Surrounded by vineyards and quaint shops, Yountville is quintessential Napa Valley. It's also home to some of the best restaurants... in the world!
Celebrity chef Thomas Keller has 3 restaurants here and Michael Chiarello of Food TV fame can often be seen in chef whites hanging outside his restaurant. That alone might be enough to just dine here and forget the rest but there are plenty of other food destinations to make your decision that much harder. How about a stop by Bouchon Bakery in the morning for some fresh coffee and a box of decadent macaroons so authentic you'll believe you're in Paris? Or how about some late night dining at Hurly's, and you simply cannot leave Napa without going to Mustard's Grill. Wait, did someone just say they're going to The French Laundry? Lucky!
It's well known that Thomas Keller of The French Laundry loves In-N-Out Burger. So it was no surprise when he announced that he was planning on opening a gourmet burger restaurant in Yountville.
As he made his plans, he opened a temporary restaurant serving up one menu each night featuring the freshest ingredients based on what was locally available. This restaurant, Ad Hoc, became an instant success and soon the burger idea was abandoned, much to the delight of the diners. It's no gimmick - the food at Ad Hoc is so good that it's not unusual to see Keller himself dining here next to other local chefs.
With menus changing daily, you'll want to check early in the day to see what's being served that night. Everything is pure Keller magic and if you're lucky enough to be here on Fried Chicken night, which happens every other Monday, your restaurant decision is already made. Trust me on this!
LOCAL WALLY TIP: The fried chicken has proven to be so popular that Thomas Keller has opened a "take out window" called Addendum right behind Ad Hoc. Is this essential Napa eats? You bet!
Some of my favorite memories of Paris is eating in the bistros, small neighborhood eateries that didn't hit the mainstream guides. Casual yet romantic, they offered great food at a reasonable price in a setting that was fun and lively.
Bistro Jeanty is as close as you're going to get to that experience without going to Paris. With the communal table in front and the romantic fireplace dining in back, the busy bar and rush of delicious food flowing out of the kitchen, you half expect to see the Eiffel Tower out the window.
Those unfamiliar with French food shouldn't shy away. Entrecote Frites sounds scary until you realize it's a rib eye steak with fries - and a darn good steak, especially at $28.50. No a la carte upselling here. Start your dinner with their famous tomato soup in puff pastry, a local favorite, and don't miss the classic French salad with a poached egg and bacon on it. More experienced French diners will find classics like escargot, foie gras and steak tartare, but novices will not be disappointed with a menu that features more accessible entrees. Remember that scene in Julie and Julia where Merryl Streep fawns over the Petrale Sole with lemon caper butter sauce? Try it, it's on the menu.
You can spend a lot on dinner in Napa, but not at Bistro Jeanty. Fine food, great setting, it's Napa meets Paris and one of my all time favorite restaurants.
Bistro Jeanty: website / map
6510 Washington Street, Yountville, CA 94599 (707) 944-0103
Average Entree: $20
Best for: When you want great food in a romantic setting without a lot of fuss, go to Bistro Jeanty.
Thomas Keller used to joke that he opened Bouchon so he would have a place to eat after cooking all night at The French Laundry. Lucky for us that he did as it allows those of us on a tighter budget to experience some of that Keller magic.
Bouchon serves up bistro classics with a style and finesse that shows deep respect to the original recipes while still staying fresh and current. There's classics like steak frites and Keller favorites like roasted chicken with polenta (Keller claims that roasted chicken is his favorite dish), and if the descriptions of the food sound familiar, the execution is pure Keller.
Those on a tight budget will appreciate the Croque Madamn, a classic Paris open face ham and cheese sandwich topped with an egg and covered with rich mornay sauce, complete with a mountain of some of the best fries in the world, all for around $17. Order a carafe of their house wine, sourced from local wineries and always changing, it's affordable and unpretentious. Or go upscale and order the tower of seafood or caviar to go with your meal. No matter what you order, expect beautiful presentation and delicious execution. Bring a camera, you're going to want photos of the food later!
Is this Napa or Italy? You'll be hard pressed to find prettier patio dining anywhere, the setting looking a bit like you're tucked away in Tuscany with views of the vineyards.
Inside, the setting is farmhouse rustica with the wood burning pizza oven and romantic fireplace. Locals everywhere, the ambiance is loud and festive.
Start your visit here with a glass of their house wine, literally made with the grapes grown at the owners house vineyard. The food is rustic Italian and Southern French food, meaning everything from pizza to seafood, pasta to steak frites. Chef Donna Scala, who with husband Giovanni created the popular Piatti Ristorante chain, focuses on simple preparation and the freshest ingredients. The result is one of the most popular restaurants in Napa, a locals favorite and some of the best Italian food you'll ever taste.
OK, I'm sorry I compared Michael Chiarello to Rachael Ray in a past review. While they both share the same irritating cheeriness on Food TV, Michael can actually cook.
And there he was in his restaurant in Yountville, flashing his TV smile in his chef whites. And there I was, surrounded by plates of fantastic food and hoping he wouldn't know I was Local Wally, the guy who made fun of him. Damn!
And wrong I was. I knew it the moment the plate was placed before me. Rachael Ray, Sandra Lee, that spiky hair guy, all you Food TV stars pay attention, Michael Chiarello is in the house and the kitchen but his food is the real star. The restaurant is in an old winery, the rustic bricks exposed and the original wood floors intact. Outdoors, the patio is contemporary and inviting with its stone fireplaces blazing on cool Napa evenings. As for the food, it's creative and inventive, like Michael is cooking in an Iron Chef competition and trying to impress the judges. Come for appetizers to take in the ambiance, come for some wine off his impressive (and surprisingly affordable) wine list, come for a creative twist on Italian dining, or come just to see if you can get your photo taken next to a "celebrity chef". Tell him Local Wally sent you :-)
Spending $250 per person for a meal, $50 corkage fee or hundred dollar-plus bottles of wine, a two month waiting list that's booked solid by noon - The French Laundry is not for everyone.
Rated one of the top 3 restaurants in the world, it's unlike anything you've ever experienced. Instead of an entree you get a nine course tasting menu, small plates of some of Thomas Keller's finest creations. You take a bite, you savor it, you marvel at the flavors and complexities, the nuances and the artistry, and just when you think you want more here comes another plate of something else, equally enchanting and exquisite. And it continues like this for nearly 4 hours. When it's done, you know you've just had the best meal of your lifetime.
Now if your idea of a culinary delight is The Claim Jumper ("wow, that's one big ass potato!"), then don't go. If wearing a jacket gets you upset, if your girlfriend wants to know what's wrong with wearing flip flops to dinner, if your car payment is overdue, don't go. In fact, if you have any reservations about dropping close to a thousand bucks for two for dinner (after wine and tip), seriously don't go. But for those who do, I envy you.
The French Laundry: website / map
6640 Washington St, Yountville, CA 94599 (707) 944-2380
Dinner: $250 (that is not a misprint!)
Best for: Once in a lifetime dining. Reservations fill up exactly 2 months in advance.
Hurley's is like your favorite neighborhood restaurant. With a fireplace in the dining room and a dog friendly patio outside, the game on in the bar and a No Corkage Fee policy, it's a favorite for those looking for a good meal without all the fuss.
The restaurant is owned by Bob Hurley, once the Chef at the high end Domaine Chandon restaurant and then the Executive Chef at Napa Valley Grille. This is Napa Valley comfort food, standards like the Oakwood Grilled Ribeye Steak and new twists such as Braised Wild Boar with truffle scented polenta, very delicious. Great lunch spot with their prixe fixe menu, and if you find yourself hungry after 9pm they have a special late night menu of burgers, sliders, appetizers, and a crazy concoction of truffle oil fries mixed with bacon, garlic and melted fontina cheese. Seriously!
So Hurley's doesn't get the same sort of attention as it's Yountville competition, but who would with Thomas Keller up and down the street and Cindy Pawlcyn nearby. But that's OK, we'll keep this our secret.
Hurley's Restaurant: website / map
6518 Washington Street Yountville, Ca. 94599 (707) 944-2345
Average Entree: $30 for dinner, half that for late night, no corkage fee
Best for: No fuss dining, a neighborhood restaurant with great food and atmosphere and a late night menu.
Mustard's story starts back in the early 1980's. That's when if you wanted gourmet food it meant getting dressed up in a suit (with a tie) and being waited on by stuffy guys in tuxedos who knew you didn't know which fork to use.
Then Cindy Pawlcyn comes on the scene like a firecracker and changes things up, making gourmet food accessible to the masses who where quick to catch on that something wonderful was happening.
Looking like an trendy version of a roadside truckstop, Mustards was unique in that it offered upscale comfort foods back when we didn't really even know what that meant. The menu looked familiar with things like chicken and ribs, but the descriptions made the foods sound wonderfully exotic. It was like Mom was still cooking, but somehow Mom got into the wrong box of herbs and was cooking in psychedelic colors. Salads moved from iceberg to freshly grown exotic lettuces. The lowly pork chop transformed from fried till dried to a succulently juicy grilled Mongolian Pork Chop bursting with flavor. It was new, it was exciting, and before long there were copycat restaurants all over town, all over California, just about everywhere.
Today, even with brisk competition, Mustard's Grill still stands out as one of the best. The bistro atmosphere is lively and fun, and as the sign says in front, Everything is Delicious. It's an essential Napa restaurant and one of my all time favorite places to dine, go there - you won't regret it.
WHERE TO NEXT?
BEST PLACES TO EAT IN ST. HELENA AND RUTHERFORD
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.