30 Years of The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards
The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards turns 30—and reaches a moment of peak perfection.
In April 1986, near the end of a long road that winds through Livermore’s centuries-old wine country, The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards began its culinary adventure. Fashioned near the underground caves of Wente’s wine cellars, the stately establishment staked a claim as a destination restaurant in a rural suburb.
Since then, dozens of wineries have sprung up across the Livermore Valley, drawing visitors from near and far. The once cow town has become nightlife central, with a downtown arts center, live music venues, and an alphabet of restaurants running the gamut from Afghan to Vietnamese.
Wente’s transformation has been slow but no less dramatic. Outside, a world-class golf course was built, the restaurant’s vegetable garden grew from a patch to half an acre, and the property’s summer concert series began to draw thousands for the ultimate in dinner and a show.
Inside, the restaurant’s main dining room originally had a somewhat austere feel, but all the dining venues now feel warm and welcoming, bathed in soft light, richly carpeted, and set with plush chairs you’ll never want to vacate—especially after a great bottle of wine.
Over the years, the restaurant’s cuisine has drifted from dainty Californian to American rustic. But now, as it celebrates its 30th, Wente is in balance: Portions are generous, flavors are sublime, and presentations are naturally stylish. Best of all, the quality of ingredients has never been better.
Much credit goes to Mike Ward, a New York–trained chef who arrived at Wente last year after running the kitchen at Tyler Florence’s El Paseo in Mill Valley. El Paseo’s meat-centric menu proved to be the ideal springboard for Ward’s current position.
Wente uses whole animals, even offering estate-raised beef. (The cattle are allowed the equivalent of one glass of red wine over their last 120 days.) Ward calls himself “a true carnivore,” but he’s also known as a meat geek.
“I buy one duck and cook it four ways,” says Ward. “One hog produces 40 different dishes.” Ward’s charcuterie spread, based on a program built by previous chef Matt Greco, is best ordered to start a meal. Greco and Ward’s similar food styles and philosophies have helped the restaurant come into its own.
While there is plenty of protein, the food is anything but one-dimensional. Ward deliberately builds a blueprint for each dish to create an intriguing interplay of texture, color, aroma, and acidity. And Ward’s passion for produce, stoked by a stint working at a 150-acre farm, ties it all together.
“Balance,” says Ward, “is the most important ingredient.”
One recent evening, the roasted chicken breast was supernaturally moist from tip to plump center; the extra-thick, signature smoked pork chop was veal-tender; and my succulent $60 rib eye was large enough to share with my four tablemates.
It’s Ward’s talent for accessorizing, however, that turns rustic into refined. Wisps of emerald watercress and winter vegetables garnished that dry-aged rib eye; the wing-jointed chicken breast rested on a pink puree of goat cheese and piquillo peppers; and the edge-charred pork chop was cloaked by the frizzled green-white hearts of frisée.
Seafood also gets its due. We savored darkly caramelized day boat scallops, sea bass spiked with saffron and smoky squid, and hamachi crudo flecked with seasonal citrus.
Of course, even a bean-and-cheese burrito from Taco Bell (Ward’s one “addiction”) would be worth the drive to eat in this romantic setting—one of the Bay Area’s most popular wedding venues. The patio is a wonderful spot for brunch, or to watch the sun set over vineyards and rolling hills.
Remember, too, that this is a wine country restaurant, and Wente’s list—more accurately, a tome—has been world-class from the get-go. There are upward of 1,000 selections, more than a quarter of which are held for aging or special requests. The vast majority come from California, including a slice from Livermore Valley’s 50-plus wineries.
As for the price range (which encompasses more than two dozen half-bottles and roughly a dozen magnums), you have some options. A 2011 Chardonnay from Livermore’s Concannon Winery goes for $24, whereas a bottle of a cult Cabernet Sauvignon can set you back more than 50 times that much.
The restaurant has always been compelling, but it has never been so sophisticated or all of a piece. It may have taken three decades to peak, but as they say with wines, the best improve with age.