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Dining in Napa Valley

Posted: June 6, 2001

Dining in Napa Valley

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As Napa Valley's wines have evolved, so has its dining, and no matter where you are in the valley, a satisfying meal is only minutes away. Napa's burgeoning fine wine community and glorious countryside have inspired many talented chefs to come to this formerly simple, now highly sophisticated rural environment. It's a place where fresh ingredients and a hungry, discerning audience make cooking a worthwhile and rewarding challenge.

In a sense, Napa Valley is an extension of San Francisco, where the meeting of Europe and Asia has created a wonderful blend of culinary sensibilities. It's not uncommon to find classic French sauces on the same menu with lemongrass and wasabi.

Wherever you dine, it's a good idea to make dinner reservations a few weeks in advance if possible. Summertime traffic at the better restaurants can be brisk. Remember that Napa Valley is more casual than the big city. People like to dress up in a kind of upscale West Coast chic, but most don't bother with ties and jackets. This is, after all, farm country -- it's just that the farmers are now winemakers.

Restaurants in Calistoga

All Seasons Cafe
1400 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga
Telephone (707) 942-9111
Open Dinner, daily; lunch, Thursday to Tuesday
Cost Entrées $12 to $22
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard
Best of Award of Excellence

At All Seasons Cafe, a casually chic, old-time Calistoga atmosphere meets up with some of the best in contemporary Calistoga cuisine. The artfully prepared Mediterranean-inspired meals here are as pleasing to the eye as they are to the palate, offering both substance and finesse. Don't worry about finding the right wine to accompany your meal. All Seasons, both a restaurant and wine shop, boasts one of the best wine lists in Napa Valley. In addition to a fine roster of California and other West Coast selections, there is an impressive array of Burgundies to choose from. The list also features some 60 aged California wines going back to the 1960s, all quite reasonably priced. Current releases won't set you back either, with a markup of only $10 over retail.

Brannan's Grill
1374 Lincoln St., Calistoga
Telephone (707) 942-2233
Open Lunch & dinner, daily
Cost Entrées $17 to $32
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard, American Express

Named for the founding father of Calistoga, Sam Brannan, Brannan's Grill is a relatively recent addition to the city's dining scene. With tiled floors and lots of carved wood, the spacious interior can be a bit noisy, but it is also quite attractive. Come here if you're hungry, for portions are large. The menu offers a diverse "comfort food" theme, with hearty, robust entrées like wild mushroom and gnocci ragout and smoked pork shop. The appetizers, however, generally lack the finesse of the main courses. The Napa-heavy wine list offers resonable prices and ample selections of most varietals, but is lacking in vintage depth.

1457 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga
Telephone (707) 942-2275
Website www.catahoularest.com
Open Breakfast & lunch, Friday to Sunday; dinner, daily
Cost Entrées $17 to $24
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard, Discover

Chef-owner Jan Birnbaum's Louisiana-tinged cooking lights up the tongue with the right mix of spice, herbs and fantasy. Catahoula is a fun place to eat, casually elegant and bubbling with happy diners who can't get enough of the andouille sausage and onion marmalade pizza or tequila-cured salmon. Crispy fried catfish or roasted chicken with acorn squash are both good main course options. The wine list focuses on recent Napa Valley bottlings. The restaurant serves a simpler lunch menu and big, Southern-influenced breakfasts on weekends.

Palisades Market
1506 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga
Telephone (707) 942-9549
Open Daily, 7:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard, American Express

Snacks, sandwiches, produce, prepared foods and a nice little selection of wines can all be found at this Calistoga store. Get your entire picnic right here. Take-out only.

Wappo Bar Bistro
1226B Washington St., Calistoga
Telephone (707) 942-4712
Website www.wappobar.com
Open Lunch & dinner, Wednesday to Sunday
Cost Entreés $12 to $20
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard, American Express
Award of Excellence

Wappo is like a big country farmhouse, hidden just a few yards away from the main street in downtown Calistoga. Its large patio, sheltered by an enormous grape arbor, provides a perfect setting for alfresco dining. Husband-and-wife chef-owners Aaron Bauman and Michelle Mutrux have traveled widely, and the kitchen here is "globally" influenced, with hints of Brazil, Mexico, Asia, France and India. Portions are copious, but flavors are delicate, featuring such items as Lamb Shank Tagine with raisins, fava beans, coriander and harissa. The wine list is eclectic, with many good choices to fit the food, if a bit lacking in vintage depth; if you'd like to bring your own bottle, corkage here is just $8.50.

Restaurants in St. Helena

Brava Terrace
3010 N. St. Helena Hwy. (Route 29), St. Helena
Telephone (707) 963-9300
Open Lunch & dinner, daily (closed Wednesdays from Nov. to April)
Cost Moderate to expensive
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover, Diners Club

Located just north of downtown St. Helena -- and right next door to the Freemark Abbey Winery -- Brava Terrace offers a wide variety of dishes, from fresh, simple sandwiches to more ambitious main courses such as osso buco, baby back ribs and grilled pork tenderloin with mustard greens and shiitake mushrooms.

Dean & DeLuca
607 S. St. Helena Hwy. (Route 29), St. Helena
Telephone (707) 967-9980
Open Monday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Espresso bar opens 8 a.m. daily.
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover

Those who know the New York gourmet food store will feel right at home in this hangarlike, Gotham-style specialty foods and wine shop. Aside from the espresso bar, it's take-out only -- cheeses, sandwiches, charcuterie and other prepared foods.

The Restaurant at Meadowood
900 Meadowood Lane, St. Helena
Telephone (707) 963-3646 or (800) 458-8080
Website www.meadowood.com
Open Dinner, daily; brunch, Sunday
Cost Entreés $18 to $25
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover, Diners Club, Carte Blanche
Award of Excellence

Many people think that only Meadowood Resort guests come to this exclusive enclave, which features intimate, contemporary rural elegance, an inventive Franco-California cuisine and excellent service. Au contraire. Meadowood's restaurant is open to the public, offering a taste of discreetly fashioned Napa Valley glamour. The extensive Napa Valley wine list is quite reasonably priced and lists many of the region's latest, most interesting releases. There is modest vintage depth as well, for those curious to see how Napa Cabernet, for example, can age.

The Model Bakery
1357 Main St., St. Helena
Telephone (707) 963-8192
Open Tuesday to Saturday, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sunday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard

Located in downtown St. Helena, this frisky little place makes some of the best breads in the area, as well as top-notch biscotti, pastries and espresso drinks. Not all snacks are sweet; try the sandwiches or the small pizzas, which can be enjoyed at room temperature -- just like bakery pizza in France. It is difficult not to eavesdrop on local gossip here, as everyone who's anyone comes by for a "quick one" during the day. Stick around or take out.

Pinot Blanc
641 Main St., St. Helena
Telephone (707) 963-6191
Open Lunch & dinner, daily
Cost Entrées $15 to $27
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover, Diners Club, JCB

The creation of famed Los Angeles chef Joachim Splichal, Pinot Blanc has shaped its culinary identity around sophisticated cooking served with a touch of humor. Entries on the menu include "high-cholesterol foie gras with honey-thyme roasted quince" and "soup of yesterday." But the execution is nothing but serious, with attentive service and presentation backed by dishes brimming with flavor. Splichal calls his restaurant a country bistro, and in fact, selections such as oxtail potpie and duck confit with French lentils fit the description. But there is also great refinement as well as variety, from the seafood to grilled meats. A good selection of California wines is available to complement any meal here. Those seeking a French fix will find a number of interesting aged Bordeaux and Burgundies to wet their whistles.

1345 Railroad Ave., St. Helena
Telephone (707) 963-8931
Open Dinner, Wednesday to Sunday
Cost Entrées $17 to $25
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard, Diners Club, Carte Blanche
Award of Excellence

At this handsome, stone-walled restaurant, France meets Japan with an end run around Italy and Eastern Europe. The results of this commingling of culinary culture include some of the more innovative dishes in the valley. Openers include smoked salmon and potato latkes, tataki of tuna with fresh greens and wasabi tobiko, and a petit ragout of sweetbreads with white truffle oil. Follow that with tripe stew and spaghettini or sake-marinated sea bass. Then finish with the cheese course or an orange risotto. There are plenty of good California wines to accompany each course, with a special section of the list devoted to top-notch reds from the 1980s. There is also a smattering of French wines.

1016 Main St., St. Helena
Telephone (707) 967-9999
Open Daily, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Cost Entrées $6 to $18
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard, Discover, Diners Club

A fine place to chow down or simply sip an espresso, Tomatina offers good wood oven-baked pizzas, a decent Caesar salad, smooth polenta, excellent pasta and other Italianesque staples. The atmosphere is very casual; wine is served in tumblers. But winemakers who come here will probably be drinking beer, served in large pitchers at long tables, where the food comes family style.

Tra Vigne
1050 Charter Oak Ave., St. Helena
Telephone (707) 963-4444
Open Lunch & dinner, daily
Cost Entrées $14 to $20
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard, Diners Club

Founding chef and co-owner Michael Chiarello has created a serene, Tuscan environment at Tra Vigne -- both inside the villa and outside on the open-air garden patio. Even the menu is in Italian (with English subtitles). The cooking is refreshingly creative, yet simple and traditional. Antipasti, pasta, pizza, grilled meats and fish hold sway. A well-constructed wine list features mostly Napa Valley wines, with a salute to Italy. Extended hours make Tra Vigne convenient for off-hour drop-ins.

Wine Spectator Greystone Restaurant
2555 Main St. (Route 29), St. Helena
Telephone (707) 967-1010
Open Lunch & dinner, daily
Cost Entrées $15 to $28
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover, Diners Club
Award of Excellence

Located in the century-old former Christian Brothers Greystone winery -- now the western campus of the Culinary Institute of America -- Wine Spectator Greystone Restaurant offers a dining experience enhanced by Napa Valley history. Although it is run by the Culinary Institute, the Mediterranean-style cuisine at Greystone is prepared by professionals in three open cooking areas that feature the latest in both traditional and modern cooking technologies. Try the tapas (little Spanish plates) for starters. Larger, grilled whole fish, glazed breast of duck or braised lamb shank make fine main courses. On the wine front, a fairly extensive California list features current releases from many of the state's best producers. (Wine Spectator does not own or operate the restaurant, but as a donor to the Culinary Institute of America, the Wine Spectator Scholarship Foundation was instrumental in the restaurant's creation.)

Restaurants in Rutherford, Oakville & Yountville

Auberge du Soleil
180 Rutherford Hill Road, Rutherford
Telephone (707) 967-3111
Open Lunch & dinner, daily
Cost Entrées $26 to $36
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard, American Express
Best of Award of Excellence

For atmosphere, no restaurant can top Auberge. This hilltop location in the eponymous hotel affords the most extraordinary view of Napa Valley's vineyard landscape, stretching outward in waves of green. A sunset dinner or afternoon lunch on the terrace balcony is a fine way to capture a seamless blend of visual and culinary delights. Designed with a nod to the French Riviera, Auberge offers a sleek blend of contemporary and traditional design. Its pastel-colored walls and rough-hewn oak beams lend an outdoor feeling to the interior. The restaurant kitchen takes its cue from diverse influences -- French, Spanish, Italian, Moroccan and Asian -- and deftly weaves them. The more-than-600-selection wine list offers a wide variety of labels from Europe and California. Selected tasting flights are available by the glass.

Bistro Jeanty
6510 Washington St., Yountville
Telephone (707) 944-0103
Open Lunch & dinner, daily
Cost Entrées $15 to $25
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard

For over two decades, Philippe Jeanty prepared some of Napa Valley's best meals at Domaine Chandon. In 1998, he opened Bistro Jeanty the prices are considerably lower. Bustling with energy, this upscale French country bistro sports French posters and prints on the walls, with impressive floral selections to enhance the country theme. True to its bistro roots, the restaurant offers hearty, rustic fare -- like an enormous pork chop with caramelized onions. But it also serves more delicately nuanced items such as roasted scallops with a fresh pea sauce. The wine list is short but thoughtfully laid out, with an even mix of selections from California and France.

7377 St. Helena Hwy. (Route 29), Yountville
Telephone (707) 944-2749
Open Lunch & dinner, daily
Cost Entrées $15 to $25
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover, Diners Club, Carte Blanche, JCB
Best of Award of Excellence

Brix takes its name from the word used to measure sugar content in ripening grapes and fermenting wine. The restaurant offers a soothing, understated ambience that contrasts with the dynamic flavors that leap from the plate. Start with coconut seafood "cigares" with sweet-and-sour pineapple chili sauce or tuna nori rolls with wasabi aioli. Mahimahi with roasted banana coconut curry sauce might be a fine follow-up, but items like New York steak are available for more conservative palates. However, this being a land of diverse flavors, it pays to be adventurous.

Domaine Chandon
1 California Drive, Yountville
Telephone (800) 736-2892 or (707) 944-2892
Open Summer: lunch, daily; dinner, Wednesday to Sunday. Winter: lunch & dinner, Wednesday to Sunday
Cost Entrées $24 to $38
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover, Diners Club
Award of Excellence

In 1998, Domaine Chandon's chef of more than 20 years, Philippe Jeanty, left this wonderfully refined restaurant to open his own bistro, also located in Yountville. Executive chef Robert Curry, who worked under Jeanty as chef de cuisine at Domaine Chandon, has taken over as executive chef in what appears to be a smooth transition. The restaurant is as good as ever, still among the best in Napa Valley. Grilled asparagus (which works well with Chandon sparkling wine) is topped with a subtly flavored blood orange dressing. Venison arrives highlighted by a heady huckleberry-Merlot sauce. Also in the French tradition, the restaurant offers a well-conceived cheese platter that puts those of most American restaurants to shame. The cheeses present a fine foil for wines selected from the restaurant's extensive California list. Like the food, the service is tops.

The French Laundry
6640 Washington St., Yountville
Telephone (800) 944-1224 or (707) 944-2380
Open Lunch, Friday to Sunday; dinner, daily; winter schedule changes
Cost Fixed Price dinner $90 to $105
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard, American Express
Best of Award of Excellence

What they say is true. The French Laundry is about as close to dining perfection as it gets. Chef-owner Thomas Keller's wine country temple of gastronomy has culinary acolytes lined up weeks and months in advance. This place is so popular that it has no sign outside, so first-timers should ask for directions. Phoning in for reservations can be challenging, as the line is almost always busy. The best time to call is after 6:30 p.m., because most reservations are made during the day. An excellent way to appreciate Keller's cooking is by ordering the chef's tasting menu, which changes daily. For $80, you get 10 small but delectable courses; a less extensive, vegetarian tasting menu is offered, and à la carte items are also available. Service is outstanding, and the atmosphere strikes a comfortable balance between formal and relaxed. The restaurant's lengthy wine list presents a terrific selection of California and French wines. Plan on three to four hours for dinner.

Gordon's Cafe and Wine Bar
6770 Washington St., Yountville
Telephone (707) 944-8246
Open Tuesday to Saturday, 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sunday, 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; special Friday night dinners
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard, American Express

The refreshing country atmosphere behind Gordon's olive-green facade extends itself to the culinary offerings at this Francophile bakery and charcuterie. Breakfasts feature fresh-baked goods with serious espresso drinks. For lunch, salads, sandwiches, cheeses and quiche tarts grace the counter. Eat in or take out. The wine shop sells a good selection of wines from small, interesting California producers. There is no markup on wines consumed on the premises.

Mustards Grill
7399 St. Helena Hwy. (Route 29), Yountville
Telephone (707) 944-2424
Open Lunch & dinner, daily
Cost Entrées $14 to $29
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard, Discover, Diners Club, Carte Blanche

Mustards is now an old Napa staple, having first opened its doors in June 1983. Yet time has not tamed it, by any means. It hustles, it bustles, and it's probably the noisiest restaurant in the valley. It also serves skillfully prepared, hefty portions of grilled meats and poultry along with more delicately styled appetizers like butternut squash ravioli and smoked salmon with a white corn and chili pancake. Mustards' thin, crispy onion rings are legendary. For all the fun, the mostly American wine list is serious, with a particularly fine selection of California Zinfandels. There is also a long and tempting list of distilled spirits.

Napa Valley Grille
6795 Washington St., Yountville
Telephone (707) 944-8686
Website www.calcafe.com/napavalleygrille/yountville
Open Lunch & dinner, daily; brunch, Sunday
Cost Entrées $13 to $24
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover, Diners Club, Carte Blanche
Best of Award of Excellence

This spacious yet intimate dining room serves up views of the Mayacamas Mountains across the street as well as a Mediterranean-inspired Napa Valley cuisine. An extensive, mostly Napa wine list offers many fine foils for lunch or dinner.

Restaurants in the town of Napa

Bistro Don Giovanni
4110 St. Helena Hwy., Napa
Telephone (707) 224-3300
Open Lunch & dinner, daily
Cost Entrées $12 to $18
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover, Diners Club

This airy, Tuscan-inspired establishment lies at the gateway to wine country. Flavors are pure, simple and savory -- as they are in Italy. Olive oil is the basis for this cuisine, and the sauces for salads and main courses combine both finesse and a robust character. Most pastas are made at the restaurant. Because of its proximity to the city of Napa as well as to the vineyards and wineries, Bistro Don Giovanni is definitely an insider destination, a good place to cast a line when fishing for the latest in wine country intrigue.

1040 Main St., Suite 104, Napa
Telephone (707) 254-9690
Open Lunch, Monday to Friday; dinner, Monday to Saturday
Cost Entrées $14 to $24
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard, American Express
Award of Excellence

Napa city's downtown dining scene -- once dominated by delis and quick street eats -- has improved significantly of late. Celadon, a new upscale establishment that sits on the edge of Napa Creek, is housed in the Napa Exchange Building near the old Opera House and Cine Dome Napa theaters. Chef-owner Greg Cole's dishes often have a spicy side, and while you can order pasta, chicken or steak, you'll also find Asian-inspired mixes of noodles and greens, frog's legs and bountiful salads. The $8 hamburger is the best in town, and when the weather's right you can dine outdoors.

Foothill Cafe
2766 Old Sonoma Road, Napa
Telephone (707) 252-6178
Open Dinner, Wednesday to Sunday
Cost Moderate
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard, American Express

Foothill Cafe has more of the raw character of nearby Sonoma than the polish of Napa. This little hideaway, where local winemakers go to eat well and enjoy their friends' wines, is a casual place. Located at the southern edge of Napa city, the restaurant is really in the Carneros district. The food is gourmet macho -- sophisticated flavors in mammoth portions. The eclectic selection of well-seasoned fish and meat dishes, fresh vegetables and serious desserts has no easy label -- call it "Carneros cuisine." Although Foothill Cafe is only a mile off Route 29, you probably want to call for directions, as the restaurant is tucked inside a small mall outside the usual tourist routes.

1339 Pearl St., Napa
Telephone (707) 224-9161
Website www.therestaurantpearl.com
Open Lunch & dinner, Tuesday through Saturday
Cost Entrées $10 to $19
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard

Pete and Nickie Zeller are the chef-owners of Pearl, located in the old downtown part of Napa. In this casual setting, they create festive meals in a convincing international style. Locals rally around the fresh oysters, seafood, ahi "one way or another" and various specials that change daily. For $5, it's hard to beat the ginger-marinated flank steak tacos with handmade corn tortillas. The wine list is ample, with a refreshing diversity of varietals, and corkage is a modest $9.

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