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Wine Country Dining: Spilled Milk #21
Places to eat, drink & relax in Napa (and beyond)
Wine country in Northern California is a major tourist attraction.
But unlike many others in that populist category, the food (and wine) experience is incredible. It’s hard to find a crappy meal in Napa Valley.
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That presents a different kind of the problem—with so many places to choose from, how can you possibly narrow it down? If you’re heading there anytime soon, I hate to tell you: you’re already too late for a table at the French Laundry (might I suggest Ad Hoc, Bouchon, or waiting in line at Bouchon Bakery instead?) or at any of a dozen of the more famous eateries sprinkled around Napa within a reasonable driving distance.
I like the central location of Napa and I always have work that brings me there. From lecturing at the CIA at Copia to next month’s BottleRock Festivals, where I will get to return to one of the most beautiful spots in America. Rent a car, you will want to explore the area every day, trust me on that.
Here’s where to eat while in the Napa Valley region on a more modest budget. And a few recommenders for some really special meals.
If you go one place in downtown Napa, make it here. Located in the Oxbow District of Napa, this market is the perfect place to shop, eat and drink. The 40,000 square foot marketplace includes a deck overlooking the river, with lots of local local food vendors, artisan cafes and organic producers. I love Hog Island Oysters for seafood; the Fatted Calf for charcuterie and meats; Gott’s for a burger, fries and a shake; and Models for fresh baked breads and pastry.
A fast casual concept with multiple locations (like the one in Oxbow Market), Gott’s gives the classic burger joint the California wine country treatment. Alongside staples like cheeseburgers, fries and shakes, you’ll find ahi, turkey, veggie, and Impossible burgers, fish tacos, salads loaded with colorful, local ingredients, wine, beer and kombucha. If you can, check out the original spot in Saint Helena, CA.
I might get some heat for this: but wow, it’s not easy to find a great breakfast in Napa. Enter Southside, known for its all-day breakfast. Southside’s co-founders Morgan and Irma Robinson draw from their Mexican and California roots to create a menu that seems right at home in wine country. Lots of toasts (not just avocado, but grilled strawberry with mascarpone, tarragon and honey), chilaquiles, and family-style biscuits and gravy. Locals love their Fried Chicken Friday, featuring buttermilk fried chicken to go with sides, biscuits, and a bottle of sparkling wine.
This is simple southern Italian done right. Start with house-made salumi, then thin-crust Neapolitan pizza (a recent offering: pork belly with San Marzano tomato, fennel, goat cheese and pineapple), fresh pastas, and seasonal entrees with produce from their own garden. And order any lamb dish on the menu, the kitchen works magic with that animal.
Open since 2002, this Spanish tavern on Napa’s Main Street continues holding strong as a local favorite. Go with a group and order everything: the boquerones, Iberian ham, roasted beet salad with herb goat cheese, paella del dia… isn’t that the point of tapas?
When you talk to locals working in the wine business—from tasting room staff to grape farmers—they say a meal at R+D Kitchen is where it’s at. R+D isn’t reinventing the wheel, they’re just doing great versions of California favorites. Deviled eggs, kale salads, sushi rolls, a killer crispy chicken sandwich, rotisserie chicken, a flat iron steak with chimichurri and fries and on and on. Solid fare and really reliable.
I love establishments with history, and Oakville Grocery on Highway 29 fits that bill. In operation since 1881, this grocery claims to be the oldest in California. I can’t claim to know if that’s true or not, but I will attest to the quality of their muffulettas and wood-fired pizzas, in addition to incredible olive oils, coffee, baked good and more. For first timers to this part of the state, it’s a must.
Go for a table at Ad Hoc where Thomas Keller’s four-course, family-style dinner menu changes daily. Like almost everything in wine country, it’s casual but still elevated. Dining in here is one of the great delights of the area and a personal favorite of mine. In a rush? The legendary buttermilk fried chicken is currently available for takeout by the bucket. Bring a blanket and a bottle of your beverage of choice and have a kick-ass picnic.
Superb Japanese food from one of the world’s most beloved names in the business. Morimoto bring Japanese flair to wine country with dishes that strike a balance of elegance and fun. Try the gyoza topped with a potato tuile and bacon foam; rock shrimp tempura; braised black cod served with a ginger-soy reduction; and a long menu of nigiri and sashimi offerings. Fresh, delicious and eminently sharable. Great for a group or family.
I don’t drink, but for those that do, visiting tasting rooms gets you access to some of the best wines on the planet—bottles you’re not going to find anywhere else. To try wines from vineyards too small to even have their own tasting rooms, check out Vintners Collective. Housed in a 1875 Italianate building that was once a saloon and brothel, the space is as unique as the wines they pour. Most bottles come from 25-300 case productions (that’s between 300-3,600 bottles total). It’s right in downtown Napa, making it easy to get to…and even easier to grab a bite after because, let’s face it, you’re going to need it.
My favorite restaurant splurges in wine country:
Check these out on line, and make a reservation, you won’t go wrong at any of them. I narrowed it down to 10, and not in any order. These are my go-to spots
· La Toque
What are your favorite places in Napa? Share in the comments!
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