Restaurant News & Reviews

Tiny Winters put itself on the map as one of America’s best small-town dining scenes

See why Winters is a hot destination for dining

The small Yolo County city of Winters is becoming a hot destination for dining with restaurants including Preserve, Putah Creek Cafe and Buckhorn drawing crowds.
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The small Yolo County city of Winters is becoming a hot destination for dining with restaurants including Preserve, Putah Creek Cafe and Buckhorn drawing crowds.

In 2004, on Cole and Sara Ogando’s first date, he screened her with two statement-question combinations across the table at a Lafayette restaurant: 1. Have you heard of Winters? 2. Would you live in Winters?

Sara gave the right answers, and the Ogandos were married and back to Cole’s hometown within four years. Another shakeup came seven years later in 2011, when the couple with no prior restaurant experience left their careers in Cole’s family contracting business to open the spacious Preserve gastropub.

Preserve was a hit, and a next-door lunch counter called Preserve Market followed in 2016. The Ogandos are now entrenched in a dining scene that punches well above its weight in the rural Yolo County town 15 miles west of Davis, a row of culinary delights that Cole says bears only a slight resemblance to what was there a decade ago.

“It’s totally different. You can see the path if you’ve lived here a long time, but you didn’t really see it happening until ... maybe the last three years,” said the fourth-generation Winters resident. “Davis used to make fun of us when I was younger, as this cow town. And now they all come here to eat and get culture.”

Winters earns national attention

Residents aren’t the only ones to notice Winters’ wealth of restaurants and foodie festivals: the 7,000-person community finished No. 4 on USA Today’s 2018 list of the country’s best small town food scenes. Yountville, which had its crown jewel The French Laundry joined by seven other local restaurants in this year’s Michelin guide, finished sixth on USA Today’s list.

Food options range from Park Winters, a self-described “country oasis” where seven-course dinners run $125 plus tax and gratuity, to El Verduzco taco truck, where a $6-for-six deal has capped hundreds of Stebbins Cold Canyon hikes and Putah Creek swims. A slew of date night options rest somewhere in the middle: tapas at Ficelle, house-cured charcuterie at Preserve, wine and cheese at Berryessa Gap or Turkovich tasting rooms.

The old guard of Buckhorn Steakhouse and Putah Creek Cafe, which opened in 1980 and 1988, respectively, are a block down Main Street from Yolo Trader’s Bistro (established in 2017) and Hooby’s Brewing (February 2019). Former Grange general manager Frank Carney is also preparing to open an Italian restaurant called Carboni’s Ristorante Bar and Marketplace on the ground floor of the soon-to-be-completed Hotel Winters.

Winters’ population can nearly triple on weekends as visitors descend from Sacramento and the Bay Area, Cole Ogando said, though tourism fluctuates heavily based on festivals and other events. City officials expect the 73-room downtown hotel – the only lodging aside from AirBnbs, five rooms at Abbey House Inn and four at Park Winters – to spend on restaurants and shops in town rather than those in Davis or Vacaville.

“None of these places would survive on the traffic alone from locals,” Ogando said. “We survive because on the weekends we get this whole influx of people, and it just keeps building on itself. Every time something new is added, it brings a new crowd into town who wants to go walk around and discover what else there is.”

Winters wasn’t even a one-stoplight town when John Pickerel and Melanie Bajakian-Pickerel opened Buckhorn Steakhouse in the old De Vilbiss hotel, first constructed in 1889. Pickerel recalled his wife walking their young daughters Meika and Emarie (now Emarie VanGalio, director of operations for Buckhorn Corp.) down to see the first light’s installation.

There’s wasn’t much need for traffic direction, anyway: Business was so slow at first that Buckhorn employees were instructed to park their cars in front of the restaurant to give the impression customers were inside. It picked up gradually as reviews of juicy tri-tip and 48-ounce Tomahawks carved tableside spread to Sacramento and the Bay Area, reaching people that Pickerel and Bajakian-Pickerel hoped would drive 45 minutes to two hours, if the food was good enough.

For reasons Pickerel isn’t even sure of today, Winters cast a spell on outsiders. Articles began popping up in the pages of Bon Appetit, Sunset and Gourmet magazines fawning over Winters’ restored Victorians, quaint downtown and natural beauty, aspects of the town many of its residents took for granted.

Tourism picked up in around the time Steady Eddy’s and Ficelle opened in the mid-2000s; the coffee shop in particular drew the cycling crowd into downtown Winters, Pickerel and Cole Ogando said. The next wave came in the early 2010s as the country came out of a recession, Turkovich, Berryessa Brewing Co. and Preserve opened and Guy Fieri thrust Putah Creek Cafe onto TV screens across the U.S.

As tourism boomed, Pickerel bought freeway billboards to broadcast Winters as a whole. He didn’t need to advertise Buckhorn explicitly: If the billboards got people into town, there were only so many places for them to eat.

‘The envy of every downtown’

At the middle of it all was longtime city manager John Donlavey, who had a habit of saying yes first and figuring out the particulars later. If Steady Eddy’s wanted to install a hanging bike rack or VanGalio wanted to recreate a city playground through volunteering and fundraising, they had the green light from the city.

“When a guy comes into your office and says that he wants to roast a pig out in the middle of Main Street, you say yes. And that’s what we’ve done,” Donlavey said. “Our contribution from the city is just getting out of the way (and) letting it happen.”

Customers’ increased interest in locally-sourced food has helped, too: Pickerell calls Yolo County “the farm to Sacramento’s fork.” Those agricultural roots lend themselves to restaurants such as Ficelle, which sources quail from a farm 10 miles down the road, as well as Chuy’s Taqueria, which Chuy Salazar founded 18 years after immigrating to Winters as a farmworker.

But nearby agricultural towns such as Esparto and Dixon don’t have anything close to Winters’ culinary reputation. Even officials from cities such as Woodland, Fairfield and Vacaville have sought advice from Pickerell on how to install a similar dining culture.

“We are the envy of every downtown (in the area),” Pickerell said. “I know every redevelopment director that has recruited us. They all want to be like Winters, and they all ask ‘How did this happen?’”

Winters’ dining scene has benefited from transplants such as Berryessa Gap winemaker Nicole Salengo, a New England native, and Yolo Traders Bistro chef/co-owner Alejandra Ibarra, who grew up in the Mexican state of Sinaloa. But Winters’ cultural core would be lacking without 30-somethings like VanGalio, Cole Ogando and Turkovich Vineyards co-owner/co-winemaker Chris Turkovich, all of whom grew up together, spread their Lady Bird wings and eventually returned home.

VanGalio lived in the Cayman Islands, London and San Francisco after college; Turkovich worked in vineyards in New Zealand, Chile and Australia, where he met his business partner and wife Luciana. Eventually, a “magnetic, magic pull” brought them back home, VanGalio said.

“Growing up, there were times when it’s like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t wait to get out of here,’” VanGalio said. “But then when you get older and you’re living abroad or in a big city, you realize how special it really is.”

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Benjy Egel covers local restaurants and bars for The Sacramento Bee as well as general breaking news and investigative projects. A Sacramento native, he previously covered business for the Amarillo Globe-News in Texas.