The recent publication of the 2014 Michelin ratings for restaurants in the United States once again shines a bright (and well-deserved) light on a dozen establishments here in the Napa Valley. To no one’s surprise, The French Laundry and The Restaurant at Meadowood (pictured at left) retained their 3-star ratings, and are in fact the only restaurants in the entire Bay Area to achieve the highest ranking from the famed travel guide. Although Napa County does not have any two-star winners, it does have five one-star restaurants, which include Auberge du Soleil in Rutherford, Bouchon in Yountville, La Toque in Napa, Solbar in Calistoga, and Terra in St. Helena. Redd, a Yountville favorite of many, lost their one-star rating this year, but still churns out food that packs the place.
In addition, five restaurants received the “Bib Gourmand” designation from Michelin, signifying that travelers can obtain two courses of very good food and a glass of wine for under $40. The winners here include Bistro Jeanty and Redd Wood in Yountville, C Casa and Oenotri in Napa, and Cook in St. Helena.
With all this publicity, it can be very difficult to book a table in prime time (weekends, or favored dining hours) at these establishments unless you plan very far ahead. Last-minute visitors are often frustrated at their inability to secure a reservation at one of these top tables (with the exception of C Casa, which is a super-casual take-away stall inside the Oxbow Market.)
Many of my Bay Area friends ask me for restaurant suggestions when they come up to visit, having had trouble booking at one of the above-named places. Fortunately, I have been able to sample some great eateries throughout the Valley that offer great food, wine and service but still fly under the radar. For those looking for alternatives to the big names, I offer these suggestions, in no particular order:
Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch: Currently one of our favorites, this indoor-outdoor establishment across the street from Tra Vigne in St. Helena features great farm-to-table cooking, an emphasis on smoked meats (owing to Chef Stephen Barbour’s acumen in this area) and open architecture and design that seem to be inspired by Restoration Hardware. While there is no corkage fee here technically, they do charge $5 if you bring your own wine, which they donate to a local charity-of-the-month. A great deal any way you look at it.
Ciccio in Yountville: Operated by the Altamura family (long-time grapegrowers and winemakers in the Valley), this is a small, no-reservations accepted hotspot featuring wood-fired pizzas and other Italian specialties. The menu changes often. They only serve wines made from their grapes (often sold to other producers), and corkage is a steep $25 if you bring your own. It was recently reviewed very favorably by the SF Chronicle, so it may get more crowded. On a recent Wednesday night visit it was packed and Redd Wood, across the street, was half-full.
Market in St. Helena: Located right in the heart of the Main Street shopping area, Market is a well-kept secret. It’s not big, and it can get noisy, but they turn out some amazing American food at moderate prices. Corkage is free, so bring your own. Dining at the bar is a popular option here, too.
Hurley’s in Yountville: Bob Hurley is a big, affable guy who loves food and enjoys serving old friends as well as new ones. Many locals frequent this small favorite right smack in the middle of town, which features patio seating when the weather is good. Hurley’s is known for its wild game week in November, and also offers late-night dining at the bar, which is a rarity in these parts. Perfect if you have been drinking wine all day and need a burger or fries to soak up some of that juice. A go-to spot for us, and we often go without a reservation and sit at the bar.
Il Posto Trattoria in Napa: Quite possibly the least-impressive venue for a restaurant in Napa, as it is located in a small, unattractive shopping center (at Wine Country Avenue and Solano, just west of highway 29) featuring a paint store, UPS outpost, mini-mart and seafood shop. But what it lacks in location it more than makes up for in food and value. Still fairly easy to get into at lunch, but dinner is pretty busy, because locals enjoy it. Don’t let the lack of pretense drive you away; this is one of the great finds in Napa.
Fume Bistro, also in Napa: Just across 29 and one block south of Il Posto, hidden on the frontage road, Fume Bistro is another hopping locals place that serves great food in generous portions. Pizzas, chops, ribs, seafood, a full bar, amazing desserts, and all at great value. Amazing weekend brunch. Find it, try it, but let’s keep it between us.
Bistro Don Giovanni: Almost everyone knows this famed Italian joint right off 29 in Napa where the vineyards start. But it never makes the big lists, which is fine with those of us who like to get in regularly. It’s fairly big, with tables inside and out (and some great heat lamps), so even if you don’t have a reservation you can probably still get in if you wait a bit. Great pizzas, pastas, a reasonable wine list, and the world-famous butterscotch pudding. Mangia!
Tarla Mediterranean Grill: Located in the “West End” section of Downtown Napa next to the Andaz Hotel, this started as a very small restaurant but expanded into an adjacent storefront when business proved to be robust. Great and authentic Mediterranean menu, with very reasonable prices, and an excellent selection of wines available by the glass (or bottle, of course). The owner, Yusuf, is very welcoming and will do his best to ensure you have a great meal. They are about to open a second restaurant called “Napkins” (what many locals refer to themselves as) so we will see how they fare with two different places going at once.
Angele, on the riverfront in Napa: Another of our favorites, this French brasserie serves some great bistro fare in a welcoming, relaxed setting. Owned and operated by the Rouas family, who have supreme restaurant cred, this place turns out exquisite food, has a full bar, and features heated patio seating when the weather is good. The inside isn’t shabby, either. It’s relaxed, consistent, and delicious.
Norman Rose, on First Street in Napa: Part sports bar/pub and part locals hangout, this place is always packed, and rightfully so. Great comfort food using a sustainable approach, the game on TV, microbrews, a full bar and of course wine, all make for a delightful, loud, friendly place to grab a bite without needing one of those pesky reservations.
Okay, that’s ten recommendations, and lord knows there are many more good options I haven’t covered yet, so maybe I’ll get to those in another posting. The point is, don’t be discouraged just because you couldn’t get a table at Bottega or Bouchon. There is so much great food up here that is rarely talked about. You just need to do your research, or, if you are lazy….ask me. Enjoy!