It’s easy to find wine tasting opportunities in the Napa Valley. Just ask your chauffer. Or if you’re not on one of those all-you-can-sip, designated-driver, wine limo tours, you can just try glancing out your car window as you drive up Highway 29 – the main artery from Napa to Calistoga.
Vineyard showrooms pop up like Starbucks. Highway 29 is awash with roadside wineries, old and new, beckoning you to stop in and swirl a glass or two.
But if you are looking for good food, it’s not as obvious where to start. Dining gems like Mustard’s are visible along the highway as is Dean and Deluca, which makes great take-out sandwiches. But other food finds take some exploring.
Here’s a hint that might prove helpful. Start by trying one of two Napa Valley streets just a minute or two off Highway 29. Each is dotted with interesting food destinations worth your attention – First Street in Napa and, a few miles further north, Washington Street in Yountville.
Here are several places I have tried, and others I have only glanced at enviously, along these two streets.
FIRST STREET, NAPA
Napa Valley Toffee Company, 1470 First Street is Napa’s version of a candy store. The buttery, chocolate-covered toffee is hand-made and packaged on-premise. But this is Napa, so the toffee company’s definition of confectionery extends to fine wine tasting and chocolate and wine pairing as well. Candy store indeed. http://www.napavalleytoffeecompany.com/Home_Page.php.
Oenotri, 1425 First Street – Italian food for grown-ups. Bustling. A little noisy. Enthusiastic diners and servers. The menu changes frequently. But the selections I enjoyed seem to be regulars. Dry-cured salumi that entices you to ignore the salt and fat content and just enjoy the taste and texture. If you’ve ever considered trying squab, this is the place. There is also a wide variety of pasta, meat and fish dishes and desserts – some familiar, some more exotic. All appealing. http://oenotri.com/
Sushi Mambo, 1202 First Street – I haven’t eaten here, but the expanse of windows fronting First showed a crowded, modern-looking dining room, suggesting the presence of good food or at least a large number of undemanding customers. http://sushimambonapa.com/index2.html
Oxbow Public Market, 644 First Street – Just across the river on First is a treat for all foodies, a modern emporium of delights modeled after the San Francisco’s Ferry Building. Not surprising since the founder is also one of the creators of the Ferry Building Marketplace. Oxbow is very Napa – a 40,000 square-foot collection of vendors featuring mostly sustainable, organic, locally grown foods. Free range Northern California beef, organic ice cream, locally-harvested olive oils, cheese-makers, wine merchants, bakers and a collection of restaurants and take-out. And a lot more. http://www.oxbowpublicmarket.com/
WASHINGTON STREET, YOUNTVILLE
For years, Yountville meant the Veterans Home. Almost one third of the town’s population lives there. But during dining hours, Washington Street attracts a different crowd – gourmet diners heading to destination restaurants owned by celebrity chefs.
I haven’t tried all of them. Some are named here simply to illustrate the star power of the street. But I can strongly recommend two – each across the parking lot from the other – Michael Chiarello’s Bottega and Thomas Keller’s Bouchon.
Bouchon Bistro, 6528 Washington Street – This is Keller’s French brasserie. It can get noisy and active. But it is a dining and people-watching treat with a varied menu. There are lots of dishes to try, but you can’t go wrong with the roast chicken and truffle fries. The Bouchon Bakery is next door. http://www.bouchonbistro.com/
Bottega, 6525 Washington Street – Chiarello’s elegant showplace for his Italian cooking. Calmer and quieter than Bouchon, this converted winery serves a signature polenta appetizer, pasta carbonara with organic egg, sweet onions and smoked prosciutto and the fluffiest ricotta gnocchi you will ever try. http://www.botteganapavalley.com/index.html
Keller also has Ad Hoc at 6476 Washington – http://www.adhocrestaurant.com/ and the French Laundry at 6640 Washington – http://www.frenchlaundry.com/. Bistro Jeanty is at 6510 Washington – http://www.bistrojeanty.com/. Each is nationally-known.
Yes. There are lots of other places to try. Fresh, inventive and very different from what you are likely to eat at home. But in the spirit of getting off to the right start, you won’t go wrong if you go right down First Street in Napa or Washington Street in Yountville.