At a Glance: John’s Favorites
- Lodging: Carneros Inn, Milliken Creek Inn, Meadowood, Rancho Caymus Inn, Napa River Inn, Blackbird Inn
- Vacation Rentals: Find a place in Napa Valley
- Restaurants: Terra, La Toque, Cook St Helena, Angèle, Bouchon, Bistro Jeanty, Boonfly Cafe, Go Fish, Auberge du Soleil, Farm
- See & Do: Oxbow Public Market, DiRosa Preserve, Artesa, Vintners Collective
- Slideshow: Watch the video overview.
I’m torn about Napa. Its wineries produce some of the world’s most regal wines, but charge upwards of $20 (or more) for tastings. The valley is jaw-droppingly beautiful, but gets jammed with summertime traffic (in fact, it’s the 8th-worst-congested non-commuter road in the country). The food scene is second only to San Francisco’s, but good luck getting a table on a Saturday—and you’d better have room on your Visa card.
How on earth did this happen? You need backstory to understand Napa.
To prevent the valley’s farmland from disappearing under suburban tract homes, as had been happening in the Central Valley, in 1968 Napa Valley designated itself an ‘agricultural preserve.’ You could no longer build a home on the valley floor on fewer than 40 acres (160 acres on the hillsides), which set the stage for a land boom. Then in 1976 the wine world got turned on its head when a prestigious panel of French judges chose two Napa wines over several venerable Bordeaux vintages in a blind tasting, now referred to simply as the Paris Tasting of 1976.
Enter the nouveau riche. In the 1980s, the parvenu arrived en masse, committing cultural genocide in Saint Helena, transforming the pretty little Main Street town into a rural Beverly Hills. Now there are two Napas. You’re either an up-valley snob, or you’re a ‘Napkin’ from the down-valley city of Napa. (When a new-money snob learns you’re a Napkin, the typical response is to raise an eyebrow and say, ‘Oh, you live in Napa proper,’ then walk away, as if you had just announced at a conservative-Republican dinner party that you’re gay.)
Napa looks like an agrarian Shangri-la (never mind the Hummers), but farmers all grow grapes now—they can’t afford not to. Nothing fetches so high a price as the fruit of the cabernet sauvignon vine. Vineyard owners still call themselves farmers, but lately multinational corporations and arrivistes have taken over. What’s the ultimate status symbol? Your very own winery. Just ask Francis Ford Coppola.
The news isn’t all bad. If you’re into expanding your food-and-wine repertoire, Napa is hedonism central. And when you want to ditch the kids, what better place to do so than at a 30-mile-long wine bar?
But timing is everything. Don’t come on weekends in either summer or during ‘crush’ (autumn harvest). For the full Napa Valley tour, drive north on Hwy 29 in the morning before traffic kicks up, then return south along the parallel, less-traveled Silverado Trail, down the valley’s east side. Alternatively, approach from the north, via Calistoga.
I’m covering Calistoga separately because its character and culture are so dramatically different from the rest of Napa.
Meanwhile, call the bank and increase your credit limit: you’re going to Napa.
- Sample some of the world’s best wines.
- Indulge your hedonistic side.
- Eat like royalty.
- Pop the question in one of California’s most beautiful locales.
- 60 to 90 minutes from the Golden Gate Bridge.
- Limited lodging; book way ahead for the best rates.
- Congestion; map your journey and get an early start.
- Snobbery; keep a sense of humor.
See & Do
Wine-tasting is the primary reason to visit Napa.
The once dumpy city of Napa is reinventing itself with a revitalized riverfront area, great restaurants, and some pretty good shopping. Now when Hwy 29 jams up, there’s finally something to do at valley’s south end. Alas, Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts has closed due to lack of endowment (Napa socialites are notorious for donating money for ostentatious gala openings, but not for long-term maintenance of arts institutions). That’s why we’re especially grateful for the new, Ferry Building-style Oxbow Market.
No self-respecting food-lover would come to Napa without swinging by Oxbow Public Market, if only to stock up on hard-to-find spices at Whole Spice. Not since I lived in France have I ever found eggs with such deep-orange yolks as those at the Fatted Calf, a top-notch charcuterie in the finest Gallic tradition. Pica-Pica Maize Kitchen imports Venezuelan street food to Northern California with its griddled corn-flour tortillas (wheat- and gluten-free), topped with simple grilled meats and veggies, best liberally drizzled with piquante sauce. And when the kids get cranky, bribe them with the promise of burgers and shakes at Taylor’s Auto Refresher.
The art is astounding at DiRosa Preserve, a 217-acre indoor-outdoor collection of 2300 works of art, all by Northern California artists. Art snobs: Trust me, you won’t be disappointed; this is one of the most happening collections in all California. You can visit the Gatehouse Gallery without a reservation, but for the money shot, the permanent collection, you’ll need reservations. And it’s ideally located in Carneros, at the valley’s far-southern end, closer to the city.
Read full-length reviews of some of my favorite Napa wineries.
No time to trek to the wineries? Head to Vintners Collective, a multi-winery tasting room representing 18 small-production premium wineries, such as Melka, Ancien, Vinoce, and Showket. Tastings run $15 to $50—welcome to Napa—but these are great wines. The staff is not only knowledgeable, they’re fun. No snobs here. (Ask for Doug if you like to laugh.) If you’re feeling flush, drop $50 on the ‘private sensory tasting’; it’s like a lap dance with wine. Fabulous.
Shoppers: For kitchen gadgets, head to Shackford’s Kitchen Store, a better and less-expensive mom-and-pop alternative to the shop at the CIA Greystone—and they carry everything from madeleine molds to replacement gaskets for stovetop espresso makers.
Window-shopping in St Helena is comical. Woodhouse Chocolates charges $68 a pound for its confections. They’re exquisite, but c’mon—it’s candy, for God’s sake. (If you can afford that much, La Maison du Chocolat in Paris is better. And they ship.) Forgot your Manolo Blahnik strappy sandles? Fret not: Head to Footcandy for shoes that would do Carrie Bradshaw proud. Erin Martin Design carries a stellar collection of one-of-a-kind home furnishings, from sofas to sculptures. It’s gorgeous stuff, well worth a look, especially if you’re redoing your house.
The only reason to go to Yountville is to eat or sleep. Otherwise it’s a tourist trap—unless you’re shopping for gifts for your Midwestern grandmother.
Napa Restaurants: Cheap Eats
Downtown Napa: Start the day with breakfast or lunch at Alexis Baking Company, the local favorite for brunch, scrambles, focaccia-bread sandwiches, big bowls of coffee, and the NY Times. Pick up a boxed lunch for the car. For a retro flashback and breakfast with the blue hairs, Buttercream Bakery is the best deal in town: $5 for eggs and hash browns, served by lunch ladies with beehives and heavy eye shadow. Look for the pink-and-white-stripe paint job. At lunch or dinner, everybody loves Pizza Azzurro. Good Caesar salads too, if you’re not tired of ‘em yet.
Up-valley in Yountville, winemakers and bicyclists share the big communal table at Gordon’s Cafe and Wine Bar. If you really wanna know what’s happening in the valley, you’ll get the skinny here. The menu: homemade baked goods, croque madame sandwiches, scrambles, and awesome crispy buttermilk-chicken salad.
For strawberries in season, look for the stand on the west side of Silverado Trail, just north of Trancas St. (Up until a few months ago, you could find better berries at a little stand on the other side of the road, but it was recently torn down.)
The Oakville Grocery isn’t exactly cheap, but it’s a must-see. The cheese selection is stellar, and the deli case a charcuterie-lover’s fantasy. Alas, it was just bought by the purveyors of food-as-fashion-accessory, Dean & Deluca, so it may become even more tony in coming months.
Long before Dean & Deluca, the Napa Valley Olive Oil Manufacturing Company ($) was the place for Italian salami, stinky cheeses, olives, balsamic, prosciutto, and of course olive oil. And it still is. Open for 70-some years, this is where the cognoscenti go. Borrow a knife and sit outside at weathered old picnic tables beneath wisteria vines. NB: Don’t confuse this with the place of a similar name on Hwy 29; the real deal is at the end of Charter Oak St.
Wondering how all the Mexican laborers can afford to eat in Napa? They head to La Luna Market ($) for fat burritos with homemade hot sauce. In St Helena, wiggle your toes in the grass while you feast on all-natural burgers at Taylor’s Auto Refresher, an old-fashioned drive-up hamburger stand. They’ve opened a branch in the Ferry Building, but that doesn’t diminish the fun of the original. Expect long lines at peak times.
Napa Restaurants: The Midrange Spots
For updated classic American cooking, head to Boonfly Cafe. Think homemade doughnuts at breakfast, roast chicken and mashers, spinach salad, handcut fries, and grilled rueben sandwiches. Its location at the Carneros Inn makes it an ideal stopover en route to the valley, and it serves continuously throughout the day. In downtown Napa, Angèle ($$$) is my first choice when I’ve a hankering for French-provincial cooking. Snag a seat on the river-view patio, and order the beef bourguignon. Great burgers, too.
Dinner at Bouchon ($$$–$$$$) is like a night at the opera—theatrical, exciting, and fun—and it’s one of my favorite valley restaurants. Every design element was imported from France, from the cafe chairs to the zinc bar. Celeb-owner Thomas Keller even flew a Frenchman in to paint the place. It’s a bit too Disney-esque, but the spot-on brasserie fare—steak frites, plâteau de fruits de mer (seafood platters), and perfect profiteroles—makes up for the ersatz surroundings. If you prefer less fanfare, head down the street to Bistro Jeanty, which serves an earthier menu, with hearty dishes like cassoulet. And the chef is actually from France. Order the tomato soup.
The once-great Bistro Don Giovanni ($$$–$$$$) has lost its luster and become a factory. But if you’re with friends who insist on eating here (as many people do), request tables 50 to 59, or 70 to 79, for the best vineyard-view seating.
How refreshing: a new restaurant that’s neither French nor Italian. Go Fish ($$$–$$$$), brainchild of celeb chef Cindy Pawlcyn, doubles as a sushi bar and seafood restaurant, with a snappy blue-and-white color scheme, and not a bit of stucco or terra cotta in sight. The sushi is off-the-boat fresh, but the kitchen is skimpy with the portions and they’re overly expensive (think $7 for two pieces of red-tuna nigiri). Good alternatives: the surf-and-turf spinoffs (ahi tuna and crispy veal sweetbreads, or scallops and foie gras), butter-poached shrimp, and seafood salads. NB: The service so far this summer has been sketchy, with inexperienced waiters and bussers who don’t know enough to clear empty glassware before bringing another round of drinks. The floor managers can likewise be ineffectual in their handling of problems with customers—too bad Ms. Pawlcyn can’t be everyplace at once.
Locals favor Cook St Helena ($$–$$$), a spiffy little storefront eatery with a marble lunch counter, a dozen tables, and a straightforward menu of honest cooking. At lunch order the BLT or burger (both made with all-natural meats, of course), or the homemade fettuccine bolognese. At dinner, the braised short ribs melt off the bone. Though they’re not listed on the menu, ask for the butter-braised Brussels sprouts—carmel-y edged and sprinkled with parmesan, these aren’t your mom’s sprouts!
I love the retro-Americana look of Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen ($$–$$$), with its black-and-white booths and candy-colored glassware. The menu matches the comfy surroundings, with curried-chicken salad, fried calamari, and pork chops. The small brick patio is perfect for an al fresco lunch, but don’t expect to score an outside table during peak meal times. Locals sit at the bar and sip mojitos (which are best when Marty is tending bar).
Napa Restaurants: The Top
You don’t need me to tell you about the French Laundry. Instead, let’s talk about one of the valley’s unsung heroes, Ken Frank, the master chef behind La Toque ($$$$+). Nuance and seasonality are his watchwords, and he’s particularly adroit at eking out the essence of every ingredient he touches—particularly truffles and foie gras. Sommelier Scott Tracy is genius with his pairings, which echo the food’s subtlety; order the tasting menu and surrender to Scott. Request a table by the fire.
Farm ($$$–$$$$) is the new face of cool in Napa. Adjoining the Carneros Inn, the dining room echoes the inn’s ag theme: it’s shaped like a dairy barn. But instead of cows and hay, you’ll find purple-velvet banquettes, hardwood floors, and dramatic orange-glass light fixtures hung over white-linen-draped tables. The California-now menu features big and bold flavors, designed to pair well with Napa wines. One complaint: there’s only one style of wine glass, and it’s not for Bordeaux. If you’re a purist, bring your own Riedel.
High on a hill overlooking the valley, with the San Francisco skyline twinkling on the horizon, the terrace at Auberge du Soleil ($$$$+) is hands-down the most romantic spot in Napa. Thank goodness Chef Robert Curry’s sure-handed, elegant French-California cooking lives up to the view. If you can’t quite swing dinner, take heart: Auberge also serves breakfast ($$) and the valley’s definitive long, lingering lunch ($$$).
Japanese-born, Italian-trained chef Hiro Sone wows diners with his elegant melding of Franco-Italian-Japanese cooking at Terra ($$$$), one of the valley’s most (deservedly) famous restaurants. Sister to SF’s Ame at the St Regis Hotel, Terra’s signature dish is sake-marinated black cod with shrimp dumplings, but really, you can’t go wrong with anything here. The 1884 stone farmhouse lends high romance and marvelous drama to the dining room.
The Pat Kuleto-designed dining room at Martini House ($$$$), an impeccably restored 1923 California Craftsman, is handsome and stylin’, but for my money the romantic garden is where it’s at. How often do you get to hold hands by candlelight beneath persimmon trees? Chef-owner Todd Humphries does amazing things with mushrooms in season, but you don’t need a culinary degree to appreciate the food here—simple, straightforward, delicious. Check out the downstairs brick-and-stone bar, the perfect place to whoop it up with—what else?—martinis.
- $ = entrées under $10
- $$ = $10 to $15
- $$$ = $16 to $22
- $$$$ = $22 and up
Napa Hotels and Inns: Budget & Midrange
Make reservations as far in advance as possible. Demand exceeds supply in Napa, especially at less-expensive places. Prices skew (way) high in summer.
Surprisingly there are still a couple of up-valley lodging bargains in St Helena. El Bonita Motel ($$–$$$) has predictable, but well-maintained motel rooms. Smack dab in the middle of downtown, the Hotel St Helena ($–$$$) has reopened after a much-needed refurb that stripped much of the Victorian clutter off the walls. There are still cases of Hummel figures, and the Victorian flowered carpet remains, but tell me, where else in St Helena you can score a room for under $100 on a weekday? NB: Not all rooms have bathrooms. Those with bath spike to $225 on weekends, but drop to $145 Sunday to Thursday. But these are published rates. You can often score better deals at the last minute: few people realize that the hotel has reopened, and rooms are going empty, even on weekends. (They also let their URL lapse—and have zero web presence—so call 707-963-4388.)
Down-valley, chain-style hotels line the freeway north of downtown Napa (yes, there’s a freeway in Napa, but only at the valley’s southern end). Of these hotels, the John Muir Inn ($$–$$$) provides the most bang for your buck, with spotless rooms and extras like marble baths. It’s like the Marriott across the way, sans pretension. The second-choice Chablis Inn ($$–$$$) has plain-Jane motel rooms, but they’re clean and have better-than-average furnishings. A pool and hot tub sweeten the deal. Next door, the grungier Napa Valley Redwood Inn ($–$$) works in a pinch, but not for skirt-and-sweater travelers.
On the riverfront in the historic Hatt Building (Napa’s entirely forgettable version of Ghiradelli Square), the business-class Napa River Inn ($$$–$$$$) has the usual four-star amenities like bathrobes and triple-sheeted beds. But best of all, because of the building’s landmark status, the rooms provide a lovely sense of place. Dogs welcome; request an amenity kit for Fido.
Of the B&B inns, in downtown I most like the Blackbird Inn ($$$–$$$$) for its beautiful Craftsman architecture. And there’s no innkeeper on site watching your every move, so you can enjoy the house as you like.
In Yountville, walkable to town’s top restaurants, the romantic, ivy-covered-brick Maison Fleurie ($$–$$$$) was built at the turn-of-the-20th century as a farmhouse and carriage barn. Some rooms are smallish and a bit dark, but the sunny, French-provincial design motif brightens them up beautifully (but you had better like floral prints). Alternatively, the Burgundy House Inn ($$–$$$) has five simple rooms in a vintage-1870s stone farmhouse, also done in French-provincial style.
Okay, so it’s a skosh beyond the midrange, but I love the Rancho Caymus Inn ($$$–$$$$) and its Spanish-style architecture. Rooms in the two-story, red-tile-roof inn face a central courtyard with a gurgling fountain, and feel more like Santa Fe than Napa, with kiva fireplaces, knotty-pine ceilings, and hardwood floors. Some details need sprucing up (especially the Regan-era bathrooms), but the service is wonderful, and the mid-valley location perfect for winery-hopping. Splurge on dinner at the adjoining La Toque (see Restaurants, above).
Napa Hotels: The Top End
The Carneros Inn ($$$$+) sets the new standard for chic in Napa. The idea was to build a sort of village, with a fashion-forward ag theme, and details such as corrugated-tin horse-trough fountains, and barn-style architecture. Rooms are in freestanding cottages with rocking-chair porches, cherry-wood floors, poured-concrete fireplaces, and private outdoor decks. Bathrooms are fabulous: all have indoor and outdoor showers with Frisbee-sized rainfall shower heads, and the heated tile floors are thermostatically controlled, ideal for yoga or l’amour par terre. Surrounded by thousands of acres of rolling pastureland and vineyards, the inn sits in one of Napa’s most beautiful locales; soak up the unobstructed views from the gorgeous pool deck.
The grande dame of Napa’s lodging scene, Meadowood ($$$$+) is the valley’s only true full-service luxury resort, with a nine-hole golf course, top-end spa, croquet lawns, five miles of hiking trails, and an enormous swimming pool perfect for a game of water polo with 20 of your friends. Think country club tucked in a lushly wooded dell: Wear linen in summer, cashmere in winter, and blend right in. Rooms are in freestanding cottages scattered about the vast property, some on hillsides shaded by hundred-year-old oaks, others in New England-style lodge buildings abutting the croquet lawns; most have wood-burning fireplaces, perfect on a chilly Napa evening. All are conservatively decorated in muted earth tones, and have the requisite amenities, from robes and slippers to sumptuous beds with gazillion-thread-count linens—some of the best in the valley. One caveat: though some rooms are among the best in the valley (specifically the Estate Rooms, which are fit for royalty), others need a bit of updating. Because of the vast array of accommodations, be sure to talk with reservationists about your preferences. If you have kids, stay near the pool or croquet lawn. If you’re on a date, request something more secluded. Don’t miss the recently overhauled Restaurant at Meadwood, which bests even the venerable Auberge du Soleil. (Editor’s note, 9-18-07: I’ll soon be adding reviews of Auberge, as well as the Restaurant at Meadowood. In the meantime, if you’re planning a trip and need to know more right now, post a comment at the bottom of the page. I’ll reply right away.)
Don’t let its in-town Napa address fool you: Milliken Creek Inn ($$$$+) is one of the cushiest spots in the entire valley. A former stagecoach stop on the banks of the Napa River, the inn’s ten rooms sport a vaguely British-Colonial style, with rattan and leather, Indonesian hardwood furnishings, soothing putty-colored walls, and zillion-thread-count linens. And oh, those enormous bathtubs. Book an upstairs room overlooking the river. Don’t be surprised when you come back from dinner to find tea lights burning in your room. In all my years as a travel writer, I’ve never seen that anywhere, and I loved it—it felt so dangerously romantic. There’s also a small onsite spa.
The gardens are spectacular at the Harvest Inn ($$$$+), where several Tudor-style buildings house guest rooms that abut hundreds of acres of vineyards. The best front directly on the fields, but all have fireplaces (either gas or wood-burning), and many have Jacuzzis on private decks. The newest rooms lack character, but they have the most up-to-date amenities, such as flat-screen TVs; alas they’re entirely predictable. Better to stick to the older rooms. The executive suites have the most space and they’ve just been renovated this past spring.
Two of my favorite high-end places to stay in the valley, the Chateau de Vie and Meadowlark Country House, are located just north of St Helena in the town of Calistoga. Read full details in our Calistoga guide.
- $ = standard double under $100
- $$ = $100 to $200
- $$$ = $200 to $300
- $$$$ = $300 & up