2010 will go down in Napa history as The Year of the Restaurant. We saw
no fewer than twelve new restaurants opening their doors within a half
mile of each other, making the downtown region the new dining hot spot
of the Valley. Each new arrival brought something special to the eating
scene that is worthy of note. Here’s my highly subjective take on what
each new place has done for Napa, in roughly chronological order.1. Grace’s Table.
Husband and wife team Mauro and Nancy
transformed the modern Elements space into a comfortable neighborhood
restaurant with neighborhood prices, satisfying global comfort food, and
a warm welcome at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. No one else in town
pumps out the variety of housemade jams, breads, stews, burgers,
tamales, gnocchi, and salads at accessible prices like these guys do.
Napa Valley natives Tyler Rodde and Curtis De Fede brought authentic Southern Italian regional cuisine back to their hometown after they met working at Oliveto Restaurant in Oakland. Their Neapolitan wood-fired pizzas are, in my humble opinion, the best in wine country. And the wine list, put together by baby-faced somm extraordinaire Sur Lucero, includes an exciting collection of Italian finds at prices that everyone can afford.3. C Casa.
C Casa brought style to the Oxbow Public Market. Its tasteful, sleek design and fabulous outdoor taco lounge set a new tone for the building, and its all-gluten-free, all totally delicious menu of fresh tacos, salads, and rotisserie chicken breathed even more culinary creativity into the Oxbow. C Casa became the first merchant inside the Main Hall to serve weekday breakfasts, and they scored a Bib Gourmand award from Michelin after being open less than six months.4. Bistro Sabor.
Ariel Ceja and his force of nature family opened this restaurant/late night social headquarters in the former First Squeeze space. The kitchen churns out tasty contemporary Latin American street food like pupusas, quesadillas, tostadas, churros, and tacos at modest prices, but Bistro Sabor’s greatest gift to Napa is its late night action–open until midnight during the week and 2am on weekends, with DJs and salsa dancing every Saturday night.5. Carpe Diem Wine Bar.
How is it possible that Napa didn’t have a classy wine bar with a full menu of international wine-friendly food before these guys opened in June? Don’t know, don’t care, because Stephanie and Scott Kendall have rustled up something for everyone here: healthy salads and soups, debauchedly delicious shortrib sliders, perfect crisp flatbreads inspired from every corner of the world, cheeses, charcuterie, Kobe beef corndogs, and desserts. And, just as importantly, both the seasonal food menu and the eclectic global wine list by Steve Distler change with refreshing regularity.6. Bui Bistro.
Patrick Bui brought his classical French training and Vietnamese heritage to Napa just for me, I’m convinced. All of my favorite Vietnamese dishes are here–pho, cabbage salads, vermicelli plates, claypot fish, shaking beef–as well as a slew of new favorites like his 5-spice duck confit, banana blossom salad with bosc pear, and the sweet and sour Saigon wings. As if that weren’t enough to earn a gold star, his wine list features hard-to-find-in-Napa European wines like Austrian grüner veltliner and Alsatian Riesling.7. Morimoto Napa.
As in, Iron Chef Morimoto. ‘Nuff said… except it’s not, really. The Japanese accented cuisine is amazing, and utterly unique. The Iron Chef’s fame attracts all kinds of people I’ve never seen in downtown Napa before, and has been keeping the restaurant’s bar scene hot every night of the week.8. Graham’s Takeout.
Graham’s in the Oxbow Market ended the dearth of homemade, wholesome, ready to go prepared foods in downtown. Seasonal veggies, seafood, and grains are all represented in the prepared salads, which are made fresh daily and sold by volume. 9. Dim Sum Charlie’s.
This Airstream trailer/ food truck may not really meet the criteria for a restaurant, but it rarely moves from its homebase in co-owner Andrew Siegal’s backyard by the First Street railroad tracks. The space is decked out with ambient lounge music, heaters and shade sails for socializing, snacking, and carousing (BYO) into the wee hours–another huge boon to the traditionally dead late night scene. Dim Sum Charlie’s maverick owners also coordinated a new monthly party of gourmet food trucks at their place, held the first Friday of every month. And, of course, DSC serves Napa Valley’s only dim sum, made by one of San Francisco’s top dim sum houses.10. Fish Story.
Being a wine town famous for its Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa restaurants haven’t really tried to go the seafood route… until the completion of the Riverwalk building on the western bank of the Napa River. Fish Story unabashedly puts the fish first, serving regional American twists on classic seafood dishes, all made with sustainable species approved by the Monterey Bay Aquarium.11. Ca’ Momi.
Another Italian restaurant may not seem groundbreaking, but this little one in the Oxbow Market totally pushes the envelope with their authentic menu of pies taken from the classics popular in pizzerias in Italy, and their huge selection of traditional Italian pastries and cookies. No one else in wine country offers such a tremendous range of delicious Italian bigné
. 12. Rotisserie and Wine.
Celeb chef Tyler Florence didn’t pick the most fanciful name for his first Napa venture, but as they say, the proof is in the pudding. His menu and wine list are both intriguingly different. I had grilled sardines with Old Bay remoulade and braised fennel alongside deviled Jidori chicken eggs with caramelized bacon bits and sherry, and a perfectly executed red quinoa salad with roasted beets, pistachios, fuyu persimmon, and avocado… washed down by a Lagrein from the Alto Adige region of Italy.
That kind of meal just didn’t happen in Napa before. But all that has changed.