You're in serious wine and food country by the time you pass Oakville Grocery, the country store that caters to gourmets. There's dining for every budget and even the fast food is done up Napa style so there's no way you're leaving this area hungry. The town of St. Helena is busy and bustling so get out of the car to walk the street and check out the shops and eateries. Foodies will not want to miss the Culinary Institute of America where you can take classes or just dine on extraordinary food made by student chefs.
Most people don't know that Auberge du Soleil actually started as a restaurant, not a resort. As Napa Valley's first fine dining restaurant offering French-California cuisine, it continues as one of Napa's most popular dining destinations since it opened in 1981.
Sitting outside on the patio for lunch is one of Napa's most indulgent delights. There's a casual elegance here, a setting that feels luxurious without making you feel unworthy. Inside, the dining room is white tablecloth dining, fancy but not stuffy, a good pick for romantic dining.
Some have compared Auberge du Soleil to The French Laundry, Napa's finest restaurant. The food is inventive, creative, first class all the way. But at $98 for three courses and $115 for four, it's not inexpensive - this is special occasion dining. For those with the money there's the $140 tasting menu ($227 with wine) and for the truly wealthy there's private dining for two, a four course dinner prepared by a Michelin star chef - for $1,495 per couple. Lunch is more reasonable at around $30 per entree, and for those on a tighter budget should meet me in the bistro/bar where splitting an order of pomme frites (french fries) with aioli sauce ($8) while sipping a martini as the sun sets is nearly as satisfying.
Auberge du Soleil Restaurant: website / web
180 Rutherford Hill Road, Rutherford, CA 94573 (800) 348-5406
Average Entree: $35 lunch, $100 dinner
Best for: Wealthy food lovers in the restaurant, poor food lovers like me in the bistro bar.
Off the beaten path in St. Helena is a rustic cottage house. Cindy Pawlcyn, who found great success with Mustard's Grill, takes home cooking to the next level by cooking it in an actual home.
Feeling more like a cottage than a restaurant, it's as comfortable as an old pair of Docksiders yet still has that hip and upscale feel to it. There's white tablecloths and striped upholstery, an inviting patio with a wood burning brick fireplace, flowers lining the walkways, a cozy patio out back. Food TV addicts will remember Giada flashing her giant smile as she dined here.
Cindy likes to take well known foods and turn them inside out, keeping what made you love them in the first place but putting a new twist or spin on it to make it fresh and exciting. You'll find burgers, of course, but she also has a Chinatown Duck Burger made of ground duck and served with a shiitake mushroom ketchup. Meatloaf with horseradish bbq sauce, Mushroom Tamales, it's all familiar on one level and all new on another. The food is mainly California casual but during the week you'll want to check out Cindy's Supper Club, a prix fixe dinner showcasing foods from various cultures.
For those who don't watch Anthony Bourdain or Travel Channel food shows, the Culinary Institute of America, CIA for short, is the prestigious cooking school for aspiring chefs.
Housed in the massive stone Greystone building that was once home to Christian Brothers, it's an impressive setting. Food lovers will want to walk around the "campus" to check out the displays and take in a cooking demonstration and serious home cooks will be salivating over the one or two day cooking classes.
The Wine Spectator Greystone Restaurant offers food cooked by the "students", but don't think for a moment that the food will be amateurish or a Next Food TV Star challenge disaster. The beautiful open kitchen lets you watch the chefs prepare your food and the patio is so inviting that a stop for lunch often turns into an all afternoon event. Those on a tighter budget or time frame but who still want to check out the CIA and the cooking will like the Happy Hour offer of Five Bites and a Glass of Wine for $10, served Mon - Thurs from 430 to 630.
CIA's Wine Spectator Greystone Restaurant: website / web
2555 Main Street, St Helena, CA (707) 967-1010
Average Entree: $30
Best for: Food TV addicts, a great place to be for happy hour on a nice warm afternoon.
Don't let the new name confuse you. Gott's Roadside is the former Taylor's Refresher, the gourmet burger joint that's housed in an old time drive-in and has been featured on just about every Food TV or Travel Channel special on best burgers.
The name change was due to a legal disagreement between the Gott brothers and the Taylor family. While some have argued that Gott's name is no way near as catchy as Taylor's, the food remains the same.
Lines form early with people trying to get a rare ahi burger with ginger wasabi mayo and Asian cole slaw or the delicious Western Bacon Blue Ring, a burger topped with an onion ring with crumbled blue cheese piled in the center and bacon, pickles, red onion & BBQ sauce. Old fashioned root beer floats or thick milk shakes made with real ice cream, just like they made them in the grandpa's days. Or beer and wine. Say what? Hey, you're in Napa, what did you expect? The crispy fries, the sweet potato fries, the chili cheese fries, the onion rings, man oh man this is what the doctor ordered for those suffering from boring burger joint syndrome. Great stuff served here, sit on a picnic table in the back and have one heck of a dining experience.
Gott's Roadside (Taylor's Refresher) website / map
933 Main Street, St Helena, CA (707) 963-3486
Second Location in Downtown Napa at Oxbow Market
Average Entree: $10, pricier for specialty burgers
Best for: Burger lovers, make that gourmet burger lovers, the rare ahi sandwich is incredible!
Sometimes great food is found in unusual places. Who would expect to find an actual Mexican market selling groceries in front, tacos in the back, right smack in the middle of prime time Rutherford. But that's exactly what La Luna is.
Forget about trendy, this is the original Napa style. There's nothing fancy here, no pretensions, and no Dean & Deluca prices. Pick your meat filling, everything from carne asada to carnitas, beef tongue to slow cooked cows head, then decide if you want a taco ($1.75), a burrito ($5.25) or a Mexican sandwich torta ($5.05). You can even get a combo to go ($6.75), a box lunch filled with rice, beans, meat, guacamole, tortillas, sour cream, everything you need for a fantastic picnic lunch.
If lately your dining has been a bit too fancy, a bit too fusion, a bit too expensive, then go back to basics and eat where the farm workers go. Grab that blanket you stole from the hotel and go have a picnic with some of the best Mexican food you'll ever taste. Who knows, it may be your favorite meal in Napa.
La Luna Market and Taqueria: website / map
1153 Rutherford Rd, Rutherford, CA (707) 963-3211
Average Entree: $6
Best for: Those looking for great Mexican food who don't mind eating on a picnic table.
Ask around the wineries what restaurant they like to go to for casual yet well executed dining and you'll hear "Market" come up a lot. With the beautiful casual setting and the creative takes on American comfort foods, I can see why.
The space it occupies was a drug store in the late 1800's. The original fieldstone walls give it impressive character as does the impressive ornate wood that backs the bar, which was salvaged from the Grand Ballroom from The Palace Hotel in San Francisco. But wait - are those oysters?
Yes, Market has a large selection of oysters, a perfect way to start the meal. The "big plates" feature steaks and seafood, chicken and chops and there are updated classics like fried chicken and champagne battered fish and chips that will make you a believer. An order of their updated Mac-N-Cheese with Aged Fiscalini Cheddar, Parmigiano-Reggiano and Bacon proves they're a strong competitor in the overcrowded upscale comfort food scene.
You know this guy - he's Michael Chiarello of Food TV fame. At one time this was his restaurant, earning a spot next to some of the top culinary experiences in Napa. Well, Michael is gone but Tra Vigne continues to win people over with their upscale Italian food and delightful setting.
You enter into a courtyard with mulberry trees and wrought iron tables. It looks, well, like a set off of Napa-Style, one of Michael's TV shows. It's a cross between Napa and Italy, so quaint and romantic that you'll forget that busy Highway 29 is right on the other side of the wall. Step inside the stone building and there's high vaulted ceilings in the warm and inviting main dining room, casual and relaxed yet still elegant enough for a night out. For the romantics out there, there's also a private table for 2 in the garden, perfect for popping the question or just celebrating in privacy (call ahead to reserve).
The food is Italian, but this isn't Olive Garden. Mozzarella cheese made right there the second you order it, house made pastas, whole fish cooked in a wood oven, there's a lot of artistry here. With classic Italian hospitality and setting, a great menu of both classics and the inventive and views of the vineyards from the friendly patio, it's a Napa experience that deserves to be on your list. Next door is the casual Pizzeria Tra Vigne, which is a locals favorite with many claiming it's the best pizza in Napa.
Let's get one thing out of the way right now. Yes, I know that Rutherford's Grill is a chain restaurant that's known as Houston's in other areas. But this is no Chili's, trust me.
Maybe it's the smell of the wood burning grill, maybe it's the eclectic menu, maybe it's just the air of excitement when you walk in, but this casual eatery is a perfect place to end a day of wine tasting.
While most people opt for the wonderful outside patio or the inside family friendly booths, I always head straight for the bar. The "view" is great for people watching, the two women bartenders fun and friendly. And here's a tip - there's no corkage fee so grab that bottle you bought today that you were going to save for a special occasion and crack it open tonight!
I stop here on every trip and while everything is darn good, there are a few favorites that stand out. The burgers and sandwiches are good, but I really like both the pork chop, cooked over applewood with a nice but not overpowering smoke taste, and the sliced lamb, cooked slow over the wood fired rotisserie. A lot of people love, I mean really love, their babyback pork ribs. They're literally fall off the bone tender. And the sliced steak and enchiladas go great with a glass of red wine.
It's always going to be busy, it's loud and noisy, you'll probably have an insane wait, but it's worth it. Rutherford's Grill is probably the best casual dining spot in Napa. Wear your favorite pair of jeans and if you see an open seat at the bar, push your way through the crowds and grab it!
Rutherford Grill: website / map
1180 Rutherford Road, Rutherford, CA 94573 (707) 963-1792
Average Entree: $24 entrees, $15 sandwiches
Best for: Hungry people looking for casual dining and honest food.
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The big Napa news is that we now have our own online store called Napa Valley Home & Garden. We're bringing the best of Napa Farmhouse living right to your home. Check it out - we're open for business!