Eating Up Napa

by Liz Caskey on May 10, 2010

As many of you know, in late April, I paid a visit to some dear friends in the Napa Valley for a second time. The mission? To hang out with them, obviously, and soak up that “Napa” vibe. The “good life” vibe is definitely happening there–and I am totally down with it. Maybe it’s the clean country air. Perhaps I was seduced by the gorgeous rolling hills painted shades of green and brushed with swaths of magenta and yellow wild flowers. It’s so reminiscent of the Chilean wine country. The locals’ laid back attitude that goes with being away from the hustle and bustle (and traffic) of San Francisco is so refreshing. Definitely seeing acres and acres of vines, trees, gardens, and beautiful nature puts me in the “zone”. And the food. Damn, for being once a rural, country bumpkin valley, that’s so gone not the case anymore–yet it retains and honors those roots.

I love the country setting but also being able to dine like a king, or queen, at the same time. In tons of genres too. Here’s my Napa short list of some places I’ve hit on the last two visits. Since a lot of you seem to be moving frequently out west or between Chile and Napa, I thought I would share. I definitely could get into California. It has the right pieces and people. And it lovingly reminds me (geographically) of Chile with a hearty dose of my mother culture, which after 11 years outside the US, I actually crave from time to time now.

One things for sure, next time I need to hit Bottega (Michael Chiarello’s new place) and French Laundry. No excuses. Bon Appetit–and cheers.

Fremont Diner

We rolled into this place mid-afternoon off Route 121 in Sonoma. I was literally starving after 24 hours of plane food and about 4 glasses of champagne as an appetizer. The place reminded me of the diners of my youth. Those kinds of places we’d roll into in the summertime for ice cream and hamburgers and gobble them down on a picnic table outside. Or pull up a stool. Always served through a sliding glass window. Americana in decor but most definitely gourmet in its takes on the classics, I woofed down an amazing pulled pork sandwich with creamy slaw and the right touch of caraway seeds. Other orders at our table were a perfectly rare (Bloody, yeah!) hamburger and crunchy-juicy Jumbo shrimp Po boy. Tons of vintage candy, homemade root beer, and other goodies. Their breakfast menu (ricotta pancakes!) had me scheming how and when I could return.  The place made me feel like a kid again. Tasteful and rooted in all our American nostalgia, it most definitely hit the spot. One of my favorite spots so far in Napa/Sonoma.

Ad Hoc

An impromptu Sunday Brunch led me to Ad Hoc. Well, any excuse to eat in a Keller establishment is welcome (French Laundry & Bouchon still on my list). Keller qualified Ad Hoc as a simple experiment 5 days per week: a four-course family style menu that changed each day, accompanied by a small, accessible wine list in a casual setting reminiscent of home. Take down all the glamor and fussiness of his other restaurants. A cool, chill place for the Napa peeps–and restaurant staff—to be well fed and nurtured. Nice idea. So fast forward two years later. Another smashing (Keller) success. Surprise? Not really. He’s got it down to a science. Great service, amazing ingredients, and expert preparation. Details, details, details. At a Sunday brunch, we munched on a tender green salad with a sweet red pepper vinaigrette followed by perfectly scrambled eggs and a flat iron steak with mini pancakes drenched in Agave Nectar. The Lorenza rosé we drank was fruity, dry, and very Southern French in style; exquisite on that sunny afternoon. Portions, while family style, were not overly abundant. It was good I wasn’t ravenous or I may have gone home hungry. Nonetheless, the wine filled the void, thankfully. And the price (for being a Keller establishment) was reasonable.

Bouchon Bakery

When you get to Yountville, if you aren’t sure where Bouchon Bakery is, just look for the line. It is usually about 20-people deep extending down the clean sidewalks and manicured lawns. The draw is real, no hype in this bakery. Keller wanted to bring the boulangeries, the bakeries, of Paris and their most extraordinary creations (like the amazing macaron and croissant) to become a staple of Napa life. The locals and visitors alike must give thanks to Chef Thomas. If you need a quick bite, it’s the perfect spot for a crunchy baguette stuffed with prosciutto (or the more pedestrian turkey). The chocolate and lemon tarts will tantalize your taste buds with a heady espresso, or take some macaroons to a friend for a little surprise treat. Hang out in the California sunshine after, café style. There’s a reason everybody loves this place.

Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen

I have been a big fan of Cindy Pawlcyn since I first ate at the Fog City Diner in San Francisco when I was 15 on a family trip. Located in charming downtown St. Helena, Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen is housed in a historic 1800s building. Enter via the brick patio shaded by a 100 year-old fig tree and immediately you get the vibe that you’re arriving at a (foodie) friend’s home for a casual yet elegant luncheon. Somewhere between an upscale eatery and neighborhood hang out. Let’s keep things clear—the food is the draw with snappy service. We ate by the big zinc bar with tall ceilings and hard wood floors. The food was fresh and creative with a uniquely Californian take. I almost licked the plate with the Rabbit Tostada, dressed up with red chile salsa, black beans and feta. The Chinatown duck burger was a revelation with the homemade shitake Ketchup. Actually, the Ketchup at Fog City had made me fall in love with her cooking in the first place. How fitting. All the flavors were clear, balanced, yet expertly blended. The perfect lunch spot.

Oakville Grocery

Tired of all the chichi dining and just want simple picnic food by some scenic vines? Look no more. The Oakville Grocery will be your Mecca—if you make it out with only a few things. For over 120 years, this “little country store” in the heart of Napa Valley has been serving up tons of gourmet goodies, pantry items from local jams to olive oil, and amazingly tasty prepared food. Take away a charcuterie platter with salami and cured sausage, put-together picnic baskets with grilled veggie kebabs and salads, box lunches with mighty pastrami sandwiches or salads with vibrant greens.  The wines flow here as many winemakers bring in their small productions. Find that bubbly chilled, or a big Cabernet—at the right temp I may add. No bottle opener? No problema. The gourmet picnic outfitters in Napa, and now Healdsburg over in Sonoma.


Sublime. Blissed Out. Suprising. These are all adjectives to describe this all vegetarian restaurant in downtown Napa, complete with a yoga studio on the second floor. All organic in nature and style, Chef Aaron London procures the produce from owner Sandy Lawrence’s biodynamic garden, only a few miles away. The garden, which follows the lunar calendar and foster regenerations, is appreciated by the Earth—and diner. Casual and laid back with the interior with soft wood and a very zen feel about it, the kitchen team most definitely has a knack for turning veggies into holy grails. Culinary music, if you will. You never will miss meat for a moment. Now sporting one Michelin star in 2010, the inventive rotating menu incorporates lots of lesser known produce and veggies with a bad rep like Kohlrabi and turnips in such inspiring additions such as “horseradish gnocchi and turnips with truffle fondatta”, or a Rancho Gordo bean stew. Local. Memorable. Mind opening. A must while in town.

Boon Fly Cafe

I will confess. I was seduced immediately by the cuteness of the place. The red siding, tall white window panes, a black roof. It just sent me into a nostalgic remembrance of all the red barns of my youth in rural Pennsylvania. Named for a Carneros pioneer who planted orchards and vineyards in the mid-1800s, the lively Boon Fly Café is all about gussied up comfort food. Sort of modern Americana cuisine if you will (a trend in Napa, or so I noted). We power lunched here between wine tastings in Carneros and most definitely, their selection of by-the-glass options is ideal to keep tasting while you fuel up for a demanding afternoon at the wineries. The warm arugula salad with shallots, pancetta, and creamy goat cheese was divine with a Pinot (what else in Carneros?). I had delicious Dungeness crab cakes with the unusual combination of fennel, grapefruit, and hearts of palm that paired perfectly with a bubbly. My husband tried the Kobe beef burger and we agreed that for a $20 burger, the Kobe part of the beef was totally lost. We noticed a lot of winemakers in the house for lunch meetings. Service was semi-comprised (pokey) but I’d go back. The place was just so damn cute.

Zu Zu

This cozy and casual little tapas bar is nestled right at the 3rd street bridge and struck me mostly as a local’s spot. Low key with rustic, homey decor, we scored a table in the large window, with a view of the town’s foot traffic. Perhaps it was my wonderful company and chilly spring evening but this place hit the spot. The food was tasty and respectable although not mind altering. Just honest food. They serve up “tapas”, not really Spanish in style, more like small plates, with some variations of the classics like Tortilla Española. I loved the tender asparagus with Jamón Serrano; and the garlicky shrimp. It was an ideal place to hang out, nosh, sip some fruity Pinot Noir, laugh, repeat.  A change from all the sophistication or “fast” diner-style food. Their motto is “great friends, great food, great fun”. I would say it pretty much delivered—although the company is key.

Gott’s Roadside

Formerly named Taylor’s Refresher, the owners swear that nothing has changed in any of the locations in Napa, St. Helena, and the Ferry Building in San Francisco. This is a bit of a local institution where the fare is glorified Fast Food. Sorry, I mean “hand made American food”. Fair enough, since they are using primo artisan ingredients and make seriously mean burgers, we’ll leave it at that. Scarf down creations like the crunchy Wisconsin Sourdough (with bacon, cheddar, and mushies, yum!) or the Ahi tuna burger with wasabi mayo (heaven!). There are all kinds of calorie-dense sides from Garlic Fries to Chili dogs, and their famous milk shakes (by all means, don’t pass on the Malt!). Go knowing it will be a tasty gut bomb (alka seltzer in the glove compartment not  a bad idea…). Forget about the notion of salads at this place and just do what they do best—good quality fast food, American style. Great for the munchies and hang overs, for sure.

Thanks to Ah Zut, Chic Provence, and Mattsoncreative for the pics that captured the tasty goodness of a few of these places.


Tami Wiener-Stout May 11, 2010 at 2:42 pm

Enjoyed your reaction to your experience.
May I suggest a visit to Sonoma county–enjoy the space, big vistas, great food/wine & friendly locals. It’s also nice NOT to be crowded, pushed, overcharged (food, wine, wineries) and underappreciated.
Can’t wait to read about your next visit!

Liz Caskey May 13, 2010 at 2:19 pm

Yes, Sonoma! High on my list for the next visit. We made our way to the farmers market in Sebastapol and over to Russian River for some decent wineries like Iron Horse (nice bubbly). Any must sees or eats, please share. I love the area.

Kristi Davis May 11, 2010 at 9:20 pm

Awesome reviews :) Love that you started off with 4 glasses of champagne as an appetizer!

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