What do you think when you hear the words “Napa” and “Sonoma?” Wine, right? (I know, you are probably rolling your eyes and muttering “duh” as you read this.)
But here is the thing… In addition to being home to more than 900 wineries and vineyards, each Northern California region is also a culinary capital of epically delicious proportions. Today, we’re taking a look at some of the best food in Napa.
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Just north of San Francisco lies Napa County and its 500-plus wineries. Given that the region’s claim to fame comes in a bottle, many don’t realize the area is among the top dining destinations in the world. First on most everyone’s list for the best food in Napa is The French Laundry.
Once an actual French steam laundry center, The French Laundry is led by Thomas Keller, a past James Beard Best Chef in America honoree and icon, and widely considered the standard by which fine dining restaurants are measured. Check out Chef Keller's various cookbooks here.
Lucy Restaurant & Bar
If you like the Laundry, then you will love Lucy. Lucy, in this particular instance, is Lucy Restaurant & Bar at Bardessono Resort. Chic, sexy and sustainable both in its design and its dishes, Lucy is NorCal fine dining at its best. Goodies from the certified organic garden? Check! Mind-bending wine list? Check! Mad mixologists and liquid artists behind the bar? Check. Dog-friendly? Check! This is definitely a must for your list of the best food in Napa.
August In The Lucy's Restaurant is a book for kids 7-13. It has nothing to do with the restaurant in California, but it is really fun.
Given the region is best known for Cabernet Sauvignon, and cab goes best with red meat, push your group to visit PRESS. Dimly lit and cozy, Press has a menu of dry-aged USDA prime steaks so tender you may not even need a knife to cut them.
Beyond that, the restaurant is a true expression of the region. It is a contemporary farmhouse-style restaurant tucked between rolling, vine-covered hills. It offers grand views of the Mayacamas Mountains. Under the direction of chef Philip Tessier, PRESS is a celebration of flavor.
Chef Tessier was part of the American team at Bocuse d'Or, the Olympics of the cooking world, in 2015 where the American's took the gold for the first time in history. You can read the riveting story and discover some of the recipes in Chef Tessier's book, Chasing Bocuse: America's Journey to the Culinary World Stage.
Points must also go to Harvest Table, one of the most lauded restaurants in Northern California and just next door to PRESS. The ingredients at this self-proclaimed wine country kitchen (love that—wish I’d thought of it!) are heavily sourced from northern California to ensure freshness, and the dishes, which change semi-weekly, are second to none.
You didn't think we were finished with the best food in Napa, did you? Next, we move on to Mustards Grill. It is perfect for folks who want to casually come as they are, yet experience gourmand greatness. For many, the 30-something restaurant is an institution. And yes, it is named for the wild mustard that grows well in the area.
Chef Cindy Pawlcyn makes a mean pork chop and knows her way around seafood. What really stands out to me is the way she uses fresh greens and seasonal produce, much of it from her own garden. As an aside, if visiting isn't possible right now, consider one of Chef Pawlcyn's cookbooks, including the James Beard Award-winning Mustards Grill Napa Valley Cookbook.
North Block Restaurant
On the opposite side of the spectrum, North Block Restaurant is the new kid on the…well…block. The restaurant just went through a transformation thanks to newly introduced chef Nicholas Tamburo, formerly of the iconic Momofuku Group. Only open a short while, Tamburo has wasted no time taking advantage of the proximity to the nearby Pacific Ocean, dishing up both raw and cooked delicacies from the sea including oysters, halibut, and black cod. Don’t sleep on his wood-fired sourdough pizzas either, especially the duck sausage offering with chili oil.
Now, if North Block is the new northern Cali kid and Mustards Grill is the lifetime achievement award winner, then RH Yountville is the flashy, splashy neighbor known for some of the best dinner parties in town. The Restoration Hardware-owned property is actually a wine, food, and shopping mecca comprised of five separate experiences: an indoor/outdoor restaurant with a glass roof surrounded by trees and adorned with eye-poppingly beautiful chandeliers; a two-story wine tasting space; a limited production wine tasting center that looks like Lisa Vanderpump’s Villa Rosa (and we mean that in a good way!); an espresso bar; and a boutique design gallery bigger and better than the biggest and best you’ve ever seen.
But, back to the food, because there is a lot of it. The shareable items are my personal favorites, especially the crispy artichokes and cheese served with strawberry preserves and fresh-made bread. The rest of the menu includes stand-outs in every section. At the top of your must-order list, however, are those that showcase California’s bounty— lettuces, cheeses, mushrooms, and seafood. You will quickly understand why this makes our list of the best food in Napa.
Sam’s Social Club
A bit farther north in Napa’s Calistoga region is another “must”. Be sure to include Sam’s Social Club on your list of the best food in Napa.
The eatery, located at Indian Springs Resort, is named after Calistoga founder Sam Brannan. History buffs (well, newspaper nerds like me!) will also recognize Brannan’s name as the founder of the California Star. It was San Francisco’s first-ever newspaper, established back in 1847. I adore Sam’s because, while completely unpretentious, the food is beautiful and extremely elevated.
Executive Chef Sergio Morales takes great pride in his friendships with local purveyors and artisans as well as farmers, and the guests benefit from the bounty he enjoys from them. Both the interior and exterior make guests feel welcome and a part of the family. Indoors, you'll find massive ceilings and an artsy bar serving an eclectic list of cocktails and a laundry list of wines from the region and elsewhere. Outside, the patio glows with sparkle lights and fire pits every evening.
Finally, before we get into some of the WOW dining at the actual wineries, we have to mention Long Meadow Ranch. Actually, there are now several Long Meadow Ranch Farms, but St. Helena is the granddaddy of them all. The family-owned, biodynamic, solar-powered farm boasts wines, extra virgin olive oils, grass-fed beef, eggs, and heirloom fruits and vegetables.
At the heart of the St. Helena property is Farmstead, a farmhouse restaurant that also features an outdoor café, general store, and farmer’s market, each with its own vibe, tastings, and tours depending on where your taste buds want to take you.
Those seeking perfectly paired bites with the area’s top wine varietals are also in luck. Many area vineyards have in-house, acclaimed chefs working to provide tasty, small bites, and full-on multi-course menus to accompany wine tastings.
Louis M. Martini Winery offers a Heritage Lounge Tasting courtesy Chef Jeffery Russell. This features culinary options like foie gras mousse with local jam and beet macarons crafted to highlight the winery's most exclusive and sought-after small-lot wines.
Robert Mondavi Winery offers a Garden to Table dinner featuring a winery and garden tour followed by a three-course dinner al fresco. Mondavi actually has a handful of culinary offerings from brunch to lunch to full-scale cooking classes. Each is a winner.
Similarly, Charles Krug fills one’s belly while filling one’s glass. Our favorite experience: the outdoor cabana and brick oven pizza! It is easy, breezy, and casual, yet a WOW for all the senses.
The nearby Joseph Phelps Vineyards is a good bet as well. In addition to pitch-perfect Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Riesling, and Gewurztraminer on the property, there are great wine blending and wine pairing experiences. I recommend Bountiful Table, which is a multi-course adventure through all things sweet, savory, succulent, and sumptuous in food and drink.
Oh, Napa’s also got bacon. Meaning, it has full bacon and wine pairing experience, courtesy of Priest Ranch. (I know, right!?!) During the two-hour experience, you get the chance to sip your way through four of their wines, pairing each with a locally raised Berkshire pork belly.
And finally, make it to the makery. By this, I mean the Prisoner Makery Food and Experience. Set at the Prisoner Wine estate, this Wine Enthusiast finalist for the experience of the year features exceptional food and immersive wine experiences.
Coming Soon to the Napa Food Scene
Looking ahead, diners are in for a treat by mid-year in Napa as the first-ever Four Seasons property opens in the region. With it comes TRUSS Restaurant + Bar, which will be led by Chef Erik Anderson. Chef Anderson comes from the two Michelin-starred San Francisco restaurant COI, and brings a multitude of national accolades including being named one of Food & Wine’s “Best New Chefs” (2012), Food & Wine’s “Best New Chef All-Star” (2013), Bon Appetit’s “Best New Restaurants in America” (2012), GQ’s “Top Ten Best New Restaurants in America” (2012), and a semi-finalist for the James Beard Award for “Best New Restaurant” (2012). Word is he is dreaming up something very big for this much-anticipated opening. Stay tuned!
If your hunger is making you long for unique dining experiences, these are some of the restaurants offering up the best food in Napa. Be sure to check out Wander for more great things to do—and some favorite sips—while you visit Napa and wander throughout California.