This article was excerpted from "Downtown Renaissance" in the Sept. 30, 2017, issue of Wine Spectator. Read the full article for more details on the city of Napa's redevelopment, buy a back issue or order a digital edition.
For years, there were two Napas: Napa Valley, the swank wine destination, and the city of Napa, a sleepy town with empty storefronts that visitors drove past on their way to the vineyards.
A recent surge in development has helped turn things around. Downtown is thriving, with festivals, popular restaurants, stylish wine bars, dozens of tasting rooms and an increasing number of hotel beds. It has gone from being an afterthought to qualifying as a destination. Visitors to Napa Valley numbered 3.5 million in 2016, and nearly 70 percent of them ventured to the city.
The changes began in 1996 when famed Napa vintner Robert Mondavi invested in 12 acres along an oxbow-shaped curve on the Napa River to become home to Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts, which opened in 2001. While the ambitious cultural center struggled to find an audience and eventually shuttered, it drew attention to the city and spurred other development in the district.
The Oxbow Public Market—which opened next door in 2008 with artisanal food and specialty shops, restaurants and a wine bar under one roof—has become the de facto town square, mobbed with people eating oysters, sipping wine, shopping for spices and sampling ice cream.
Soon after, the Westin Verasa—the city's first luxury hotel—opened in the Oxbow District, housing Wine Spectator Grand Award-winning restaurant La Toque.
Now the former Copia has a gained a new lease on life, reopening this year as a branch of the Culinary Institute of America, hosting public classes and seminars, along with wine tastings in the lobby, a gift shop and a restaurant.
What gave the city's modern redevelopment its critical mass was a shared vision, with local investors following in Mondavi's footsteps with mixed-use projects such as the Hatt Building, a renovation of a 19th-century mill, and the large Riverfront development.
As new buildings went up and older ones were renovated, a dining scene took shape. French restaurant Angèle opened in the Hatt Building in 2002. Around the same time, local chef Greg Cole of Celadon opened a steak house called Cole's Chop House in a restored building. And at the Riverfront, Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto opened Morimoto Napa. A sushi restaurant in Cabernet country seemed like an oddity. But today, two new Asian-inspired restaurants are among the most buzzed-about in town: Miminashi, a popular and energetic izakaya eatery, and Kenzo, a 27-seat high-end sushi restaurant with a $225-per-person menu.
Napa is also bustling with tasting rooms and wine bars. The first was Bounty Hunter, which opened in 2005 with a distinctive Wild West feel and barbecue menu. Now, Bounty Hunter is looking to break ground on a four-story expanded version on an empty lot nearby. Down the street, tucked away in an alley, is Cadet, a modern wine bar with an eclectic mix of bottles, prosciutto cut to order and a vinyl record player.
With antigrowth regulations making it difficult for wineries to establish new tasting rooms amid the vineyards, some have ventured downtown to open venues, including John Anthony, Vermeil and Vintner's Collective, the latter a "multitasting room" pouring wines from more than two dozen brands, such as Parallel, Azur and Buoncristiani. Tasting rooms and restaurants lean towards the casual and comfortable, in contrast to some of the white-tablecloth places up-valley; businesses have realized that in order to survive, they must appeal to the locals, and for the time being, Napa's blue-collar roots remain.
A geographic overview of the venues featured in this article. (Click for a full-size image.)
One of the big draws for downtown is music, including the three-day Bottle Rock music festival, which draws marquee names, at the end of May. The rest of the year, there's live music seven nights a week between venues such as the Uptown Theatre (restored by locals including Francis Ford Coppola), Silo's at the Hatt Building, and Blue Note Napa, housed in the former Napa Valley Opera House.
Despite a slow start to the revitalization efforts and many ups and downs, downtown Napa is now buzzing with activity. It is more developed and pedestrian-friendly than it once was, with upgraded sidewalks, a river promenade, pocket parks and Victorian-style streetlights with hanging flower baskets. A new Rail Arts District features colorful murals near the rail line, compliments of the new owners of the Napa Valley Wine Train.
"First Street Napa", a $200 million district redevelopment that spans three city blocks, is slated to add more than 45 shops and restaurants to the area and will be anchored by a 183-room Archer Hotel. The hotel—which will have a rooftop bar, a ledge pool with private cabanas, and a Charlie Palmer Steak restaurant—is expected to open this year, with retail and mixed-use spaces opening in phases.
Many more projects are on the horizon, including a handful of smaller hotels and a new public plaza. One of the city's oldest standing buildings, the Borreo Building at the corner of Third Street and Soscol Avenue, is being transformed into a Stone Brewing gastropub.
One of the most recent additions downtown is a sculpture at the center of a small new park besides the river. The 11-and-a-half-foot arch memorializes China Point, which was home to hundreds of Chinese immigrants who lived along the river until a fire destroyed the community in 19902. It's an example of how Napans have embraced their river and their history as they look to the future.
Angèle is the brainchild of Bettina Rouas and her father, Claude Rouas, who built Auberge du Soleil in Rutherford. Inside, the restaurant has a romantic French-countryside feel, with wooden rafters on the ceiling. Outside, there is a large riverfront patio, popular when the weather is nice. The menu is part comfort food, part seasonal French cuisine, with fried deviled eggs accented with herbes de Provence, a classic steak tartare, bone marrow, duck rillettes, escargots, and steamed mussels in wine and saffron. The wine list offers 200 selections split between France and California.
Basalt holds an enviable position, occupying a large, airy space at the north end of the Riverfront development. There's an energetic, crossroads feeling to the polished concrete, high ceiling, wrought metal and wooden tables.
Chef Nick Sherman took over the kitchen last fall and has changed the cuisine to one rich in stalwart meat and fish entrées notable for the freshness of their flavors. Appetizers include a silky burrata with rapini pesto, and an ahi tuna poke with a good snap from a chile ponzu. One of the best burgers in town is served here, well-charred and topped with just the right amount of gruyère.
The tidy, well-chosen wine list is dominated by Northern California, with some French and Italian offerings. The 11 wines on tap are served by the glass, half-liter or full-liter, with selections such as Hendry Zinfandel Napa Valley 2014 ($36 for a half-liter) and Bonny Doon Vin Gris de Cigar Rosé 2016 ($11 a glass).
Bistro Don Giovanni, on the northern outskirts of town just off Highway 29, is a favored haunt for local vintners and visitors alike. In the summer, opt for a table on the patio for an inspiring vineyard view. Inside, a wood-burning fireplace and flower-filled vases help soften the bustle of the dining room. Italian dishes are the specialty of Genoese chef Paolo Laboa. A crunchy fritto misto gains savory notes from fennel, onions and green beans, while ravioli filled with spinach and pecorino are topped with a fresh tomato sauce. (A lemon cream sauce is also available.) California and Italy dominate the reasonably priced wine list, which includes two dozen smartly chosen wines by the glass, such as Frank Family Petite Sirah Napa Valley 2013 ($14).
Bounty Hunter is part wine bar, part retail shop, and at heart, a lively barbecue mecca. With exposed-brick walls and a tin ceiling, Bounty Hunter's whimsical cowboy decor includes various game trophy heads, and some tables have leather saddles for seats. The menu is focused on barbecue, with smoked beef brisket, racks of ribs and the signature beer-can chicken—a whole free-range bird that comes to the table perched on a Tecate can. There are also smaller plates such as cheese, charcuterie and a pimento cheese dip.
The wine list is among the most comprehensive in town, a binder full of 400 wines by the bottle, 40 by the glass and plenty of tasting flights. California cult brands such as Harlan and Marcassin are available, and there are also blue-chip European names such as Guigal and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.
Cadet is a trendy place to sip on something old or new, unique or classic, and even throw on your favorite vinyl record. Colleen Fleming, whose family founded Kelly Fleming Wines, and Aubrey Bailey, a former sommelier at the French Laundry, have created an inviting and modern atmosphere with a mixture of blues, grays and beiges blending with reclaimed wood and brass light fixtures. The wine list is constantly evolving and is an exploration in diversity, with offerings such as a Turley Vineyards Cinsault from Lodi, hard-to-find and library selections such as older vintages of Spottswoode, and cult classics such as Saxum's Broken Stones. The list leans heavily on California and France, including a hefty dose of Champagne, but also includes 50 or so rare and interesting bottled beers and ciders. Cheese, charcuterie (including prosciutto cut to order) and other nibbles are available.
Carpe Diem is a comfortable and relaxed venue with soft lighting that creates a sense of privacy. The 250-selection wine list is divided into "Here" and "There" selections, with the "Here" wines showcasing an insider's view of Napa with bottlings from Melka, Dunn, Matthiasson and Coup de Foudre, while "There" wines include selections from Spain, Italy and France. The menu choices are hearty, from the ostrich burger ("Carpe style" adds duck egg and crisp pancetta) to flatbreads, cheese and charcuterie to the "Quack n' Cheese" dish, in which mac 'n' cheese meets duck confit, caramelized onions and toasted breadcrumbs.
This old-school steak house is a fine fit for Cabernet country, with perfectly cooked dry-aged cuts and classic sides, including creamed spinach, grilled asparagus with Hollandaise, and crispy hash browns. It's the only place in town where you can start your meal with oysters Rockefeller and finish with a flaming bananas Foster dessert. The experience is elevated by the setting, in a building that dates to 1886, with rough stone walls and wooden floors.
The wine list includes a generous selection of nearly 100 wines by the glass and the exciting opportunity to get small pours of some of the world's most sought-after wines, like a 1-ounce pour of Screaming Eagle 2012 ($48), 2 ounces of Domaine de La Romanée-Conti La Tâche 2007 ($168) and 3 ounces of Harlan 2012 ($246). The rest of the list is anchored in robust reds, with Napa Valley Cabernets organized by subappellation.
The JaM Cellars tasting room is a hip addition to the wine-tasting scene. There's plenty of music paraphernalia, including a disco ball, hanging guitars and a wall festooned with Rolling Stone magazine covers. A separate room doubles as a recording studio. Founders John and Michele Truchard—the J and M in JaM—have found a way to blend their lineup of everyday wines with their love of music. (JaM is one of the sponsors of the Bottle Rock music festival.)
Guests can enjoy tasting flights or order by the glass or bottle. The tasting room is open late and features live music regularly. It offers wines from both JaM Cellars and the Truchards' partnership with Smith Devereux Wines, along with several private-label bottlings for musicians such as Brett Dennen and Mat Kearney. To accompany the wines, food can be ordered from Tarla Restaurant next-door.
Inspired by the pintxos bars of northern Spain, La Taberna is an ideal place to relax with a glass of wine and a bite. The restaurant's industrial aesthetic is softened by the gray-and-white-tiled front bar and a daily menu handwritten on a chalkboard. Dishes include jamón Iberico, crunchy pig ear and a rotating selection of empanadas and crudos, and most run $6 to $10. There's a tidy list of about 60 wines, with most bottles under $50, and plenty of Sherry choices, from finos and manzanillas to amontillados and olorosos.
See Destination Dining for more details.
Chef Curtis Di Fede was one of the founders of Italian restaurant Oenotri, but he has taken a dramatically different tack with the hottest new restaurant in town: an izakaya called Miminashi. Di Fede was inspired by his travels to Japan, and his passion for Japanese culture shows in every detail. The wooden doors at the entry are carved with hundreds of mini Mount Fujis. The dramatic interior wood walls and ceiling are reminiscent of pagodas.
The food may be Japanese, but this isn't a sushi joint—the ever-changing menu's focus is on small plates oozing with umami. A seemingly simple lettuce salad has a savory garlic-miso dressing. Crunchy corn fritters have shiso, nori and Japanese mayo. A fluffy, eggy pancake called okonomiyaki might be topped with kimchi and trout. There's ramen and fried rice with pork belly.
The yakitori, however, is the heart of the menu. An open-flame grill operates in one corner, where dozens of skewered items are cooked—from chicken skin, wishbone or heart to maitake mushrooms, short ribs and salmon collar. For dessert, the Japanese-style soft-serve ice cream comes in a rotating list of flavors such as sweet corn or black sesame, and is also sold separately through an adjacent walk-up window from the street.
Wine director (and Di Fede's fiancée) Jessica Pinzon offers 100 solid selections, most under $75, with food-friendly finds such as Cataldi Madonna Pecorino 2015 ($39), from Sicily, and Jean-Paul Brun Gamay 2014 ($52).
See Destination Dining for more details.
Oenotri strikes a balance between serious, precise Italian food and relaxed wine-country atmosphere. The simple dining room has views of the kitchen and the wood-burning pizza oven. There's also courtyard seating.
The menu's strengths include handmade pastas, house-made salumi and wood-fired pizzas. Items listed in bold indicate ingredients grown in the restaurant's own garden. Deceptively simple pasta dishes such as cacio e pepe or lumache with pork ragù are executed with finesse. The pizzas are among the best in the area; look for the pie with nettles and garlic cream. The separate salumi menu has nearly 30 types of cured meats and patés, taking inspiration from all over Italy, including the sardegna, flavored with ginger, saffron and grappa, or a siciliano made with wild Sicilian fennel seed and mace. Secondi are typically hearty, such as the fried rabbit leg with roasted leeks.
The wine list boasts 450 selections, a good number of them midpriced and under $100, including plenty of offerings from Italy, many coming from lesser-known wine regions.
Temporarily closed until early 2018 for renovations
1313 opened its doors in 2010 as a wine bar, later transforming into a restaurant, a reflection of the multiple wine interests of owner Al Jabarin. The wine list is filled with treasures from Napa, Burgundy, Germany and Italy, with many older and rarer selections from local sources, including Diamond Creek Gravelly Meadow Napa Valley 1977 ($600). The sleek interior, featuring dark wood paneling and cork flooring, has recently been expanded to include more seating for dining. Chef Adam Ross delivers a focused menu, including hearty dishes such as Dungeness crab risotto. A stylish bar is a good perch from which to enjoy wine flights or single glasses. There's also a patio open in summer. 1313 is a showcase for some of Napa's best wines but with enough bottles from the Old World to provide perspective.
Chef Sean O'Toole named his restaurant Torc in homage to his Celtic roots; the name means "boar" in Gaelic. The ambitious menu is built around a farm-to-table concept, and yes, there is pork. A pork belly dish is topped with crunchy pork rind. A tiny roasted squab is accented with morels and pork "lasagna." Other dishes are equally well-executed, such as locally grown asparagus with mandarin sections and a light Parmesan tuile. There are about 250 wines to choose from, half of them Californian, with a strong international selection as well. There are compact verticals, including Marcassin Pinot Noir, Cayuse, and Colgin. The setting is industrial chic, with high ceilings, exposed metal beams and stone walls. Service is attentive.
Vintner's Collective offered a different take on the traditional tasting-room concept when it opened in 2002 in one of Napa's oldest commercial buildings, dating to 1875. The wines on offer come from 24 producers who do not otherwise have tasting rooms, which gives wine lovers a chance to sample the wares of Roy Estate, Parallel and Azur, among others. The friendly staff will guide you to three different tasting options, from a six-wine flight ($40) to a more in-depth look at wines paired with cheese, charcuterie and chocolate ($95).