We've come to expect restaurant experiences in New York and Los Angeles to rank among the best in the world, but what about the dining scene of an agricultural region with fewer than 150,000 people? That is what Napa is, after all. But the valley's population belies its standing as one of this country's most popular tourist destinations and a mecca for food and wine lovers. From multicourse chefs' menus to addictive burgers, eating well on a visit to Napa Valley is defined only by what you crave.
The embarrassment of restaurant riches on offer today can be traced to the efforts of the area's culinary pioneers and those who built on the foundation they laid.
"It was a wasteland," says chef Philippe Jeanty, referring to the valley's food and wine environment when he arrived in 1977. "Finding raw ingredients was very difficult. I couldn't get fresh fish even if I went to San Francisco. They froze everything."
Jeanty, who now owns Bistro Jeanty, came from France to open the former restaurant at Domaine Chandon in Yountville. He ultimately guided Chandon's dining room to upscale excellence, but it started out as a buffet. "It was supposed to be a showcase for the [winery's] sparkling wine, and I recall that the buffet was $6.75."
Chef Cindy Pawlcyn opened Mustards Grill, now a Napa institution, in 1983. "The only serious restaurants were Domaine Chandon and Auberge du Soleil," she says. "There were no hotels in Yountville at all. There were a lot of bars, and they were kind of dive bars. There would be fights and stuff. It was wild. It was the country."
But change was in the air. Pawlcyn was perhaps the first to plant a restaurant garden in the region, placing her among the founders of the farm-to-table movement. An on-premise garden is now standard practice at many venues, as just-picked produce sets the agenda for seasonal menus.
In general, the dining scene has evolved along regional lines. In the north valley, the small town of Calistoga, where soothing geothermal waters have been drawing visitors since at least 1862, retains a casual approach to dining, although that could shift with new luxury resorts on the horizon. With its stately old wineries, St. Helena has long been the more buttoned-down dining destination, though since Thomas Keller took over the French Laundry in the mid-1990s, Yountville has donned a more formal mantle too. For the most dramatic food revolution, look to the city of Napa. Once the land of fast food and blue-plate specials, the downtown dining scene has exploded in the past 15 years.
Wine's role at Napa tables has grown as the valley's reputation as a world-class destination has soared. Napa wines dominate, as you might expect, but even smartly selected lists of 50 to 100 wines are increasingly worldly. Three restaurants—the French Laundry, La Toque and the Restaurant at Meadowood—hold the Grand Award, Wine Spectator's top honor for restaurant wine programs. Eight more hold our Best of Award of Excellence, with another 10 offering Award of Excellence-winning lists. (See a complete list of Wine Spectator award winners in the area.)
To help guide you to the ideal food and wine experience for your next Napa meal, the listings below explore 11 top dining rooms, a cross-section of the valley's best.
AUBERGE DU SOLEIL180 Rutherford Hill Road, Rutherford
Telephone (707) 967-3111
Open Breakfast, lunch and dinner, Monday to Friday; brunch and dinner, Saturday and Sunday
Best of Award of Excellence
Auberge du Soleil, which opened in 1981, was Napa Valley's original destination for a romantic meal, and it remains true to that tradition. With front-row seating overlooking the heart of Napa Valley from a hillside location north of Rutherford, its seductions are hard to beat. The kitchen, now 12 years under the helm of chef Robert Curry, maintains top form.
During summertime, a table on the terrace outside the main dining room is one of the area's most highly coveted reservations. Inside, the dining room is formal but friendly, with ochre-colored walls and supporting timbers adding to the inviting ambience; in cooler seasons, a fireplace crackles. Overall noise levels are low enough to allow for intimate conversation.
The cuisine is a richly flavored Franco-American assembly deftly conveyed by Curry, who trained with Michelin-starred French chef Alain Ducasse. Curry draws liberally from California's bounty of fresh vegetables, meats and seafood. Portions are ample, and diners are given the choice between three prix fixe menus for dinner. Artichoke risotto with lobster, yuzu and Parmigiano-Reggiano has a good earthy bite that matches well with a glass of Williams Selyem Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2013. Bacon-wrapped veal accompanied by buffalo ricotta capelletti and Romanesco are lusciously rich.
Wine director Kris Margerum, a 34-year Auberge veteran, oversees a more than 11,000-bottle cellar that is filled with local stars, including Scarecrow Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2011 and French selections such as Vincent Dauvissat Chablis Les Clos 2012.
Margerum is a font of local wine knowledge. "I used to take care of Robert Mondavi all the time [at the restaurant]," he says. "We try to show that Napa Valley wines are world-class side by side with the best of France and elsewhere."
Auberge is a full-service restaurant, offering breakfast, lunch and weekend brunch as well as dinner. It is an enduring Napa institution that remains at the top of its game.
BISTRO JEANTY6510 Washington St., Yountville
Telephone (707) 944-0103
Open Lunch and dinner, daily
Award of Excellence
Philippe Jeanty opened this charming bistro almost 20 years ago, and the food has never been better. The chef made his name with intricate plates at the restaurant at Domaine Chandon, but Bistro Jeanty is all about the casual French comfort food that he grew up with: coq au vin, duck confit, sole meunière and the like.
What the all-day menu lacks in trendiness it compensates for in soul. You can taste Jeanty's passion for these classic dishes in every bite. Cassoulet is a decadent casserole of white beans, duck confit, sausage and bacon, and the steak au poivre will soothe Francophiles. Pâtés are a specialty, with exceptional creations such as foie gras au torchon served with Sauternes gelée and brioche.
The wine list suits the menu well, with almost 350 options from California and a solid selection from across France. Prices are moderate, ranging from $40 for a Groth Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley 2015 to $650, a relative value for a rarity such as Jean Grivot Echézeaux 2012.
The restaurant is a clay-colored storefront in the heart of Yountville, with a shady patio. The interior is an eclectic gallery of copper pots, classic bicycles, ceramic pigs and lambs, and antique French signs. It's a scene that whets your appetite for what's to come.
THE CHARTER OAK1050 Charter Oak Ave., St. Helena
Telephone (707) 302-6996
Open Lunch and dinner, daily; brunch, Saturday and Sunday
The Charter Oak brings Meadowood's talents to a simpler menu and a more relaxed setting in the former Tra Vigne spot. The result is an experiment in high-end casual. The concept is strongly local, focusing on the elements that make Napa special and then keeping it simple. The menu is divided into starters ($6 per portion), "mids" ($16) and mains ($26), all served family-style, with a seasonal focus and featuring vegetables from the restaurant's farm. Raw vegetables come with a creamy fermented soy dip. Grilled avocado meets ribbons of rhubarb. Succulent pork shoulder is served with grilled radicchio and kale.
The interior's exposed brick, wood tables and leather chairs are a nice complement to the elemental vibe, while a stunning blackened-steel fireplace at the back of the dining room is where most of the cooking magic happens. There's a long bar overlooking the inviting patio seating among trees. Further driving home the concept of place and community, the wine list is entirely Napa, organized by subregion, with hundreds of selections and some deep verticals. Corkage is waived when you bring in a bottle of Napa Valley wine, suggesting this will become a winemakers' hangout.
FARM AT CARNEROS4048 Sonoma Highway, Napa
Telephone (707) 299-4880
Open Dinner, daily; brunch, Sunday
Best of Award of Excellence
Set amid the peaceful Carneros Resort and Spa, Farm at Carneros is a chic modern farmhouse with a relaxed atmosphere. The interior is bright and airy, done in warm earth tones, with a cozy fireplace. There is also outdoor seating that overlooks the resort's courtyard.
Executive chef Aaron Meneghelli sources seasonal produce from the resort's on-site farm and garden. Dishes show global inspirations, and the food isn't fussy. Menu descriptions are straightforward and portions are generous.
There's a five-course tasting menu ($115, or $200 with wine pairing), but the à la carte menu has plenty of possibilities as well. Appetizer highlights include glazed pork belly with Asian pear puree and caramelized endive, and seared hamachi with plump Italian butter beans, baby fennel and green goddess dressing. The entrée menu is succinct but well-executed. Both the duck breast and chicken breast come with perfectly crisped skin, and the big-eye tuna is accented with a fragrant mushroom dashi.
Wine director Zion Curiel's list comprises more than 650 selections, and it's growing. It includes a big nod to wines from the surrounding Carneros region, including Massican Chardonnay Napa Valley Hyde Vineyards 2013 and Bouchaine Pinot Noir Carneros 2013. There are plenty of Napa Cabernets, such as Continuum Continuum Napa Valley 2013, and options from Italy and France, particularly Burgundy. Cigars—including selections from Cohiba, Romeo y Julieta and Ashton—are available to be enjoyed outside.
GOOSE & GANDER1245 Spring St., St. Helena
Telephone (707) 967-8779
Open Dinner, Wednesday to Monday
Award of Excellence
This upscale pub is serious about food, and don't be surprised if you spot a winemaker or two. Located just off Main Street, the restaurant has a comfortable main dining room that evokes a gentlemen's hunting club, with rustic wood floors and black leather booths. An open kitchen adds to the vibrant mood. There's also a large covered patio and a basement bar that specializes in creative cocktails.
The menu offers big, rich American flavors but never settles for the predictable. The G&G burger, with gruyère, bacon and remoulade, is one of the best in the valley, especially paired with duck fat fries. Roast chicken is equally satisfying, served with morel cream, roasted maitakes and a duck confit fritter. Not to be missed is the grilled octopus with smoky tapenade and green garlic aioli.
The wine list is a smart 300-plus-bottle selection, moderately priced and devoted largely to Napa. There are a handful of older wines—Colgin Cariad Napa Valley 2005, for example—but most selections are newer releases, including rarities such as Stony Hill Gewürztraminer Napa Valley 2015.
Telephone (707) 257-5157
Open Dinner, daily
La Toque opened in 1979 on the Sunset Strip in Beverly Hills, migrating north to Rutherford in 1998. Then in 2008, chef Ken Frank moved operations into the high-end Westin Verasa hotel in downtown Napa, and this third home, contemporary in both decor and cuisine, is Frank's best iteration.
Frank's food is grounded in French gastronomy. Tasting menus range from four ($80) to nine courses ($195), each revolving around the seasons and featuring some of Frank's staple items, such as foie gras and truffles. Not to be missed is Frank's signature dish, always on offer: a sliced New York strip served over Fiscalini Cheddar tapioca pearls—a whimsical take on risotto—finished with a red wine sauce.
Even among chefs cooking in wine country, Frank has an extraordinary interest in wine, and it shows. Wine pairings are offered with each dish on the menu. The restaurant's Grand Award-winning wine list, curated by wine director Richard Matuszczak, offers an impressive 2,100 bottles. There are 400 selections of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon—including verticals from Opus One, Harlan and Scarecrow.
Other options range from familiar names such as Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 to obscure ones such as Moorooduc Pinot Noir Mornington Peninsula 2013, from Australia, and even treasures such as Château Mouton-Rothschild 1945 ($16,500). La Toque easily ranks as the most impressive wine-and-food experience in the city of Napa.
Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto introduced his namesake Napa restaurant in 2010, opening the door to high-end, Asian-inspired food in Cabernet country. The contemporary space is large, with dramatically lit grapevines hanging from the wall, and an open kitchen surrounded by a lounge and restaurant seating. There are additional tables outside, facing the Napa River. Service is not rushed.
Besides a large selection of sushi and sashimi and an extensive raw bar, the menu has plenty of whimsy and touches of fusion, including tuna "pizza" with anchovy aioli and jalapeño. The entrée section includes a dish called Duck Duck Goose, a duck meatball soup with duck confit fried rice and gooseberry compote, and an indulgent sea urchin carbonara, accented with smoked bacon and crispy shallots.
Most popular on the menu is the Morimoto omakase ($120), a multicourse tasting menu that features the chef's signature dishes, including the toro tartare, presented in a small tray with a tiny wooden paddle and several condiments—nori paste, crispy rice, avocado and dashi soy—for diners to mix and match.
Dozens of sake selections are arranged from sweet to cloudy to sparkling, as well as the top-flight junmai ginjo, genshu and daiginjo. There are more than 350 selections on the wine list and 30 wines by the glass, heavy on offerings of Napa Cabernet and Burgundy as well as sushi-friendlier options of Chablis, Champagne and German Riesling.
MUSTARDS GRILL7399 St. Helena Highway, Yountville
Telephone (707) 944-2424
Open Lunch and dinner, daily
This lively roadside diner attracts both locals and tourists with its hearty American fare and impressive wine list. Chef-owner Cindy Pawlcyn defined wine-country casual when she opened Mustards in 1983, relying on farm-to-table ingredients from local purveyors and the restaurant's on-site garden. The checkerboard floor and hardwood accents make this an unpretentious setting, surrounded by the vineyards of Yountville.
Pawlcyn's approach is thoughtful and imaginative. "Sorry, everything is delicious," declares the menu, which is infused with global flavors such as smoky barbecued ribs with raisin slaw, herb-marinated rabbit and a daily-changing seafood tostada. Favorites include the grilled Mongolian pork chop with tangy hoisin marinade and a healthy dollop of Chinese-style mustard. And it's hard to resist an order of crisply fried onion rings sliced paper-thin and piled high, served with tomato-apple ketchup.
Mustards' wine list, titled "Way Too Many Wines," is extensive, with more than 50 half-bottles alone, mostly focusing on local producers. The cellar covers the breadth of Napa, ranging from moderately priced wines such as the Chappellet Chardonnay Napa Valley 2014 to collectibles such as Opus One Napa Valley 2013.
PRESS587 St. Helena Highway, St. Helena
Telephone (707) 967-0550
Open Dinner, Wednesday to Monday
Napa is Cabernet Sauvignon country, and this upscale steak house is the ideal place to soothe a craving for bone-in rib eye and a Napa Cabernet.
Steaks are grilled on almond and cherry wood, lending a sweet and savory flavor to the impressive selection of dry-aged beef, which ranges from an 8-ounce filet mignon to a 38-ounce porterhouse. There are also lamb, pork chops and fish, along with decadent side dishes such as creamed spinach with crispy shallots, and truffle mac 'n' cheese.
The interior, designed by architect Howard Backen, one of the valley's leading winery designers, is like a luxuriously relaxed country estate, with cathedral ceilings, an antique train clock above the fireplace and soft pendant lights dangling above the tables.
The wine cellar alone is reason enough to visit Press. Backen designed a display worthy of a museum, showcasing the 15,000-bottle cellar through glass walls. With 1,500 selections, the list is a superlative collection that's exclusively Napa, offering solid verticals of Colgin, Dunn, Frog's Leap, Joseph Phelps and more. There are bottles for every budget, from Joel Gott Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Gott 12 2012 to Inglenook Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley F-10 1958 ($3,500).
REDD6480 Washington St., Yountville
Telephone (707) 944-2222
Open Lunch, Friday to Sunday; dinner, daily
Richard Reddington recently remodeled the 90-seat dining room of his 12-year-old Redd in Yountville, changing the once-white walls and airy feeling into a warmer, more elegant setting with gray and wood tones. What hasn't changed are the quality and consistency of the food, which makes Redd a favorite among local vintners as well as visitors. Reddington, formerly of Auberge du Soleil, also owns Redd Wood pizzeria in Yountville. At Redd, he crafts seasonal menus with flair from his French training and worldly travels, blending influences from Asia and beyond. Staple items include glazed pork belly with apple puree, burdock and soy caramel, and Petrale sole on creamy jasmine rice, with clams, chorizo and saffron-curry broth.
It's sophisticated comfort food that's wine-friendly. The wine list is broad, with a hefty medley of Napa Cabernet, including Wine Spectator's 2016 Wine of the Year, Lewis Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2014, and big names and hard-to-find wines from other regions, such as the splurge-worthy Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage 2012.
THE RESTAURANT AT MEADOWOOD900 Meadowood Lane, St. Helena
Telephone (707) 967-1205
Open Dinner, Tuesday to Saturday
Food-and-wine pairing has become de rigueur in high-end restaurants, but Meadowood takes it to another level, creating a synergy that connects the garden to the wineglass.
Chef Christopher Kostow's food is artful and delicately complex, relying on the restaurant's 3-acre garden; vegetables, herbs and fruit, typically picked the day they are served, bring remarkable freshness and purity to the dishes. An ethereal salted mackerel escabeche comes with winter vegetables; savory asparagus custard with miner's lettuce and caviar tastes like spring.
Everything about a meal at Meadowood is intimate. There are only 12 tables in the dining room, which has a tall, raftered ceiling and offers window views of the resort's lush landscape. Kostow's tasting menu includes 10 to 12 courses, and it may puzzle some guests that a written menu is not presented until after the meal. The idea is to allow the chef and his capable staff to tailor the experience to the diner. With such pampering and attention to detail, it comes as no surprise that the 10- or 11-course prix fixe menu costs $330.
Manager Nathaniel Dorn and wine director Victoria Kulinich are passionate about wine and have built an impressive cellar stocked with more than 2,030 selections. Although a list is offered at the beginning of the meal, about 60 percent of guests rely on a wine-pairing option ($250). Recent examples include lamb neck with mustard flower marrow matched with Dalla Valle Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2001, and Domaine Vacheron Sancerre Le Pavé 2013 with the mackerel escabeche and winter vegetables.
The cellar is strong in Burgundy but truly excels in older Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, with verticals of Inglenook back to 1946 and Beaulieu Vineyard Georges de Latour to 1960. Prices are high, with Opus One Napa Valley 1997 selling for $1,125.
SOLBAR755 Silverado Trail N., Calistoga
Telephone (866) 942-7442
Open Breakfast, lunch and dinner, daily
Award of Excellence
It's easy to relax at Solbar, nestled in the heart of the Solage resort. The dining room is airy and modern, with a palette of pastel hues, and a large bar area adjoins it. In warmer months, a retractable wall of windows opens to a courtyard fronting the pool area, where meals can also be taken. The waitstaff is friendly and informative.
Executive chef Massimo Falsini, a native of Rome, has recently taken over the kitchen and has revamped the menu to include plates inspired by his homeland, which join selections focused on the bounty of California. What was formerly lean, spa-driven cuisine is now more robust.
Falsini's roots come through with rich and decadent agnolotti in carbonara accented by prosciutto di Parma and Pecorino Romano. Representing Northern California are dishes like crisped Mt. Lassen trout accompanied by a globe artichoke confit that is savory without being overpowering. Portions are generous.
The wine list, compiled by sommelier Scott Turnbull, is imaginative and at times playful: A selection of Calistoga wines titled "A Stone's Throw" includes Storybook Mountain Zinfandel Napa Valley Mayacamas Range 2012. The list also groups wines by user-friendly categories such as hearty reds and aromatic whites, and there's a well-priced selection of half-bottles, wines on tap and wines by the glass.
Combining a refined setting with Falsini's flavorful, still-developing menu, Solbar is the top dining choice in Calistoga.