left a popular lounge a block and a half away.
When I told friends that I was headed for Healdsburg in Sonoma wine country, everyone told me to visit Lo & Behold Bar and Kitchen because the owners were known for their creative cocktails. My friends were right. I visited five weeks after the opening and fortunately found seats for a late lunch at Lo & Behold.
Arriving thirsty and hungry, my two friends and I decided we would sample the Eff Me Pumps cocktail which has already become one of the signature drinks. Mimicking the nightclub staple, Eff Me Pumps is listed on the menu as lounge-style “Bottle Service” served in a large pitcher for six. We begged for a sample and were immediately taken by the refreshing and creative mix of ingredients.
The Lo & Behold happy hour is abuzz with guests talking, eating and imbibing.
Owners Tara Heffernon and Laura Sanfilippo are poised to gain recognition as first-time entrepreneurs. After meeting in 2010 while crafting and serving cocktails at nearby Spoonbar, Heffernon and Sanfilippo remained friends and reunited at other popular bars in town. Ready to launch their own place, the duo partnered with Sean Kelley, a chef they knew well, to build the food program and opened Lo & Behold in January 2022.
Sanfilippo share the backstory on the name. “We wanted a familiar, recognizable name. We played with Beck & Call or Last Call. But while on a plane, I saw the phrase Lo & Behold and knew that was the right name for a place that might surprise you and surpass your expectations….. Eureka! a place with great atmosphere, food and drink.”
From the creative names of the food and drink to the friendly servers, Heffernon and Sanfilippo gave considerable thought to each aspect of running the bar and restaurant.
The first strategy the partners adopted was to create a business that was sustainable. They all enjoyed working together. But running their own business would increase the time commitment and complexity of their professional lives by a large margin. After evaluating the impact of the workload, the partners acquired professional support for insurance and human resource issues.
“This time we had skin in the game,” said Sanfilippo. “We decided to open from Thursday through Monday, from 11:30 a.m. to midnight. We would take time for selfcare and recognize our team members were appreciated for their hard work, too.”
Another strategic decision was to develop a casual, natural setting for the restaurant without a lot of fancy interior design. They took advantage of Heffernon’s gardening skills. On her one-acre home property, her garden features many species including herbs and flowers, some of which are used at the bar and kitchen.
Heffernon and Sanfilippo approach their bar craft with a blend of creativity and science. Vermouth, they believe, is a harmonizing agent. Sanfilippo confessed to having a healthy addiction to the aromatic, fortified liqueurs which add acid, botanical, aromatic or sweet notes to a drink. Applying a culinary approach to cocktails, the duo incorporates unexpected textures and flavor combinations, a similar process to layering ingredients for a culinary dish. The seasoning agents are bitters, noted Sanfilippo.
A creative group, the Lo & Behold staff invented whimsical and fun names for the menu with double or hidden meanings. The derivation of some names like the modified catchphrase for the popular Eff Me Pumps cocktail are obvious.
Heffernon chose Fernet Branca, one of her favorite spirits. Fernet Branca is also favored by bartenders and chefs but remains an esoteric call for the average guest. A creative take on an Old Fashioned, Heffernon changed the spirit, used strawberry instead of cherry, poured in Carpano Antica sweet vermouth instead of simple syrup, seltzer. With an orange-red hue, the drink looks like an Old Fashioned.
We then sipped a refreshing Mom Gene’s cocktail bestowed with a fun name that harkens to Mom jeans. With an unusual ingredient mix and a “healthy” green hue, I enjoyed the unexpected flavor combination of kiwi, coriander and lemongrass with Charbay green tea vodka from Mendocino and a favorite of Heffernon and Sanfilippo.
The Snap Back has become another popular call with an unexpected mix of ingredients. A blend of Arborist gin from El Dorado Hills (California), cucumber, sugar snap peas, lemon, cardamom and mint, this drink looks appealing and is thirst-quenching.
The Guava Paloma brings a twist to the standard paloma with the addition of guava, grapefruit, lime, lychee and pink salt to tequila blanca.
Next visit I plan on trying the “World’s Best Vodka Soda,” mainly because I want to know if I could learn to love vodka soda; I have never ordered one. Sanfilippo told me that most bartenders inwardly groan when a guest orders one since it takes only a vodka pour and spritz of club soda.
Lo & Behold lifts the drink to another level. Made with Young & Yonder vodka made in Healdsburg, “improved seltzer” and unicorn tears, I asked Sanfilippo to translate the description. “Seltzer is bland. We add a small amount of baking soda to add a mineral element. ‘Unicorn tears’ are drops of essential oils of lemon-lime, bergamot and pink grapefruit.”
The short beer and wine lists are filled with well-crafted local and California producers. Several of the wines such as Liwa sauvignon blanc allocate a percentage of sales to the 1% for the Planet nonprofit or Native American Rights Fund.
The cuisine at Lo & Behold is an intriguing mélange of American, Greek, Chinese and Southeast Asian. To match the playful cocktail menu, the partners crafted fun names for the dishes. Popcorn, a classic bar snack, is called “cockypop” and packs an umami punch with seaweed, mushroom, and nutritional yeast.
The most popular “Drinking Snax” item is son-in-law eggs. Chef Sean Kelley has traveled widely in Thailand and fell for the Thai style of Scotch eggs and the story that goes along with them—your son-in-law is only good for cooking eggs. The crispy bacon pieces on top of the eggs and the judicious amount of Thai barbecue sauce underneath add up to a textural and taste delight.
Despite landlocked Healdsburg, the Sonoma coast is not far away. The top of the menu features “Fresh Seafood” with oysters on the half shelf, crab Rangoon dip and fried oyster lettuce cups, a clear, creative take of the diced chicken lettuce cups popular in chain restaurants, and other specialties. We dove into a half dozen oysters of the day, and the fresh bivalves disappeared quickly.
In the “Smalls and Shares” section, I immediately announced we were ordering the grilled halloumi with dukkah, lemony tomato sauce and fennel. Once I tasted the seed and herb mixture dukkah in Morocco, I have been hooked. The melted, rich cheese lighted with the lemon tomato topping—plus dukkah—was a winner.
The crispy pork spareribs caught the eye of our table, and we politely offered the last one to each other until we nominated our dining companion, Walter, to grab it. Another delightful choice among the smalls is the pea shoot salad. I never heard of pea shoots until I started writing about food. Now I enjoy the crunch and freshness of the thin stalks and small, bright leaves. The Lo & Behold version adds additional crunch via sunflower seeds and binds the flavors with a smooth yogurt dressing.
On the Fork, Knife and Fingers menu section, the “Housemade Noodles” are the hottest item. For insiders around town and beyond, this dish is “kimchi noodles.” The description includes kimchi butter, black vinegar, sesame, water chestnut, and egg. Whatever words you may use, I liked this main course for the beguiling blend of the soft ingredients, fresh noodles, butter and egg with textural elements of sesame and water chestnut and colorful spice from the kimchee seasoning.
The kimchi noodles are a mash up of Korean kimchi and Italian pasta. Another creative mix of cuisines are the confit beef brisket tacos. Beef tacos are common, but the confit technique of slow cooking in oil is a classic French technique not normally found in taco meat. The full ingredient list yields more surprises: chili negro, white beans, asada onions, and consommé. What, consommé? That is not a common Mexican addition to the taco plate. Heffernon explained at our lunch that the dish is like a “French dip taco au jus.”
The menu also features a “Brazen Burger” and “Pollo a la Brasa,” a Peruvian staple of marinated and then near-blackened chicken thighs with ají sauces, fries, and “roughage,” in this case, arugula.
Yes, there are two “Sweet Things” for dessert, a banana cream cake with peanut butter and chocolate and a pot de fromage with white cheese and burnt honey which our happy group could not negotiate.
During the last few months, Heffernon and Sanfilippo have encountered the sweet surprise of serving hungry crowds at the opening. But soon they encountered the challenge of finding and hiring more guest-friendly, cocktail and food-savvy staff. The staffing situation, said Sanfilippo, has stabilized since opening, and each weekend is a learning experience.
Lo & Behold is poised to become another Healdsburg culinary destination. Insider’s tip: Seats are the bar are coveted Visit on Sunday and Monday, the slower nights.
Lo & Behold Bar & Kitchen is located at 214 Healdsburg Avenue, Healdsburg, CA
www.loandbeholdca.com Follow on Instagram @loandbeholdhealdsburg
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