At a blind tasting in Paris in 1976 known as the “Judgment of Paris,” Napa Valley vintners shocked the wine world with not one, but two first-place finishes. Stag’s Leap S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon won for reds, and for whites an outstanding Chateau Montelena’s 1973 Chardonnay; both were chosen winners over wines from rival Bordeaux or Burgundy. As the wine world was shocked, the outcome put the Napa Valley on the map as an esteemed region for both wine and gastronomy.
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The 30-mile stretch is flanked by mountain ridges, and traveling between the county seats’ largest city of Napa traveling north towards Calistoga is like a beautiful well-crafted bottle of wine.
The community is carefully thought out, and the longer you spend in its atmosphere, the better it gets. Visitors marvel at the fetching hamlets of Yountville, St. Helena and Calistoga showcasing some of the most European-style wineries outside Bordeaux or Tuscany. You immediately become captivated by the regions carefree, unhurried vibe, unmistakable charisma, and sheer beauty intertwined around vintners, tastings, and distinctive top-notch classes and tours. The Napa Valley’s restaurant scene is as varied and welcoming as its unruffled townsfolk.
Visitors marvel at the fetching hamlets of Yountville, St. Helena and Calistoga showcasing some of the most European-style wineries outside Bordeaux or Tuscany.
Oenotri is my go-to place for traditional and plentiful Southern Italian family-style trattoria meals including pizza baked in a wood-fired oven that chef-owner Tyler Rodde shipped over from Naples. The immaculate Oenotri is the ultimate place to dine with friends. Renowned for its 20 varieties of housemade dry salumi, my favorite being the Sobrassada, dried spicy pork, and the Piccante, Calabrian salumi with smokey paprika. The revolving menu includes twists on pappardelle with braised oxtail, fired black cod, and an innovative braised veal breast with brown butter polenta.
Approachable chef Curtis DiFede, from Oenotri fame, transitioned from southern Italian staples at Oenotri to modern informal Japanese fare. Miminashi is Napa’s only Izakaya-(Japanese Pub) style food and is perhaps the most unique dining experience in wine country. It’s where you’ll find me and other Napa dwellers at a seat at the narrow rustic wood bar on a casual week night sipping handcrafted elixirs while chatting with friendly cooks and mixologists. DiFede has spanned the globe learning and experimenting with various cooking techniques. Small plates include mouthwatering Yakitori (skewered meats), robatayaki (Japanese Barbeque), Teppanyaki (cooked on an iron griddle), ramen, and the freshest catch of the day sashimi.
Bistro Don Giovanni
Fifteen years ago, I discovered Bistro Don Giovanni and have been coming back ever since. If you adhere to the mantra to dine where locals go, the ultimate combination of a friendly local hangout comingling with innovative Italian fare adding in a dash of Napa Valley panache. Located in a gorgeous north Napa setting surrounded by vineyards where you can dine al fresco in the warmer season. The dapper Naples born proprietor Giovanni Scala greets guests at the door. I adore sitting at the bar dining on Mama Concetta’s Meatballs which comes with tomato ragu, Parmigiano and the creamiest soft polenta melts that melts in your mouth. Other of my favorites on the menu of executive chef and partner Scott Warner’s satisfying meals include a risotto paella medley of rock shrimp, clams, calamari, peas and saffron. The consistent menu includes grilled Branzino, fritto misto, steak frites and roasted Napa Valley lamb.
Yountville is the most charming town in the valley, and celebrity three-star Michelin chef Thomas Keller is at the helm of hamlet’s fine-dining fame.
The Keller restaurant group runs the gamut on hedonistic pleasures, but there’s more to “Kellerville” than fancy French Laundry and elegant Bouchon Bistro. Chef de cuisine, Matthew Alba takes scrumptious comfort food to a new level at the impromptu Ad Hoc. I marvel at how a dish as straight forward as buttermilk fried chicken is nothing short of addicting. In the understated Napa Valley where pretentiousness is left behind, most Napa Valley chefs have a place designed to hang out with family and friends in a relaxed dining room. Keller created Ad Hoc for intensified simple American meals.
On weekends, I’ll go on long bike rides along the Silverado Trail veering off into Yountville to grab a bit of upscale take-out. Located behind Ad Hoc, Keller ups the ante on casual picnic take out at his food shack Addendum.
Keller created Ad Hoc for intensified simple American meals.
The best-boxed lunch in the valley. The pleasing plates include hickory smoked St. Louis ribs, Carolina pulled pork, and what would a wine country picnic be without some of the perfectly crispy and juicy buttermilk chicken be?
Located within the confines of the North Block Hotel is star-chef Richard Reddington’s latest casual fare Redd Wood. Reddington may be best known for his Asian-Mediterranean fusion restaurant Redd which sadly is now closed, but fear not, the star chef’s most recent bustling trattoria style oozes savory Italian offerings. Redd Wood is a place with a California-Italian centric vibe that unmistakably shouts laid back in Yountville. A place you can hang out and mingle at the bar while wood-fired thin crust pizza comes straight from the oven in lightning speed, or enjoy homemade pasta, and a juicy burger. It’s as casual and inviting as the celeb-chef himself. A place where all are welcome to break bread and enjoy crafted cocktails.
In a region where Italian, French and Meditteranean dishes seem to rule the food scene, when I’m craving appetizing satisfying home-cooked meal, I turn to Protea in Yountville. One might ponder a Caribbean inspired menu in the Napa Valley, but executive chef and owner, Anita Cartagena’s Protea Restaurant always leave me with a smile. The talented Michelin chef is astounding patrons with her high quality, slow cooked, taste of the Caribbean and from her home roots of Puerto Rico with a dash of global fusion including barbeque goat empanadas, duck ramen, specialty tacos, an extraordinary lamb burger, and my favorite seared marinated skirt steak served over fries and mixed greens. It’s all about Michelin quality taken to a more relaxing venue and affordable menu, and yes, I’ll bike nine miles from Napa knowing that chef Anita’s Caribbean home cooking awaits.
Lucy’s Restaurant & Bar
Don’t let the sleek decor fool you, Lucy’s Restaurant & Bar located in the Bardessono Hotel is pure bliss, joining harmoniously into the contemporary aesthetic spirit that the Bardessono offers. Chef Nate Lindsay’s thrilling dishes are derived straight from the on-site garden next to the kitchen where the talented cook prepares palate-pleasing seasonal offerings including fresh farm salads. The star chef infuses unusual ingredients like carrot marmalade to dazzling dishes of osso buco or carrot ginger cream to sesame ahi tuna, and a creamy chestnut sauce to a light butternut squash autumn risotto. The unrivaled innovative signature cocktail list combines spices and spirits from local distilleries.
Long before I called the Napa Valley home, I would drive up from San Francisco to sit at the bar and order my go-to favorites of spinach artichoke dip followed by the baby back ribs and fries at the Hillstone Restaurant Group’s Rutherford Grill. The smart yet unassuming roadhouse decor with booths for larger parties attracts local vintners, golfers and visitors who all can found mingling around its rectangular bar. While the French Dip sandwich, oak grilled salmon, Hawaiian Rib-eye, prime rib, hickory burger are choice items and Rutherford Grill, I’m a creature of habit.
Sometimes I feel like I’m living in a perpetual Food Network stage. I’m in awe how down to earth celebrated chefs are in this epicurean heaven. The casual-dining essence continues in St. Helena at Meadowood Chef Christopher Kostow’s Charter Oak. The former location of Tra Vigne in St. Helena has been transformed into a massive open space where large sharing platters of grilled beef ribs, hearth roasted ham, aged, grilled rib-eye and greens picked directly from the on-site garden. It’s not uncommon for chef Kostow to personally greet diners. An abode where locals, guests, and kids blend seamlessly over meals meant to be shared.
Goose & Gander
Another locals favorite in St. Helena is Goose & Gander. When I visit, I feel like I’ve been transported to Lake Tahoe as the wood-paneled decor is more akin to an alpine lodge, but in the quirky valley of epicure little surprises me anymore. The off-kilter property is the site of the favored departed Martini House. Executive Chef Nic Jones’ slice of high-minded Nuevo Americana fare with a Napa Valley spin includes succulent pork belly, bbq peach, and bourbon-glazed pork porterhouse, mustard and mandarin glazed duck breast. The burnt burrata and fall Squash risotto is complete contentment. Not to be left out is the intriguing designer cocktail menu featuring spins on elixir classics Tom Collins, Old Fashioned and Manhattan.
I don’t venture north to Calistoga as much as I should, but the hot springs town just might be the quintessential wine country enclave. No visit to Calistoga would be complete without a dining experience at Solbar, the in-house restaurant at the 89 room Solage Calistoga Resort and relaxing spa. Executive chef Gustavo Rios pays homage to the valley’s fabled farm to table progressive food concept. At Solbar everything is fresh grown, the end result comes in the form of inventive dishes like a creamy butternut squash soup or the Niman Ranch Lamb Shoulder. The grilled Yellowfin Tuna Seared Foie Gras and the Perigold Black Truffle Risotto are among the main courses dazzling diners at Solbar.
I’ve become a bit jaded living in the Napa Valley. The laid-back stretch of bucolic scenery, with stylish boutique hotels surrounded by intimate vineyards, is as close to epicurean Disneyland as it gets. From Michelin-rated restaurants to taco trucks, hedonistic indulgences exist in each of the Provence and Tuscan-inspired towns.