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Culinary Calistoga

Finding and Falling for a World of Food in Two Small-Town Blocks

On an early date during my history with the woman who is now my wife, I took the chance of an overnight weekend in Calistoga to, so to speak, test the waters (and as it turned out, mud). I’m happy to report that things went swimmingly, and it wasn’t long before, thanks to that weekend, Calistoga held a special place in our memory as the location of a memorable catalyst in our relationship.
Among the highlights of that weekend was a leisurely four-hour dinner at Brannan’s Grill (1374 Lincoln Ave., 707-942-2233; www.brannansgrill.com). Though we were still in a getting-to-know-you stage, the neighborly atmosphere at this expansive, bustling restaurant helped to quickly dissipate any awkwardness or discomfort. In fact, thanks to a prime seat in a corner booth, the vast majority of seating space went unused. We easily got cozy—easy to do at Brannan’s thanks to a handsome dining room that seems to be perfectly lit no matter the time of day. From there, the capable and friendly waitstaff took over, ushering out sparkling wine from a regional producer and guiding us ably through the menu of excellent, award-winning, American classics.

Since then, we’ve returned on numerous occasions and the restaurant has grown to be special in our hearts. But it’s not something we hoard. I always recommend the place to anyone venturing toward the northern reach of Napa Valley. I like for people to see for themselves the kind of Wine Country hospitality that Brannan’s exemplifies—thoughtful menu leveraging local ingredients, perfectly executed in the kitchen, paired perfectly with a wine list that encourages exploration. However, I’ve also come to realize that Brannan’s, in spite of its advantageous corner location along Lincoln Ave, has not cornered the market on top-flight dining experiences in Calistoga. In fact, there are more places to find a memorable meal in two blocks of Calistoga than you’ll find in most entire towns.

It didn’t take many return visits before we found another can’t-miss spot, Wappo Bar Bistro (1226 Washington St., 707-942-4712, www.wappobar.com), claimed by locals as a favorite dining spot and hangout. The thing you need to know about Wappo is you’ll need more than one visit to get the full experience. The menu is a globetrotting adventure, mixing everything from Brazilian-style seafood stew to Singaporean noodles and Tandoori chicken. The incredible thing is, it’s all good. And the ambience is the kicker, a clamor of conversation among locals and visitors always in a good mood. The outdoor grapevine-covered patio is a must, weather permitting.

One of the best spots in town to nosh away an afternoon is the Calistoga Inn Restaurant & Brewery (1250 Lincoln Ave., 707-942-4101, www.calistogainn.com), the kind of spot where it seems like everybody knows your name even through they don’t. The pub-like atmosphere recalls the days before places like, well, Brannan’s, became the Calistoga standard. Relaxed and comfortable, the restaurant is known for its wood-fired oven and the grilled-to-perfection fare that emerges from it. A number of great pasta dishes are available, too. The housemade beers are always a good accompaniment to the food.

There are other places in town that have become reliable friends to me as well, including La Prima Pizza (1923 Lake St., 707-942-8070), with its daily made wheat-flour dough crust and fresh local-ingredient toppings. Bosko's Ristorante (1364 Lincoln Ave., 707-942-9088) is also great for those times when your craving for traditional Italian just won’t subside.

The point is, one you make that first date to dine in Calistoga, be warned: you just might end up married to the place.