Most people come to Napa Valley in Northern California to sample great wine. But because fine wine pairs nicely with great food, because the same soil that yields such tasty grapes also helps grow some of the best produce anywhere on Earth, the area has become popular for restaurants, too.
This means that visitors to the area can sample dishes from some of the best chefs on Earth: Thomas Keller, Masaharu Morimoto and Christopher Kostow, to name a few. It also means that more casual eateries -- neighborhood bakeries and taco shops alike -- sell food that you’ll be talking about for weeks. On your next trip to Napa, take the time to explore some of the valley’s very best dining experiences. Just be sure to arrive hungry.
America has plenty of great restaurants, but none is as storied or revered as the French Laundry. Located in a turn-of-the-century stone building that once served as a steam laundry in Yountville, the 17-table, 62-seat restaurant notched its 20th anniversary in 2014. It celebrated by expanding the gardens from which chef Thomas Keller and his staff obtain their herbs and vegetables. The food is mainly French with contemporary influences; the culinary team serves two different nine-course tasting menus every night. These menus change daily, and neither uses the same ingredient more than once. Dinners here have been known to last anywhere from 3 to 5 hours each. The restaurant also is open for lunch Friday through Sunday.
A spacious patio with fire pits and an inviting dining room bathed in natural light characterize the experience at this Calistoga restaurant, located on the grounds of the Solage Calistoga resort. Chef Brandon Sharp has crafted a menu that features his own take on soul food, which, depending on the time of year, might include dishes such as duck confit hash for breakfast, slow-roasted pork-shoulder crepes for lunch, and mushroom-filled crispy squash blossoms for dinner. Throughout the year, the eatery hosts family-style alfresco meals, too.
Simplicity is the name of the game at this northern Yountville restaurant, which sat as a ramshackle grocery store until its 2013 rebirth as an Italian eatery. The daily, handwritten menu spotlights homemade pizzas and pastas; occasionally, it will feature locally sourced (and produced) charcuterie as well. Also of note: a full and varied Negroni bar. Perhaps the only potential downside to Ciccio is that it doesn’t take reservations, a reality that often creates an hour-long wait. Our advice? Go early. And drink.
Food and wine pairings are the specialty at this downtown Napa restaurant. Chef Ken Frank works closely with sommeliers to make sure that each and every dish on the eatery’s multiple-course tasting menus works perfectly with a local (or, sometimes, French) wine. Foodies also celebrate La Toque for its contraband -- the sale of foie gras was banned in California in 2012, but Frank is a vocal advocate of the product and has been known to offer the delicacy as an amuse-bouche or a (free) extra on some of the most popular entrees.
The Restaurant at Meadowood
The Restaurant at Meadowood
Chef Christopher Kostow has amassed a cult following in the Napa Valley in recent years, and for good reason -- he has transformed the on-site restaurant at this St. Helena luxury resort into one of the best dining experiences in the country. (It's one of only 10 restaurants in America to earn 3 stars from the Michelin Guide.) Kostow specializes in über-local ingredients, procuring everything from vegetables to shellfish to meat from producers within 20-30 miles of the dining room. The restaurant even has worked with local potters to create one-of-a-kind dishware. Plan to spend awhile when you dine; menus offer choices between 8-10 courses or 15-20 courses (for $225 and $500, respectively).
The rule of thumb in Northern California is that the most authentic Mexican food usually comes from food trucks. This upscale eatery on Main Street in St. Helena bucks that trend. Here, in a sky-colored dining room that engenders peace, traditional dishes such as huitlacoche huarache and ceviche taste as fresh as they likely do in Mexico City. Adventuresome eaters line up to sample fried cricket tacos; the dish isn’t on the menu, but executive chef Chris Mortenson gets the bugs two or three days each week. Be sure to wash down your meal with a scoop or 2 of homemade ice cream. Depending on the season, flavor choices might include bosc pear and agave or dulce de leche.
Locals flock to this unpretentious and cozy restaurant on the west side of downtown Napa for ethnic comfort food and a hearty dose of conversation. On any given night, you might find yourself talking to legendary local winemakers such as John Kongsgaard, John Shafer, Lee Hudson, David Graves, Emma Swain, Jon Engelskirger or Julie Williams (to name a few). Regulars rave about the simple stuff: fresh tomato grilled cheese with basil, Mexican street corn on the cob, and the steak and fish tacos (served on homemade tortillas). Servers usually waive the corkage fee on local wines, too; all you have to do is ask.
Even the wine capital of California has a craft-cocktail scene, and this St. Helena restaurant is front and center. Mixology superstar Scott Beattie built the drink program to incorporate locally distilled spirits and locally grown herbs and spices. The result: new twists on old standards such as the Old Fashioned, Sazerac and more. Food at the "G&G" is reliable, too -- downstairs, in what amounts to a straight-out-of-London-style pub, juicy and hulking hamburgers are some of the best in the valley. On warm days, grab a seat on the open-air patio under the giant black oak out front.
When chef Masaharu Morimoto -- aka the Iron Chef -- opened his downtown Napa restaurant in 2010, he set out to bring the freshest fish in the Bay Area to one of the region’s foodie hot spots. Not surprisingly, then, the sushi and sashimi menus here fulfill this goal admirably. In winter, the star of the show is fresh-caught Dungeness crab, which fishermen harvest from waters just beyond the San Francisco Bay. Locals also swear by the popcorn shrimp, which marry firm-yet-tender shellfish with a light and crispy breading and tangy, complex sauces. Dessert is always whimsical, too -- try the s’more with smoked soy chocolate mousse.
We admit it: This is more of a bakery than a restaurant. But considering the freshly prepared sandwiches, pizzas and egg dishes available at the St. Helena flagship location, “The Model” deserves a spot on this list. Over the years, the brand has become world-famous for its English muffins, a wine country spin on the traditional recipe that results in bread that is buttery, chewy, crispy and light, all at the same time. While these items usually sell out early, it pays to wait to swing by -- under something called the "locals' discount," all bread is half-price after 3 pm.