A revitalized downtown, a riverfront renaissance, chic restaurants, and wine-tasting galore—this is definitely not your grandpa’s Napa.
Courtesy of Westin
A recent study suggests I am the typical visitor to Napa Valley. I live in California. I am a professional, well educated, and “mature.” I go there mainly for wines and wineries, food and friends. I am a repeat visitor. But, I am also typical in another way that the study doesn’t mention. Although I have visited a family home in the upper valley regularly for 20 years, my only trips into the city of Napa consisted of ducking into the First Street outlets to buy flip-flops or grabbing carne al pastor at a taco truck on Soscol Avenue. Then, one February day too wet for me to struggle up Highway 29, I decided to have lunch at Angèle, a Napa restaurant that foodie friends had recommended. I followed the signs from the freeway to the “historic downtown” and ended up at the brick-clad Hatt Building. The restaurant is at the far end, overlooking a bend in the river. The French blue shutters, the planter boxes stuffed with geraniums, and the remarkable mussels made me feel as far from San Francisco as Saint-Émilion.
It turns out I’m not the only one taking the Napa exit these days. The first trickle started when Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts opened in 2001. Food and wine lovers came, they contemplated—and they headed up to Yountville for dinner. Then, word got out about the restaurants just across the bridge on Main Street: Cole’s Chop House for prime steaks, intimate Celadon for global comfort food, Zuzu for tapas and sightings of real winemakers. With the opening of veggie-chic Ubuntu (a semifinalist for a 2008 James Beard Foundation Award for best new restaurant and darling of the New York Times), the trickle has turned into a torrent.
It’s an apt metaphor for a town whose commercial life has been complicated over the years by its proximity to the Napa River’s flooding banks. “Without the flood protection project, people wouldn’t have been as interested in investing in this area,” explains Cassandra Walker, economic development director for the city of Napa. “Developers are now confident they’ll be protected from further flooding, so they’re building right up to edge of the river trail or the flood control project.”
Along with the new protections on the riverbank come “urban amenities,” she says, and a prime example is the amphitheater-shaped Veterans Memorial Park, which opened last spring south of the First Street Bridge. With terraced lawns separated by concrete risers, the park is built for open-air entertainment or just gazing at the water.
Across the river is the biggest project to open this fall, the Westin Verasa. The 180-room condo-hotel, overlooking the Oxbow Preserve, offers the benefits of ownership with the convenience and luxury of a resort. Amenities include a concierge, a bocce ball court, room service, and La Toque—chef Ken Frank’s five-star Rutherford restaurant, which he relocated to the Westin.
A short walk from there, two other up-valley icons have opened spin-offs at Oxbow Public Market: the heavenly Model Bakery and Taylor’s Automatic Refresher, the mock drive-in famous for its ahi burgers. Any true food fiends making the rounds in Napa should find their way to the Oxbow Public Market.
Inside the market, which opened in 2007, tasting possibilities include oolongs at Tillerman Tea, obscure coffee beans such as Rwanda Muramba at Ritual Coffee Roasters, and artisan salumi at Fatted Calf charcuterie. Just one scoop of the fresh and pure chocolate-orange or mint confetti ice cream at Three Twins organic creamery will make a fanatic of you. At Whole Spice Company, jars line the wall with ingredients you won’t find at the grocery store: granulated honey, pulverized grapefruit peel, vindaloo curry powder. As owner Shuli Madmone scoops little mounds for sniffing, he leans in to talk recipes. What to do with za’atar? Sprinkle this mix of thyme, sumac, sesame seeds, and salt on lebneh (thick Middle Eastern yogurt), and drizzle with olive oil.
That oil can be found at the Olive Press stand—it’s local, it’s fresh, and you can sample it before buying. The selection and level of friendly expertise are stellar at Oxbow Wine Merchant and Wine Bar, and Oxbow Cheese Merchant, where nibbling and sipping at the center-of-the-store bar have become popular after-work activities. Also check out the exquisite ceramics at Fête and the trove of usable treasures at Heritage Culinary Artifacts.
Back across the First Street Bridge, downtown offers a bevy of new wine-tasting and shopping opportunities. At the recently relocated Back Room Wines, you can cool your heels and enjoy a refreshing Leo Steen Chenin Blanc from Sonoma County's Dry Creek Valley. At Cake Plate, browse fashions by Velvet, Milly, and Alice + Olivia. Boutique owner Lindsay Kroll uses vintage cake stands to display jewelry, small handbags, even T-shirts cool enough to wear at Ubuntu’s yoga classes, one block up. The yoga studio-cum-restaurant offers a full slate of kundalini and vinyasa classes, but in my opinion, the carta da musica (cracker bread) with chickpea puree and arugula, and the cheesecake in a jar, are the fastest ways to find your bliss. At the Bounty Hunter, which serves its beer-can chicken and intriguing wines atop wine barrels, the emphasis is on straight-up flavors and fun without frills.
Outside, murals that paint the town’s history anchor what’s new in Napa to what’s old, as does the timeless jazz skipping out the window of Silo’s, the new beer and wine bar and club in the historic Napa Mill complex, where international cabaret star Wesla Whitfield and her husband, pianist Mike Greensill, perform each weekend.
That easy flow between past and present, like a gentle bend in the river, is rapidly turning the city of Napa into one of Wine Country’s most intriguing must-see destinations. ■
• Angèle Restaurant and Bar
540 Main St., Napa,
(707) 252-8115, angelerestaurant.com.
• Back Room Wines
1000 Main St.,
Shop 120, Napa,
(707) 226-1378, backroomwines.com.
• Bounty Hunter Rare
Wine & Provisions
975 First St., Napa,
(707) 255-0622, bountyhunterwine.com.
• Cake Plate
1000 Main St., Ste. 100, Napa,
(707) 226-2300, cakeplateonline.com.
500 Main St., Ste. G, Napa,
(707) 254-9690, celadonnapa.com.
• Cole’s Chop House
1122 Main St., Napa,
(707) 224-6328, coleschophouse.com.
• La Toque
1314 McKinstry St., Napa,
(707) 257-5157, latoque.com.
• Oxbow Public Market
610 First St., Napa,
(707) 226-6529, oxbowpublicmarket.com.
530 Main St., Napa,
(707) 251-5833, silosjazzclub.com.
1140 Main St., Napa,
(707) 251-5656, ubuntunapa.com.
• Westin Verasa
1141 First St., Napa,
(707) 257-1800, verasanapa.com.
829 Main St., Napa,
(707) 224-8555, zuzunapa.com.