Dining Through Calistoga
Eat your way through Napa Valley’s overlooked dining destination, where hot restaurants and experimental chefs continue to spring up.
Calistoga has long had a bit of an underdog reputation when it comes to dining in Napa Valley: Much of the national spotlight falls on the culinary meccas just to the south. But this sleepy Wine Country town has nearly 30 options—ranging from innovative new restaurants to downtown mainstays that specialize in the classics—that make it a dining destination in its own right. Here are our favorites to hit between Calistoga’s sublime wineries and tasting stops.
Best Start to the Day
Ask locals for the best breakfast in town, and they’ll point you to Cafe Sarafornia, where patrons spill from the doorway as they wait for a table on a bustling weekend morning.
Whimsical decor (think giant butterflies and poppies) provides the background for hearty breakfast staples. The hashes—corned beef for meat lovers, seasonal vegetables for vegetarians—are particularly impressive, as are the gravy-smothered biscuits and eggs.
Don’t miss the daily specials on a chalkboard, beneath a scrawled quote from Calistoga’s founder, Sam Brannan. Brannan allegedly botched naming the town after drinking too much wine, and his mistake also provided a name for this breakfast hot spot. “I want it to be the Calistoga of Sarafornia,” he declared. (What Brannan meant to say was the “Saratoga of California,” after the famous Saratoga Springs in New York.) cafesarafornia.com.
Sam’s Social Club
Since opening last February, Indian Springs’ new restaurant has been garnering nonstop buzz—and for good reason. Chef Kory Stewart, who logged time at Michael Mina and Town Hall, sets a strong foundation for each plate by sourcing peak-season produce from local farms.
Whether he’s putting out dishes such as breakfast churros made with candy cap mushrooms; house-made ricotta and seared foraged mushrooms with corn, cherry tomatoes, and zucchini; or a heritage pork porterhouse with Romano beans and farro verde, Stewart allows the ingredients to shine through masterful preparations and simple presentations.
The outdoor patio, with its twinkling fairy lights and fire pit, is an especially nice place for a meal and the restaurant’s house-brewed IPA. samssocialclub.com.
Best Oldie but Goodie
All Seasons Bistro
Owners Alex and Gayle Dierkhising have been serving Calistoga for close to four decades—first at the Silverado Tavern, and now at the All Seasons Bistro. Their commitment to the local community and Napa Valley producers shows.
The restaurant—where above the bar you can find bidder paddles from almost every Auction Napa Valley wine auction—specializes in small-production, handcrafted wines, which complement globe-spanning dishes such as seafood risotto with roasted fennel and a rich lobster bisque finished with truffle oil. Save room for the warm dark chocolate torte topped with house-made vanilla ice cream. allseasonsnapavalley.net.
Best Carbo Load
Warm service and hearty portions have made Boskos Trattoria a local favorite since opening in 1983, but the restaurant hasn’t rested on its reputation. The old dessert counter is long gone, replaced by a wood-burning oven that churns out blistery Napoli-style pizzas with premium toppings such as prosciutto di Parma and fresh-pulled mozzarella.
All of Boskos’ pastas are made by hand daily, and sauces get a dash of authenticity from Cortopassi tomatoes grown from seeds brought over from Italy. Try a combination of the two in “the Godfather,” a mix of Italian sausage, roasted eggplant, garlic, onions, and bell peppers in a spicy tomato-herb sauce on spaghetti. boskos.com.
Best Bar Seat
This newcomer to the downtown dining scene, run by Michelin-starred Brandon Sharp of Solbar, melds French, Creole, and Southern flavors with an inventive bar program.
Most diners flock to the 90-seat patio, but try sitting at the marble-topped bar instead. It’s the perfect place to experience the restaurant’s energy and house-infused spirits, such as the mint-tinged bourbon in the Evangeline mint julep and the Vesper Evangeline’s saffron-flavored gin.
To accompany the drinks, try the Instagram-worthy tuna niçoise tartine—served open faced on toasted pain de champagne—or the poulet grand-mere: juicy roast chicken served on a bed of whipped potatoes and ladled with chicken jus. evangelinenapa.com.
Best Shareable Plates
Owned by husband-and-wife team Matt and Sonjia Spector (the restaurant’s chef and pastry chef, respectively), JoLe helps alleviate menu indecision by encouraging diners to try a little of everything.
The menu, which capitalizes on organic and locally farmed ingredients as much as possible, focuses on flavor-packed, shareable plates. Try the perfectly grilled Spanish octopus highlighted by black garlic; comforting potato gnocchi with Six Sigma Ranch beef; and elote, a play on Mexican street corn served with earthy huitlacoche.
To experience the full range of the Spectors’ skill, opt for your choice of a four-, five-, or six-course tasting menu, and add on the optional wine pairings. jolerestaurant.com.
Best Bet for Carnivores
Open since 1998, Brannan’s Grill has built a reputation on its meats, and for good reason: The restaurant offers four steak house classics, ranging from an eight-ounce flatiron to a hefty 14-ounce rib eye.
Grab a seat in one of the large leather booths or at the Brunswick bar, and warm up to the main course with oysters on the half shell (especially nice during the 3–6 p.m. daily happy hour) served on finely crushed ice with mignonette and cocktail sauce.
For your main, go big with the rib eye, mashed potatoes, and grilled asparagus, and get a feel for the surrounding AVA with a flight of three local wines. brannansgrill.com.
Best Chef Shake-Up
Barolo Italian kitchen and cocktails
In July, chef Vince Sanchez descended upon Barolo, ditching most of the old menu in favor of Italian dishes that lean heavily on the types of house-made pastas he learned to perfect at Oakland’s Oliveto.
Pappardelle is paired with a hearty serving of earthy hen ragu, and the richness of the short-rib raviolo is cut by the brightness of accompanying asparagus and English peas. Sanchez also brought along fiancé and talented chocolatier Christina Wood Anderson (of St. Helena’s Woodhouse Chocolate), who’s similarly shaking things up on the dessert menu. This includes unexpected additions such as basil buds to a rum-soaked vanilla cake, and olive oil lending richness to a flourless chocolate dessert.
Although the wines are tempting, don’t forgo the bar menu, which offers a range of Italian amari and an exceptionally balanced Negroni. barolocalistoga.com.
Best Outdoor Dining
Calistoga Inn Restaurant and Brewery
The sound of laughter and clinking drinks frequently floats out from Calistoga Inn’s convivial patio, which is the town’s de facto hangout on a warm afternoon.
Attached to a charming turn-of-the-century hotel and within a stone’s throw of the Napa River, the patio’s casual beer garden with its cedar-planked picnic tables is the perfect place to linger over burgers, wings, and a flight of beers from the award-winning microbrewery.
For a sweet finish to the meal, try matching the red ale from Napa Valley Brewing Company (the first commercial brewery in Napa Valley after Prohibition) with the peanut butter pie; to end on a savory note, opt for the beer and cheese pairing. calistogainn.com.
Best Annual Fest
The town’s reputation as a culinary contender is growing, thanks to Harvest Table, Calistoga’s amped-up iteration of alfresco dining. This year’s September event is sold out, so you’ll have to scour Craigslist, or wait until next year and nab tickets right when they go on sale in July.
For the event, a 1,000-foot-long table transforms Calistoga’s downtown into an outdoor dining extravaganza, with 16 restaurants, more than 35 local wineries, and 800 diners coming together to celebrate Wine Country’s bounty. visitcalistoga.com.