Lucky you if you are staying in Downtown Napa. In the past finding good eats meant getting back in the car and driving to Yountville or beyond but recently the dining scene in Downtown has become a destination in itself. Hey Morimoto, you picked a good spot!
From fine dining to tapas, foie gras to beer can chicken, you'll find everything you might be looking for from a romantic trendy experience to a kick back local scene. During the day you can browse the food items at Oxbow Market, grab a gourmet burger at the less crowded second location of Gott's Roadsite, or grab some sushi made by a real Iron Chef. When night hits the scene is jumping and lively, just the way I like it.
A true locals hangout, Angel's has some serious local credentials. One of it's owners built Auberge du Soleil while the other managed The French Laundry and was General Manager at both Bistro Jeanty and Bistro Don Giovanni.
Modeled after a Paris bistro that was downstairs where the mother of the owners lived, Angele offers both intimate inside dining as well as outside terrace dining with a view of the river.
The setting is warm contemporary - cement floors mixed with an open wood beamed ceiling - you'll feel comfortable whether you arrive in khaki's or dressed up in style. Located in the historic Napa Mill building, you might want to arrive a bit early to browse the goods at the Napa General Store, a fun store filled with unusual housewares, cookbooks, and plenty of "made in Napa" goods.
Everything is good, from the killer burger and fries at lunch to the Classic Cassoulet for two made with their homemade sausage, ham hock, duck confit and cellini beans - get a side of “Gratin de Macaroni”, aka mac-n-cheese done up French style. I love steak frites and Angele's does it right - delicious! Can't decide? A 5 course tasting menu is $95 or $135 with wine pairings - I guarantee you will not be disappointed. A delightful setting makes this one of the more romantic restaurants in the downtown area.
With animal heads on the walls and a hunting lodge theme, the last thing you would expect is first rate food and a first rate wine list. But this is Napa Valley and that's exactly what you'll find at The Bounty Hunter, a local favorite.
With barbecues and smokers out back, The Bounty Hunter manages to turn out some incredible food. Their signature dish is the Beer Can Chicken for two, served still perched on the beer can and ready to carve. If you're hungry, and I mean John Candy hungry, opt for the Cowboy Steak, a 40 oz bone-in ribeye, or the Smokehouse BBQ Platter with beef brisket, pulled pork, and piles of ribs, big enough to share with everyone at the table. There are plenty of appetizers and small plates as well and Happy Hour (M-F, 3 to 6) offers up deals like 2-for-1 wines and specially priced ribs and BBQ platters. Even if I'm not hungry I can't pass The Bounty Hunter without ordering a rack of ribs.
Of course, The Bounty Hunter has wine and plenty by the glass, including some of their own private label which is anything but "house wine". A fun place, great food, tons of locals, essential downtown Napa dining experience.
Right now I'm wishing I was back on the romantic patio at Celedon, sitting in front of the fireplace with a plate of their delicious mussels, the ones cooked with applewood bacon, tomatoes and white wine. Mmmmmm.
The mussels are so good you won't even care about your date. Pass the bread... sorry, did you say something?
In fact, everything at Celadon is incredible. The menu features "global comfort food", which basically means taking flavors from around the world and melding them into classics you love. It's not a steak and fries, it's a Kobe steak with garlic fries and chimichurri. The roasted chicken breast is updated with a Mongolian BBQ sauce. Try the crispy soy-braised pork belly with watermelon, rice wine vinegar and Asian green herbs, and don't miss their updated take on classic cocktails. No, it's not crazy fusion, it's expertly conceived and prepared by one of the best chefs in Napa. Dine indoors for a trendy and contemporary setting, or outside on the warm and romantic patio. Elegantly casual, a downtown Napa top pick.
Owned by Greg Cole, the same person who brought you the more casual Celadon, Cole's Chop House is an upscale, fine dining steak house, much in the same vein as Ruth's Chris only done up Napa-style. Zaget called it the best steak house in the entire San Francisco Bay Area. Seriously!
Housed in old 1800's exhibit hall once used for the Napa and Sonoma fairs, the spacious two story restaurant features the original wood floors, an open truss ceiling, and exposed stone walls. It's a substantial building to go with a substantial meal. Like all fine steak houses, you order your cut of meat and sides separately. Bone-in Ribeye, Lamb Chops, a 24 oz Porterhouse - you know what I'm talking about. A la carte sides you'd expect - creamed spinach, grilled asparagus with hollandaise - plus one that you don't find everyday - Hash Browns! Mmmmm, I LOVE hash browns! (Tip: Skip the onions in the hash browns unless you really like, and I mean really like, onions).
So Cole's is the place, but it's not cheap. It's definitely a "dress up" sort of place, and expect to drop big bucks by the end of the meal. But also expect to leave satisfied that you got what you paid for as Cole's has yet to disappoint those looking for the best steak in the valley served up in an elegant and sophisticated setting.
Coles Chop House: website / map
1122 Main Street, Napa, CA 94559 (707) 224-6328
Average Entree: $59 steaks, a la carte, $27 to $36 for pork and lamb, salads $10
Best for: Fancy dining, extravagant steaks, bring that bottle of Cab you bought today!
If you love oysters, you're going to want to write this down- Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 5 to 7. That's when Hog Island Oysters, arguably the best oysters anywhere, go on Happy Hour sale for a buck apiece and pints of beer are $3.50.
That's right, the oysters that normally sell for $30 a dozen are a buck! Get out!
Located in the Oxbow Marketplace, Hog Island Oysters looks a lot like a food court restaurant, but glance at the menu and you'll see these guys are serious about seafood. Besides raw oysters there's grilled oysters, beer battered fried oysters, oyster po'boys, along with salads, fish stews. clams and chowders. It's all delicious and ultra casual, you find a bar stool you grab it fast because there's no better seafood in Napa and no better deal than dollar oysters at Hog Island. Even if you miss Happy Hour, you still need to go to Hog Island Oysters if you love seafood.
Hog Island Oysters (Oxbow Marketplace) website / map
641 1st Street, Napa, CA 94965 (707) 251-8113
Average Entree: $14
Best for: Oyster and seafood lovers, go for happy hour for cheap (and incredible) oysters.
Fish Story, located in the new Riverfront development on the Napa River, offers some of the freshest seafood in a lively urban setting. Best yet, they do it at a price point that won't give you sticker shock at the end.
Looking like the scene at a trendy San Francisco restaurant, the bar is hopping with locals and visitors noshing on appetizers and enjoying the microbrews, brewed right there on premise. Wines on tap help keep the budget in check and are surprisingly good. This is Napa after all, where bad wine isn't tolerated.
The menu ranges from fresh lobster and crab kept in holding tanks to succulent fish that's so fresh it'll melt in your mouth. There are also standards like fish and chips, steaks and burgers for the non-seafood diners, the hardest thing about the menu is deciding what to order. Even harder will be to find something over $25, a true bargain for seafood of this caliber. And here's a tip - don't miss the butterscotch pudding for dessert. Move over creme brulee, this might become your new favorite!
So the next time you're in Napa and you want something besides "upscale comfort food" or "Cali-French Cuisine", head over to Fish Story for some of the freshest seafood you'll ever taste.
Fish Story: website / map / expanded review
790 Main Street, Napa, CA 94559 (707) 251-5600
Average Entree: $22
Best for: Super fresh seafood at reasonable prices, casual enough for jeans and a jacket.
Does TV ever lie? There are a lot of celebrity chefs on TV, all of them seemingly fantastic cooks able to whip up outstanding looking dishes in 30 minutes. But what happens when they actually open a restaurant and cook for you? Can reality be as good as TV?
If the chef is Morimoto, the celebrity Iron Chef, the answer is a resounding YES! His new restaurant in the Riverfront development is setting new standards for high end seafood and sushi and quickly becoming the new dining hot spot in the valley.
Morimoto takes the freshest seafood to a new level with his innovative preparations and creative presentations. Sushi lovers will not be disappointed. But not everything is raw. The crispy whole fish is a standout, nicely prepared and served deboned, and there are steaks and grilled meats for non-seafoodies. For those who can't make up their minds, and I don't blame you, opt for the $35 sushi sampler or go large with the $110 chef's choice menu. Budget conscience diners need not shy away - plated dinner entrees are in the $25 range - but it's just as easy to blow the entire vacation budget if you order off the sushi menu. Ambiance is cool and contemporary, vibrant like a cocktail party, made all the more festive when the Iron Chef himself is strolling through the restaurant.
MORIMOTO NAPA: website / map
610 Main Street, Napa, CA 94559 (707) 252-1600
Average Entree: $30, though you can easily spend a lot more.
Best for: Sushi and seafood connoissuers, trendy diners looking for adventure.
With so much good food in Napa, should you "spend" a dinner on a train instead of a Michelin star restaurant? Maybe.....
The idea behind the Wine Train was to create an experience similar to that of the Orient Express, an experience once reserved for the wealthiest of the wealthy.
That said, the Napa Valley Wine Train succeeds for those looking for a romantic and unusual dining experience. You'll love the nostalgic trip in the refurbished dining cars, the train looking like something out of the old Wild, Wild West TV show. Appetizers are served as the train chugs its way from downtown to St. Helena, then dinner on the way back. The dinner entree's are fairly standard - beef tenderloin with mushroom sauce, or chicken breast on top of polenta - and if the quality isn't making Thomas Keller nervous, you have to give them credit for serving up such large quantities on a moving train.
With the basic dinner package costing a hundred bucks without wine, it's not cheap. In fact, if all you are looking for is good food, you'll find much better food at Mustards, Bouchon, Rutherford Grill, to name a few - for a lot less. But who can argue with the travelers who got off raving about how much fun they had and grabbing the souvenir photos of themselves standing in front of the train? Foodies may shun it and locals may mock it, but there's no denying that it's one of the most popular "restaurants" in Napa Valley.
It's the strangest thing, but sometimes I just can't decided what to order when I go out to eat. That's when I wish I had just gone to Zuzu, a hip new trendy place that serves up tapas - sort of like a restaurant that just serves appetizers.
With tapas you don't order an entree but rather get a bunch of small plates of different things and sample away. And at Zuzu, these small plates of Spanish meets Napa foods are so good that you'll be happy with every selection.
So what to order? How about a plate of roasted baby artichokes, then a bite of flat iron steak, why not add the new potatoes with mushrooms fried in duck fat, then some paella, wait, add some sizzling prawns, a plate of duck with couscous, and anyone want to share the Moroccan barbequed rack of lamb? It's got a Spanish flair to the food, but it's with the Napa crowd in mind. With plates averaging between $6 to $10, try them all. The meat dishes are a bit more expensive, but there's nothing over $14.
With Latin music in the background and a trendy crowd mix of locals with visitors, this is one lively place at dinner time. Come here to have some fun, to kick back and relax as you try new things. Keep an open mind and try lots of new flavors and you just might be one of those folks who swear that Zuzu has the best food in Napa
ZUZU: website / map
829 Main Street, Napa, CA 94559 (707) 224-8555
Average Entree: $8 for small plates, figure 3 per person
Best for: Casual dining of excellent food, fun for groups so you can sample lots of items.
WHERE TO NEXT?
BEST PLACES TO EAT IN YOUNTVILLE
SPRING 2015: In just a few months the vines will be budding but for now take advantage of the small crowds and personal attention you'll find in the wineries and restaurants. Remember, if you're stuck just send me an email and I'll help you out... for free!
Need a driver? Lately I've been getting a lot of requests for tours or personal drivers, which is smart if you want to drink lots of wine and not risk getting pulled over. I have a few friends in Napa who can really show you the local spots so reach out to me and I'll connect you to them.
And this is way off topic but if you love Maui you should check out my latest guide, Local Wally's Guide to Maui.