If you were lucky enough to be in downtown Healdsburg last Sunday, you may have stumbled upon a party going on at. There were appetizers, champagne, martinis, and plenty of foie gras (last chance for that delicacy, and it had to be given away).
Employees, friends and customers were having a great time, to hear of it, and when the owner got up on the bar to give a speech, everyone said it was a great one.
Remembering that speech, however, proved more difficult for the several people I talked to at the restaurant earlier this week, when I went to interview Ralph Tingle about his eponymous restaurant.
After driving around too long to find parking, I found him nursing a bottle of Pelligrino. When I told him why I was late for our lunch, he said, "When I started this restaurant, you hardly ever saw a Mercedes in town. Now I've got one."
If you ask me, he deserves one. As of last Sunday, Bistro Ralph's turned 20 years old, opening on July 1, 1992, back when Healdsburg was still a sleepy little town on the far side of Santa Rosa. It wasn't the first white-tablecloth restaurant in town; that honor probably goes to Tre Scalini, on Healdsburg Ave. where was most recently (and where is opening yet another tasting room soon). They closed about the time Bistro Ralph opened; all the other restaurants in town, from to ? They came later.
Twenty years in the restaurant business, in the same location, with the same management, is a long time; and as Ralph Tingle's success has paralleled Healdsburg's own growth, it's also unmistakably contributed to it.
Just over 20 years ago, Ralph -- it's hard to call him Tingle, even in journalism -- was working as executive chef for Fetzer Winery up in Hopland, and about to make a move to an international company to oversee three restaurants, in Beverly Hills, Tokyo, and Aspen. After lunch in Healdsburg at Samba Java (located where is now), he saw a handyman changing the locks on the restaurant next door.
The restaurant, 40 Carrots, had closed down suddenly. "Guess they can't pay their bills," said the handyman simply.
Ralph called , then as now a key Realtor in town, and within a few days decided that this was where he would make his stand and do what he had long wanted to go: Open a restaurant in California Wine Country.
Kathleen Stewart, of the , was encouraging.
"This town is starved for another restaurant," she said. Other locals added their support as well. The town was still waiting, as it had for years, for a hotel -- or something --to be built on that vacant lot across from the Plaza (where and now stand).
He called his soon-to-be employers and told them it was not-to-be, and gave up the growing world cuisine movement to open Bistro Ralph, with its intentionally uptown/down home name.
But make no mistake: Ralph Tingle's restaurant experience is far deeper than the Bistro, or Fetzer's, or the Aspen steak house where he washed dishes before the cooking bug bit. After a couple pointless years at Santa Barbara City College, he persuaded his parents to apply his college tuition fund to culinary school in France.
Smart move: He attended La Varenne and Steve Spurrier's Academie du Vin, graduated from Cordon Bleu, served as saucière at La Cirque in Paris, and ended up working at the three-star Taillevent Paris. Those are credentials that any restaurateur would kill to claim.
Returning to the States, he lived for awhile in Santa Fe, then made the decision to head for the Wine Country. He figured with his experience and education, he could get a job anywhere. At that point in time, when chefs were finally becoming "respected," he was right. He landed a job as sous chef at Auberge du Soleil, in the Napa Valley, right when the restaurant was turning into a world-class resort inn.
So it's only a stroke of good fortune for Healdsburg that Ralph Tingle has made his stand in our town. For the past 20 years, Ralph and his remarkably stable crew -- some have been with him for 17 years, and he is quick to say he "takes great pride in my staff" - have turned out some of the best and most reliable meals in town. But it's still evolving: "You need to keep your identity, but if you don’t change you die," he said.
"We opened up as a fish restaurant," he reminded me. "We were so naive. Today, I think we know what we're doing."
What they are doing is doing things right. The ingredients are as fresh and local as possible, without sacrificing quality - he confesses to buying his grass-fed beef from a ranch in Montana, since the California ranch quality just isn't quite there yet. But all his fish is still inspected for pathogens and parasites and all his dairy is organic -- two things he's pretty sure apply only to Bistro Ralph in town.
Then there's the wine list. Most restaurants in town (there are exceptions) say they feature Sonoma County wines, but will have Napa, or Mendocino, or even other countries on the list. Not Bistro Ralph: it's got to say "Healdsburg" on the label, or it doesn't make it on the wine list, and it's been that way since Day One.
For awhile there in the mid-1990s, Ralph also ran the popular pasta, pizza and bar across the Plaza called Felix and Louie's, where the expanded now stands. While it was open he was the third largest employer in town, with 96 people on the payroll between the two restaurants. It closed in 2003, he said, because it couldn't be consistent.
"Consistency is everything in this business," he said.
Bistro Ralph, on its own, is a more manageable endeavor -- 13 tables, capacity of 49. It's open from 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. every day, which means it doesn't shut down between lunch and dinner. It's even got a martini bar -- 10 bottles of gin and vodka crowded on the counter next to the espresso machine - and while a remodel might be in the cards, Ralph doesn't see many great changes except the evolution he speaks of.
However, there might be another chapter in Ralph Tingle's Healdsburg story, and we may be hearing about it soon. It's not likely to be another fancy restaurant: "I think we've reached saturation with restaurants, what we need are more beds," he says, referring to the difficulty in finding a room in town.
It might serve simple food, and it should serve beer and wine, and it would certainly be the kind of neighborhood place that's easy to drop by. There are a few hurdles to jump yet, but don’t rule out Ralph Tingle.
Now 57, Ralph Tingle lives in a quiet Healdsburg neighborhood just over a mile from his restaurant, with Susan Luekel, soon to become his second ("and final!") wife; and two children, 16-year old Reilly and 14-year old Mollie. She is named after Mollie Katzen, of course, the author of the influential Moosewood Cookbook.
"I never wanted to do trendy food, I wanted to stick around," he said. "I had no idea how much a part of the community I would become. I feel like I've done something, I've made an impact."
"These 13 tables provide a job for 26 people -- a great bunch of people." And two decades of memorable dining for residents of, and visitors to, Healdsburg.