Last weekend my wife’s ex-husband had to come up to Napa for a party at a friend’s house, so he invited Laurie to meet for coffee beforehand. They met at Oxbow Public Market, and it was PACKED. Even just driving through Napa, the town was abuzz. Her ex made the comment “Gee, I had no idea that Napa had become so popular,” or words to that effect. But it’s very true, and is a fact often overlooked by the typical Napa Valley visitor.
The city of Napa has come into its own of late, and the place is a beehive of activity at all hours. Napa used to be (my words here) the infrastructure hub of the greater Napa Valley. Napa has the warehouses, the auto body shops, the big hardware stores, the (small) department stores, the fast food joints, and the houses where many of the “wine support people” live. The monied folks live up valley in Yountville, Rutherford, or St. Helena, but they come to Napa to do their “business.” Napa used to be the “wasteland” you drove through on your way to taste great wine up north. But no longer.
Now Napa is a booming little town full of interesting shops, great restaurants (great, I said!) nice hotels, and sweet little tasting rooms. You could spend an entire weekend on foot in Napa and never leave the city limits, and I could almost guarantee you would rave to your friends when you got home. There is live music at several small venues, two great concert halls with top-name entertainment almost nightly (The Napa Opera House ((which does NOT have opera as one of its choices)) and the Uptown Theater), and at least one tasting room (1313 Main) with a DJ who spins tunes until 1am on the weekends.
While Yountville gets most of the foodie press for having six Michelin stars in only three blocks, Napa has a growing list of great restaurants which are easier to get into (and easier on your wallet.) Some have written that “you can’t get a bad meal in Napa,” and that is almost true. Iron Chef Morimoto’s eponymous restaurant packs people in and serves some amazing Japanese food. Oenotri, Tarla, Cole’s Chop House, Celadon and Anjele serve interesting and fantastic food with great wine selections, of course. The Bounty Hunter smokes some amazing meats and pairs them with an insane selection of big red wines by the glass (or bottle.) Norman Rose is a great restaurant cum sports bar, and at least half a dozen other boîtes of one kind or another dot the downtown area.
To be fair, just opening a restaurant in downtown Napa does not guarantee success. Just ask Tyler Florence, noted Food Network chef and owner of several successful restaurants elsewhere. His Rotisserie & Wine eatery was less than 50 yards from Morimoto’s, and didn’t last a year. We ate there once and were unimpressed. The food was great, but the design was more like the interior of a Yankee Pier chain restaurant, the inside was rather small, and no discernible “vibe” was felt by us. The place closed after last summer’s tourist season and never reopened. His next-door retail kitchen store closed more recently. Other notable restaurants, including Ubuntu (Vegetarian) and Neela’s (Indian) also closed recently. Meanwhile, others are opening.
Anyway, the point is, Napa is no longer that weird little farm supply town on the way to the wine country. It is deserving of your time and attention (and wallet) when you visit the area.