Napa Valley’s been a tourist hot spot for decades, but its southern anchor, the city of Napa, offered little in the way of amenities—until recently. “There was nothing. I don’t even think Napa was a destination,” says longtime resident Eileen Crane, CEO and winemaker at Domaine Carneros.
Rather suddenly, a burst of new restaurants and hotels is filling the city’s sidewalks with nighttime revelers. For the first time in a long time (a century, in fact), Napa is an exciting place to visit.
A hundred years ago, Napa was a thriving community. The Napa River was navigable all the way to San Francisco Bay, making the city a natural export hub for the valley’s fruits, vegetables, nuts and hay. But when agriculture gave way to wine, Napa Valley’s cultural energy passed north, or “upvalley,” to Yountville, St. Helena and Calistoga, leaving Napa a backwater.
“They rolled the sidewalks up at night,” says David Turgeon, COO of the Napa Valley Destination Council (legendarynapavalley.com). The old town center consisted of drab brick and masonry buildings housing 1950s-era dress shops, shoe stores and second-hand “antique” barns. About the only places that lured locals after dark were the bars.
The main problem was downtown’s tendency to flood. “They called them 100-year floods, but they were happening every year!” cracks Tom Fuller, a partner in the Fuller & Sander P.R. firm that represents local wineries and restaurants.
Actually, there have been 22 serious floods in downtown Napa since 1865, including in 2005, 1997, 1995 and 1986. Under the circumstances, business interests were reluctant to invest. But following the disastrous ‘86 flood, in which thousands were evacuated and hundreds of homes destroyed, pressure to control the Napa River’s rage mounted, from both the political and economic sides. When Robert and Margrit Mondavi indicated their willingness to develop what would later be COPIA—but only if flood control efforts were planned—the pieces began falling into place. The Army Corp of Engineers undertook a series of projects that’s still underway; the Napa River is largely contained, and next up is its unruly tributary, Napa Creek.
Another step forward was the remodeling of the old Opera House (1030 Main St., napavalleyoperahouse.org). Built in 1879 but shuttered for decades, it had housed a Chinese restaurant and a laundry, and was on the demolition list in the 1990s, when some notable locals decided to save it. “The Mondavis and Rene di Rosa [of Winery Lake Vineyard and the di Rosa Preserve] saw a wrecking ball ready to take it down, and they said, ‘Hey, wait a minute!’” recalls Larry Tsai, who’s on the Opera House’s board. “They wanted something happening with wine, food and culture, a place for people to spend time downtown—not just tourists, but locals.” The Opera House reopened in 2003, and now features acts ranging from Elvis Costello to Robin Williams.
“Suddenly, Napa had nightlife again,” Turgeon says.
A few restaurants had already laid the groundwork. The surviving granddaddy of the modern downtown renaissance is Pearl (1339 Pearl St., therestaurantpearl.com), which launched in 1997 following the closure of the owners’ previous restaurant, the Brown Street Grill. “Napa had always been the ugly sister at the bottom of the valley. Everybody passed it by,” says Pearl’s co-owner (with husband Pete), Nickie Zeller. “Brown Street got flooded three times in its first five years. It was definitely disruptive.”
Gradually, with the return of foot traffic due to the Opera House, Pearl and other venues (and with the economy booming), more and more restaurateurs saw their chance to compete with tony upvalley eateries, like Mustard’s and Tra Vigne. One of the first, in 2001, was Azzurro Pizzaria e Enoteca (1260 Main, azzurropizzeria.com). “Back then, there wasn’t much downtown. People were driving up to Yountville, Rutherford and St. Helena to eat,” remembers Azzurro’s founding chef, Michael Gyetvan, who’d been chef de cuisine at Tra Vigne. “I thought, ‘Why can’t we do something in Napa?’”
Since then, development has continued at breakneck pace. Most of it was planned before the economic downturn, and a few projects were postponed. But it looks like things are underway again.
Napa, with a population of 76,000, is turning into a city of neighborhoods. There’s downtown, extending from the Napa River to a few blocks west. There’s the West End, which is fast gentrifying and includes new hotels and eateries. And then there’s the small but exciting Oxbow District, across the Napa River but easily accessible via the 3rd St. and 1st St. bridges. A fourth district, actually an appendage to downtown, is the Napa Mill/Riverfront area, a mini-Ghirardelli Square that’s a successful example of urban redevelopment. Here, the old mill and 1893 Hyatt Building have been reimagined into a series of outdoor spaces and shops, including a river walk promenade along the scenic, wildfowl-crowded Napa River.
Keep in mind that parking throughout Napa is free, with two-hour limits during the day and a three-hour limit in city-owned lots. Also, you can assume that all restaurants in this article feature great wine lists. There also are at least 18 tasting rooms in Napa; see napadowntown.com/wine for a listing. You’ll find many other suggestions for things to do at napadowntown.com.
Napa Mill Area
Interspersed with shops and condos are some of Napa’s trendiest eatieries. Locals start their day at Sweetie Pies (520 Main, sweetiepies.com). Next door is Angèle (540 Main, angelerestaurant. com), a classic French-style bistro located in the Napa General Store, which also features a tasting bar. Between them is Silo’s Jazz Club (530 Main, silosjazzclub.com), where rock, blues and jazz bands spice up the night. A luxurious place to stay is the Napa River Inn (500 Main, napariverinn.com), which houses Celadon (celadonnapa.com), whose “global comfort food” mingles Mediterranean, Asian and California-inspired cuisine. Slated for sometime this year in the fancy new Napa Riverfront development are major new restaurants from celebrity TV chef Tyler Florence, Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto and local restaurateur Michael Dellar (The Lark Creek Restaurant Group).
A short walk from the Napa Mill district is historic downtown. Here, along Main Street’s newly christened “restaurant row,” is Zuzu (829 Main, zuzunapa.com), a small but intimate tapas joint. Nearby is Downtown Joe’s Brewery and Restaurant (902 Main, downtownjoes.com), where you can escape the wine thrall with microbrews and comfort food, set to live music in their gastro-pub.
Just up the street is one of Napa’s most popular dinner spots, Cole’s Chop House (1122 Main, coleschophouse.com), where you’ll find classic American steaks and chops, albeit at high prices. A few steps away is Ubuntu (1140 Main, ubuntunapa.com). One of the hottest restaurants of the past few years, it takes vegetarian cooking to new heights. Just next door is Napa’s top Vietnamese restaurant, Annaliên (1142 Main). There’s also Azzurro, cited above, as well as Neela’s (975 Clinton, neelasindianrestaurant.com), an Indian restaurant highly praised by locals, and one of the San Francisco Chronicle’s top restaurants of 2009.
The West End
The next area to undergo major redevelopment, this compact district is seeing a burst of restaurant activity. The most recent launch was Oenotri (1425 First, oenotri.com). It was developed by Curtis di Fede and Tyler Rodde, whose previous stints had been at the well-known Oakland trattoria, Oliveto. De Fede, a native Napan, explains, “Downtown Napa had always been a ghost town. Nobody was really doing anything like farm-to-table with a daily change of menu, besides Ubuntu.” Five years ago, di Fede attests, “I don’t know if we would have done this…but the interest is there now.”
Also in the West End is Avia (1450 First St., aviahotels.com), an elegant, contemporary restaurant that packs in the crowds at night. It’s housed in the sleekly modern Avia Hotel. Nearby is the new Norman Rose Tavern (1401 First St., normanrosenapa.com). Owned by Gyetvan, from Azzurro, it’s currently the hottest spot in town, filling a niche by offering a convivial spot to see, be seen and just enjoy great local wines and food. “We already had a following from Azzurro,” explains Gyetvan, “so we felt we could pull this off.” He does, however, worry that downtown “may be on the verge of too many restaurants,” especially after Florence, Morimoto and Dellar move their major operations in. “Will there be enough people next year to grow?” Gyetvan asks? Only time will tell.
The Oxbow District
COPIA, of course, was the first major destination of the Oxbow. It famously closed a few years ago, and while there are all sorts of rumors about who will eventually move in (the Culinary Institute of America is said to be considering it as a southern campus), there’s nothing yet to report.
But the neighboring Oxbow Public Market (oxbowpublicmarket. com) is reason enough to cross the river. Developed by the same company that designed San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza Marketplace, and a popular destination for locals, it’s a rich indoor collection of cafés, tasting bars, charcuterie, chocolatiers, an oyster bar, an ice cream parlor and so on—there’s even a Taylor’s Refresher (the perennially popular drive-in-style upscale fast-food eatery). The city previously approved a nearby Ritz-Carlton Hotel; put on hold by the recession, it’s supposed to be back on track. Here, too, is the upscale, ultramodern Westin Verasa Hotel (1314 McKinstry, starwoodhotels.com/westin), which contains one of Napa’s most expensive restaurants, the tony, contemporary La Toque (latoque.com), as well as the more intimate café, Bank.
Lodging beyond downtown
Travelers who want to stay outside downtown have choices. To the south, with its own campus, is the new, expansive Meritage Resort and Spa (875 Bordeaux Way, themeritageresort.com). To the north, just off Highway 29 on the road to Yountville, are the charming, intimate Cottages of Napa Valley (1012 Darms Lane, napacottages.com). Nearby is the Napa Valley Marriott (3425 Solano Ave., napavalleymarriott.com), a little dowdy around the edges, but convenient for upvalley access. Also right on Highway 29, and just a five-minute drive from downtown, is the dependable Embassy Suites (1075 California Boulevard, napavalley.embassysuites.com).
Bed-and-Breakfast fans will find some beautifully restored old Victorians, including the Beazley House (1910 First St., beazleyhouse.com) and the Inn on First (1938 1st Street, theinnonfirst.com).
So there’s lots of good food and fine lodging to be enjoyed in the new, reinvented city of Napa. “Now, the choices seem endless,” sayd Domaine Carneros’ Crane. “I’d say Napa’s definitely an ‘A-list’ location.”