Well, here it is! For everyone who requested I share my recommendations and tips for visiting Napa…boy, do I have the guide for you. I think this is the longest and most labor intensive post I’ve ever written, but once I started writing, I realized I had a lot to tell you about. So without further ado, here’s my guide to visiting Napa…
But first, a little story…
Ok, maybe a little ado, just so you know where I’m coming from. The first time I visited wine country was in 2004, when I flew to San Francisco to visit my uncle for a long weekend. It was during this trip that I not only fell in love with San Francisco, but with the area north of it as well, when the two of us spent a long day driving around wine country. Joe and I began coming up to wine country in earnest once we moved to the city in 2006, and have made a habit of it, season after season, year after year. My love for the area was also cemented after I worked harvest at a winery in San Francisco in the fall of 2008, and learned a lot about the winemaking process. It allowed me to understand the art and science of wine, and more importantly, gain a new appreciation for the area’s producers and the passion they put into their products.
Wine country—and Napa especially—is a special spot for us, for many reasons, and I hope this guide helps you enjoy it as much as we have. I won’t even pretend to have experienced all that the valley has to offer, but the below are pulled from my own experiences and years spent putzing around up there!
How the valley is laid out
It’s common for travelers to confuse Napa County with Napa the city or Napa as a viticultural area, because so often, the valley itself (sometimes all of the area’s wine country, erroneously) is just referred to as Napa. But in fact, Napa can refer to any of these three things.
The Napa wine growing region—or more specifically, the Napa Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA) is made up of 16 sub-regions, which you will often see listed on wine labels. Examples of AVAs are Howell Mountain, Stag’s Leap, and Calistoga. If grapes were grown in a single, specific AVA to make a wine, you’ll see it on the label. At its southwestern most point, the AVA begins in Los Carneros, then flows northward, ending in Calistoga.
I should note that some AVAs are also the names of towns. Examples here include Yountville, St. Helena, Rutherford, and Calistoga. So if you see “Rutherford” listed on a bottle of Cabernet, it’s not necessarily because the wine producer is based in Rutherford the town—but it does mean the grapes in that wine were originally from the Rutherford AVA!
The major towns that most people visit within Napa County all lie along Highway 29, which runs north/south. Driving north out of Napa (the city!), you’ll hit Yountville, then Oakville, Rutherford, St. Helena, and finally Calistoga at the northernmost point.
On the eastern side of the valley, running parallel to Highway 29, is Highway 121, better known as Silverado Trail. While there aren’t as many touristed towns along this stretch, there ARE many wineries along this route, so it’s a common stretch to drive. Between 29 and 121, many small country roads cross and connect the two parallel highways, like rungs on a ladder. So if you are driving around and need to hop over to one side of the valley, it’s usually quite easy to take the next turn and cross. Here’s a simple map I made that’s not to scale and doesn’t show any bends in the roads, but gives you an idea of how the main part of the valley is connected:
When to visit
Honestly? There’s no bad time of year to visit wine country. The high season is typically between the late spring through the late fall (you’ll see hotel prices going up starting in April and stay up through November), but things really hit their peak in the late summer, when harvest kicks off. Assume that August through mid-October will have both warm temps and high prices. Winter is considered the quiet season, both pricing and traffic wise. It’s probably my personal favorite time of year to go up.
That being said, each season has something beautiful to offer in Napa. In the spring, you can experience “bud break,” or when the first tiny buds make their appearance on the vines (usually in March/early April). The temps are cool at night, and the air can be damp, but everything feels fresh and vibrant (however, note that if you have bad seasonal allergies, it might not be the best time to go). In the early summer months, you’re treated to small clusters of grapes forming on the vines and brilliant sunny days; in late summer, those clusters grow large and plump in preparation for harvest. After harvest, in early October, the leaves on the vines begin to change color, just like trees in autumn, so the valley is covered in beautiful orange, yellow, and red foliage. In winter, the weather can turn rainy and cold, but it’s a perfect excuse to curl up with a glass of red wine next to the fireplace. Joe and I personally love spending New Year’s Eve up in Napa, when the air is very crisp at night, and the countryside feels so still and quiet. Like I said, you really can’t go wrong, so don’t worry about missing the “best” season in Napa—all seasons are the best!
Assuming you’re coming from San Francisco, there are two driving routes to get up to Napa. In both instances, you get to cross a big, pretty bridge! With the first, you can drive north over the Golden Gate Bridge, into Marin County. You then take Highway 37, turn left at Highway 121, right on 121/Highway 12, then left on Highway 29. With this route, I’ve found that traffic is usually pretty good, except on some evenings, when traffic can back up on Highway 37 before the Highway 121 turn. Assume it’ll take you a little more than an hour to get there from San Francisco (however, Joe and I once made it from the Inner Richmond to Bouchon in 50 minutes. We had a reservation we couldn’t miss!).
The other route (and the one you’d take if you’re coming from Oakland) is to cross the Bay Bridge, then continue up the 80 to Highway 37, then up Highway 29 (which turns into Highway 12, then back into Highway 29, straight into Napa). To me, this route has always felt less scenic, but if you’re coming from the airport, it can be faster than crossing San Francisco itself to get to the Golden Gate.
One option of getting to Napa that Joe and I took advantage of when we moved back from New York: take an Uber! Yes, you can actually get an Uber from SFO straight to Napa. We took an UberX—with Lucy!—from SFO to Yountville, and with all fares and fees, I believe it cost around $135. It might seem like a lot, but considering a private car is easily double that, it’s not a bad deal. Uber is a good option if you’re meeting folks in Napa that have a car, but less so if you’re not going to have wheels once you arrive.
Speaking of having a car… Yes, you need one in Napa, but it’s a good idea to have some other transportation options at hand. Because let’s get real, NO ONE needs to be driving after a few hours of wine tasting! Luckily, there are a number of options these days.
The most common option for groups who can pool their resources and don’t mind spending a little extra is to hire a car for the day. There are many, many car-for-hire companies in the area, and you can be driven around in anything from a Town Car, to a van, to a party bus. If you’re staying in San Francisco and only want to go up to Napa for a day, several services will drive you from the city up to wine country, take you around to requested wineries, then drive you home (Bauer’s is one option I used with a group).
Increasingly, Uber has become very popular and easy to use in wine country, especially in the more populated towns/areas. However, be aware that in some areas, service can be sporadic, since drivers are typically hauling passengers significant distances. Sometimes you can luck out and snag a car within a minute or two; other times, you’ll wait—like at least 15 minutes (or more). Remember, this isn’t like living in a major metropolitan city, where an Uber will be around every corner. If you are staying in a more rural area of the county, you’ll have a difficult time getting an Uber at all (this is especially true in many parts of Sonoma, where towns are even more spread out). And with all that being said, bear in mind that Ubers will be even harder to get past a certain time of night. So if you are out late in the northern part of the valley (say, 11pm or later) and need to get back to downtown Napa, it can be very difficult to get a ride. Plan accordingly.
I’d advise anyone visiting for a few days to put the number of at least one cab company in your phone. Cabs in wine country are just like anywhere else: during slow times, they can show up within minutes; during busy times, you might wait half an hour. If you don’t have the number for a cab company and are at a restaurant or winery, just ask a staff member to call a company for you — I promise, they’ll be happy to help. The area code for Napa is 707… I only say this because it’s a small enough place that while most cabs have their phone numbers printed on the side of the vehicle, they don’t include the area code! I learned this the “hard” way when my group needed a cab, and no one had cell service to do some quick Googling.
Another option is to plan a mix of all these services, and also incorporate biking and walking into your transportation plans. In some areas, wineries are so close together that it’s actually pretty easy to walk or bike to them, and if you’re spending a day exploring a town (like St. Helena), this is even more viable. I can’t say it’s necessarily worth it to rent a bike during your stay unless you absolutely love biking everywhere, but if your hotel offers them for free and they’re available, it’s a good option to keep in mind.
Finally—and here’s what Joe and I usually like to do when it’s just us—we drive ourselves to a single winery, then park it there for a few hours. That’s right…we don’t really hop from place to place for wine tasting! Choosing a place to spend a significant amount of time not only allows us to sit back and relax, but we get to know the winery, the people, and the wines a lot better. This has led to some great relationships with particular places over the years. It also gives the person who plans on driving enough time to ensure they’re sober, have some water, and maybe a snack before we get on the road.
Where to Stay
Picking a hotel is a personal thing, and so dependent on who you’re traveling with, how long you’ll be staying, what you plan to do, and of course, your budget. Like any other major tourist area, Napa has TONS of lodging options, which run the gamut from budget-friendly motels to 5-star, world-class resorts. Below I’ve listed some recommendations of different places to stay, so you can hopefully find a fit based on your travel parameters. Note that I haven’t stayed at every single one of these places, but in those cases, they’re hotels that I’ve either checked out from the outside, read a lot about, or heard good things about from friends!
This little inn is probably one of the most random you’ll ever see or stay at. It’s comprised of several old train cars, all facing one another, and set smack dab in the middle of Yountville. There’s not a ton of privacy during the day, as people can stroll through a center walkway and also take advantage of the Inn’s “Coffee Caboose” (a walk-up coffee window). But, the location is great, and the rates are among the lowest of any hotel in Yountville.
In Yountville. Rates from $225 and up
I stayed here twice with family, and like most other Marriott’s, it’s clean, comfortable, and nicely done. You’re not going to get that local/boutique hotel feel, but if you need the reward points or want something dependable, it’s a good option located in the southern part of the valley, close to Napa (the city).
In Napa. Rates from in the low $200s to the high $300s; higher depending on time of year
On one occasion in wine country, I had an Uber driver tell me that this was a lesser known, slightly more affordable hotel option. I haven’t stayed, but I made a note of the name and looked it up when I got home. It looks nice!
In Napa. Rates from the mid $200s (off season) to mid $400s and up (high season)
Formerly the Hotel Luca, I stayed here for a birthday weekend one year! The hotel is dog friendly, and Joe and I often remember this spot as having amazingly comfortable beds and gorgeous bathrooms (think: heated floors, rain shower stalls, the works). The restaurant associated with the hotel is Redd Wood, a great spot for wood fired pizzas and updated Italian food (we had Joe’s 30th birthday dinner there!).
In Yountville. Rates from $360 and up
Another spot where we once did a birthday weekend (are you seeing a theme yet?). Located at the far northern end of Yountville, this is a great hotel for a quick weekend up in Napa. If you can swing it, snag one of the first floor rooms that opens up onto the neighboring vineyard. Sunset with a glass of wine outside is perfection!
In Yountville. Rates from $300 and up (usually a little lower during weekdays in the off season)
These are two B&Bs in Yountville that have rave reviews from friends. Each has a classic B&B feel—cute country decor, comfortable, quiet rooms, and of course — breakfast! Joe and I have consistently found that they also offer some of the lower rates for lodging directly in Yountville.
Both in Yountville. Rates from $170 to $495
This is a beautiful, peaceful, modern property set in the northern part of the valley. If you’re looking for a restful spa weekend — especially with your significant other — you really can’t go wrong here. Indulging in the mudslide treatment at the Spa Solage is a must. The zero gravity chairs at the end are pure bliss, trust me! It’s rare that I would go to a spa and not get a massage or a facial, but the mudslide treatment is heaven. Solage is also dog friendly, for an additional fee.
In Carneros. Rates from $570 and up; mudslide treatment from $110
Joe and I have stayed at this spot more than any other in Napa—it used to be like a second home! In 2017, the hotel rebranded from Vintage Inn to Vintage House and underwent a massive property renovation. It’s a lot tonier than it used to be, with higher prices to reflect it, and I personally think it has lost a lot of the old charm and warmth it had. But, its location can’t be beat. Right in the heart of Yountville, the property is within very easy walking distance to everything Yountville has to offer, and its grounds are peaceful and pretty. If you stay here, enjoy a complimentary bottle of wine on arrival, breakfast each morning, and in-room fireplaces. Please note that while this hotel used to be dog friendly, they no longer accept pets.
In Yountville. Rates from $595 in the high season
I’ve yet to stay at this hotel, but have been dying to for years. It’s the ultimate in modern, minimalist, spa luxury. All the bathrooms have giant soaking tubs, and the rooms all feature outdoor space as well. The bathrooms are built to accommodate in-room spa treatments too!
In Yountville. Rates from $750
This spot is a good option for a laid back, relaxing Calistoga weekend. The recently updated pool area is beautiful, and features a mineral pool fed by the local hot springs.
In Calistoga. Rates from $229 and up, depending on whether you’re in the main lodge, a View Room, cottage, or house
A luxury resort set off the Silverado Trail, Meadowood is known for its 9-hole golf course, 3-star Michelin restaurant restaurant, and spa services. It all comes with a price, of course, but if you’re planning a special occasion vacation, it’s the perfect place to rest your head.
Off Silverado Trail. Rates from $575 to $3500 and up
Highly recommended. A cute little B&B in a restored Victorian home, featuring four suites, set off Silverado on a quiet stretch of road. Really feels like a country inn, especially because as you drive by, if you blink you’ll miss the sign for the turn off! The owner and host, Jeff, is a hoot and makes the most delicious breakfasts. I stayed here in 2016 with a group of girlfriends, but would wholeheartedly recommend for a romantic getaway for two. Update: In 2018, the former owner Jeff sold this property. While it still exists, I haven’t stayed with the new owners yet!
Off Silverado Trail. Rates from $275-$625, depending on room
Comprised only of cottages and larger homes, the Carneros Inn offers accommodations that feel private and homey — truly your own little place to escape during your stay. The hotel is located—not surprisingly—in Carneros, which is a bit of a drive into Napa proper, especially if you plan on doing lots of dinners in St. Helena and Yountville, but the view from the hotel pool makes it worth it.
In Carneros. Rates from $360 in the low season; $750 and up during high season
2018 Update: Napa Valley is currently developing a lot, and it feels like new properties are springing up (with old ones getting massive renovations) on the regular. From the Archer in downtown Napa, to Las Alcobas and The Ink House in St. Helena, there’s no shortage of new, hot, luxurious (and pricey) places to stay. For the purposes of updating this guide, I’ll link to new places when I can, but with so many new hotels opening, it’s hard to keep track of them all—let alone stay at them (a girl can dream though!).
Planning where to stay
Why stay in Yountville? If you’re into the food scene and don’t feel like having to drive after dinner each night, the location can’t be beat. There are so many great spots to eat right in Yountville, from the casual to once-in-a-lifetime meals, (it’s the home of The French Laundry, after all!). While it can be busy during the day with visitors hitting up Bouchon Bakery, at night—and especially in the off season —I find it still has that sleepy, quiet, small town quality. Yountville has gotten a LOT more popular in the last several years, but it’s a must-visit spot regardless.
Why stay in Calistoga? Since it’s in the northernmost part of the valley, I think Calistoga feels less developed and less flashy. Don’t get me wrong, there’s definitely a town there, with plenty of dive bars and cute restaurants. But the town feels small and cute and a little sleepier than towns like Yountville or St. Helena. Also, if you’re into spa treatments, Calistoga sits on natural hot springs, so many of the hotels and resorts there offer mineral pools and baths!
Wait, why are hotels in Napa so expensive? Ugh, you’re telling me. Blame it on tech money, blame it on the nearly year round beautiful weather, but for whatever reason, lodging in Napa has gone up quite a bit in recent years. If you’re planning a trip ahead of time, unfortunately, you might have to suck it up (or look into a house rental; more on that below). But if you’re planning a trip last minute, there are two options that can save you a bit of cash. The first is to add the Hotel Tonight app on your phone—many hotels in the Napa area are listed on it, and will supply last minute deals. I’ve seen rates at the Napa Valley Lodge for as low as $300 on a weeknight, down from $580 in the high season. Still pricey, but nearly half off! Hotel Tonight also features smaller bed and breakfasts, motels, and inns, which can usually offer more affordable rates. All that to say, if you can stay in Napa during the week, you will pay drastically less than you will on the weekend.
The second option is to call the day you’re planning on going up. Similar strategy as using Hotel Tonight—day of, hotels are looking to sell off their unreserved inventory, and may be able to give you a significant discount. Give it a try. But be sure to price shop! I’ve called hotels day of and seen wildly different rates on Hotel Tonight and hotels.com, versus what was quoted over the phone.
Renting a house in Napa Valley
Yes, this is a great idea! If you’re going with a group, or for an extended period of time, there are TONS of houses to choose from. Back in 2013, Joe and I rented a house for 10 days up in Deer Park (just east of Highway 121) and really loved it. Be advised that many listings will advertise as being “in Napa,” but in fact, can be pretty far out of the way. This is a case where knowing the geography is key to selecting a rental (note: American Canyon is a far drive to go tasting)!
Also note that the vast majority of rental houses (in my experience) prefer being rented for a full week or more, so if you’re looking for a weekend or single night rental, book early. This has changed somewhat in recent years as inventory has increased with the growth of Airbnb, but the best, most well-decorated/modern places always go quickly.
Update: In Napa Valley, recent zoning laws have resulted in most rentals only being available for a month stay, or longer. While you can still find week or even week-long rentals in Napa, you’ll find a whole lot more of them over in Sonoma. Be sure to check out AirBnb and Home Away to get a sense of all that’s available. There are also plenty of independently owned companies, like this one or this one, that rent out properties.
Ok, here it is. The absolute, #1 question about wine country I get asked is, “What wineries should we go to?” To be honest, this is kind of a difficult question to answer, because the winery experience is so VASTLY different from place to place, and like a hotel pick, is dependent on so many things: how many people are you with? How much time do you have? What are you interested in doing at the winery? What kind of wine do you want to try? How much do you know about wine? How much do you WANT to know about wine? You can see how all these variables would influence a recommendation!
Think of wineries as like restaurants—each will have their own vibe, ambiance, decor, layout, and even menu.
One idea if you have nowhere else to start: visit the wineries who make wine you really love. So you bought a bottle of Domaine Chandon sparkling for New Year’s last year? Awesome! Did you know you can visit them and see where it’s made, right in Yountville? If you’re a Cult Cab lover, consider checking out some of the storied producers, like Stag’s Leap or Opus One. Or heck, pick a winery because you’re driving by it and you think it looks cool. Often, this is how you stumble upon new wines to love, and after all, travel is all about these spontaneous experiences that lead you down the unplanned path!
Cakebread Cellars, Schramsberg, Quintessa, Pine Ridge, Miner Family, Domaine Chandon, Frog’s Leap (also dog friendly)
To explore specific varietals and/or experience smaller producers:
Ma(i)sonry , Odette, Scribe (Sonoma), Hope & Grace, Elizabeth Spencer, Failla, Redmon, Stewart, Fisher Vineyards, 750 Wines, Twomey, Gargiulo
To check out legendary and/or significant, historic producers:
Robert Mondavi, Joseph Phelps, Charles Krug, Robert Sinskey, Silver Oak, Grgich Hills, Chateau Montelena, Rombauer, Stag’s Leap, Stony Hill (the tasting experience is incredible!)
So, how do wine tastings really work? I recommend checking out each producer’s/winery’s website to see what experiences they offer. In the most casual instances, you’ll roll up to a bar in a tasting room, and get pours of whatever the winery is opening and/or releasing. More “formal” tastings might be seated; some may even serve you some snacks. Sometimes tastings can be free; most of the time, expect to pay. However, if you join a wine club (and often if you buy bottles of wine to take home), the fee is usually waived.
Many times, the wines being poured are based on recent releases, to get the customer to buy them. But, most wineries have other stuff hidden behind the bar that they can pour for you. If you’re interested in tasting older vintages, or “library” wines, just ask. Sometimes you pay for a more expensive tasting to taste these wines, but honestly? I find that if I stick around and chat with the person pouring long enough and show real interest in wine, these special wines tend to magically appear.
Also, if you don’t feel like doing a flight, buy a bottle and stay awhile! Many wineries/tasting rooms have licenses that will allow you to buy something and hang around to take advantage of beautiful outdoor areas. Note: not ALL wineries have licenses to sell/open bottles of wine on site, so if that is 100% in your plans, just make sure your target winery will allow you to hang out there and drink all afternoon ;)
Truth time: there’s no way my recommendations here are at all an exhaustive list of great producers to visit in the valley. With the exception of a few mega wineries, I have never had a bad winery/tasting experience, so the odds are really good that you can pick any place off the map and have a great time!
Bringing your pup to Napa
By and large, we have had no issue bringing Lucy with us on trips to Napa. A lot of it is all planning, and having a willingness to pick up the phone and let people know she’s coming along for the ride. Be aware that some hotels are dog friendly, others are strictly not. The North Block Hotel in Yountville is pet friendly, as is the Solage in Calistoga, but both will require a pet fee for your stay.
* Update: Unfortunately, as the valley has become more expensive and many properties have cropped up or renovated to compete with the new ones, pet friendly policies are becoming a little more rare. Do your homework and call around to ensure your hotel of choice will welcome your pup. If all else fails, renting a house in neighboring Sonoma is a good option!
Many wineries that have outdoor seating are dog friendly. This website lists most of them, but if you want to be sure, just call ahead. I have found that unless the outdoor seating area is built over a material like wood (which can obviously rot with lots of moisture and can be tougher to clean), outdoor areas are nearly always open to furry friends.
Many eateries are dog friendly too — because so many restaurants in Napa feature patios, it’s common that these spots will allow you to sit outside with your pup.
Shopping in Napa
Let’s face it, I don’t think one really goes to Napa for the shopping. That being said, there are some little spots to make note of. In St. Helena, the main street along Highway 29 is full of cute shops. I always like stopping in at Napa Valley Vintage Home, a beautiful shop filled with decor pieces, textiles, candles, and gifts. I also like FootCandy — it’s a designer shoe shop that has been known to have some pretty good sales! Finally, I always enjoy stopping into Rabbit Rabbit (formerly known as Baksheesh), a store where all the items are fair trade, and made by small communities of artisans from all over the world. They stock cool textiles and accessories, jewelry, home decor items, artwork and more.
Further south in Napa proper, there is a large outlet mall filled with all the usual retail suspects. If you need to stop into a grocery store, the major shopping center at Highway 29 and Trancas has a Whole Foods, Target and Trader Joe’s.
Finally, if you’re in Napa for more than a weekend, try and check out a farmers market! California is known for its beautiful produce, so take advantage if you can. Here’s a list of local markets.
Where to eat
Other than wine, why else does one go to Napa? The food, of course! There are so many spots to eat in Napa that I feel like I have barely scratched the surface (especially because Joe and I are notorious for going back to the same places over and over again), but here are the ones I always think of:
This is a legendary, historic spot to stop for a quick lunch you plan on taking elsewhere (though the grocery does have picnic seating out back, too!). Oakville Grocery has an amazing deli, and while you wait for your sandwich to be made, you can shop their large selection of condiments, spreads, and dips — perfect gifts and souvenirs to bring home. They also have a small selection of wine if you need to pick up a bottle for a picnic.
I think this is the only winery that has a deli on site, with lots of picnic tables to match. Be aware that on weekends and during high season, it can get a little crazy here (read: crowded and really touristy), but it’s a good option to know about if you’re in the area.
Formerly known as Taylor’s, this burger joint has been around for ages! It’s basically guaranteed that you will wait in line to eat here — that’s part of its charm. But queue up, send a friend to snag a table, and prepare yourself for some seriously epic burgers and shakes. Super family (and dog!) friendly!
By now you’ve probably heard everyone talk about Bouchon Bakery, but I have a tip you probably haven’t heard. So good that I can’t believe I’m sharing it with you, lest it become ruined for me, but here we go. If you don’t want to wait in the line (which inevitably will form by 8 in the morning), you should call in your order. This only works if you know exactly what you want, but if you place your order over the phone, you can typically pick it up about 20-30 minutes later (sometimes even less). Enter through the side door — yes, the one that everyone else is exiting out of — make eye contact with a cashier, and tell them you have a pickup. Everyone in line will glare at you, but no matter: you’re already eating your macaron. Most people like to grab sweets from Bouchon Bakery, but Joe and I like to call in and order a sandwich box, which comes with a giant sandwich, a bag of chips, a huge cookie, a piece of fruit, and a bottle of sparkling water. Pro tip: picnic in the vegetable gardens across the street from The French Laundry, or further down Washington St. at Yountville Park.
There’s a taco truck in Yountville! And they make damn good ones at that. It’s basically across the street from Redd Wood, in an empty parking lot. If you’re craving tacos…I mean, hello! Super affordable, super fast, super delicious.
Dean & Deluca
I can only advocate rolling in here if you’re super desperate for picnic supplies, as I generally detest going to a D&D because despite having amazing stuff, I think their prices are highway robbery. However, this particular D&D has a fantastic wine selection, with producers from all over, so swing in here if you need a bottle and simply can’t be bothered to stop into a winery.
Oxbow Public Market
Ever been to the Ferry Building in San Francisco? Similar concept. Oxbow Public Market is a large space filled with food vendors, cafes, and bars. So if you’re with a group and no one can agree on what they want to eat, this is a great, casual option!
Guigno & Son Grocery
Fab little deli in the heart of St. Helena!
Casual to Dressy Casual Sit Down Spots:
Pacific Blues Cafe
Among the more casual spots in Yountville, this is a great little cafe to grab breakfast or lunch at. They have a large outdoor seating area, to take advantage of all those beautiful wine country days! Sad: this place closed in late 2017, and reopened during holiday 2017 as a new burger and ice cream concept from Chef Michael Chiarello. We haven’t tried it yet!
Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen
Cindy Pawlcyn is a Bay Area legend, as she’s been at the helm of so many iconic restaurants throughout the area. Her “Backstreet Kitchen” is in the heart of St. Helena and serves up what she does best — hearty, comforting American classics, done elegantly.
The sister restaurant to the much fancier Redd down the street, Redd Wood is located in the North Block Hotel and a great place to feast on wood fired pizzas, fresh pastas, and more. I love the decor, and wrote about it here, in fact! It’s a great place to go with a group — it’s one of those restaurants that has something for everyone.
Do you like Houston’s/Hillstone? Then you will love Rutherford Grill, because it is owned by the Hillstone Restaurant Group. Think Hillstone, but a little bit more country. You really can’t go wrong.
This is a gorgeous little spot right in the heart of St. Helena that would work well for a group brunch, or a more intimate dinner too! The fare is pretty standard Californian (think: a focus on fresh, local meats and vegetables), but there’s something for everyone. The interior features a light, bright palette, meaning this space shows just as well at lunch as it will at night.
LMR is a Napa institution, known not only for wine, but for olive oils they produce on a nearby ranch. At their property just outside of St. Helena, you can also visit a store and dine at their restaurant, Farmstead. I love Farmstead for simple, satisfying comfort food (plus plenty of healthy eats too!). It’s a great spot to go for brunch or for dinner; expect a lively, welcoming crowd and dishes you can easily share. Also a spot that has something for everyone.
Goose & Gander
This spot is actually perfect for lunch or dinner! If you’re there in the afternoon and it’s a nice day out, ask to sit outside—you won’t regret it! You also won’t regret ordering their burger and french fries, which are fried in duck fat (omg).
Great for Dinners
This is Cindy Pawlcyn’s first restaurant in the valley — it’s been there since the early 80s! I’ve never had a bad meal here, and it’s a great place for a dressy lunch or an easy, comforting dinner. Take note: there’s a reason the pork chop is famous.
This is a relatively new Spanish tapas joint in Napa proper. Joe and I haven’t been yet, but I keep hearing stellar things! My boy Bryan (from Ma(i)sonry) recommended it to me, as he also helped put together their stellar sherry/port list.
Situated in an old market building that dates from the early 1900s, this is a tiny little Italian restaurant that’s often filled with locals (but out-of-towners are quickly starting to discover it). Go for the wood fired pizzas and comforting Italian fare; stay for the cozy, welcoming ambiance and the joy that comes with feeling like you’ve discovered a hidden gem.
The classic, the standard, the place that is our default. Bouchon is a classic French bistro executing the kind of simple, comforting French food you want to eat: quiche, onion soup, salads with goat cheese, sole meuniere, steak frites. It can be hard to score a res at normal dinner hours, so plan ahead — the other option is to try your luck in the bar area, which is seated on a first come, first serve basis. I’ve also found that the later you go, the more local the crowd gets. Once we ate dinner there at 11:30 at night, and the bar was hoppin’!
The other great French bistro option right in Yountville. Bistro Jeanty’s curbside appeal cannot be beat (the vintage bikes! the flowers!), and I think it’s a great place to go for a romantic dinner.
Joe and I have been here several times, but the meal that always sticks out to me is the one we ate here on the night we got engaged! Bottega is another Chiarello outpost serving some seriously good (and elegant) Italian food. Go just for the ‘salsa’ they put out on the table with the bread — it’s like pesto on steroids, in the best way possible.
Two Birds/One Stone
So you’re sick of Californian cuisine? Check out this hip new spot from acclaimed chefs Douglas Keane and Sang Yoon in St. Helena (inside the Freemark Abbey winery). It’s a yakitori-style restaurant featuring some seriously interesting bites in a super chic, modern space. Wine country florals be damned.
Here’s what I know about Atlas Social: people tell me it’s a pretty, cozy space that has something for everyone. With its location in downtown Napa not far from the Napa River, it’s also ideal if you find yourself in town for some shopping and need a place to grab a bite.
The Charter Oak
Joe and I recently stopped in here based on the recommendations of some friends of ours at Ma(i)sonry. Word on the street was that they had the best burger in Napa. I won’t lie; it was pretty good, but what I loved most was the gorgeous wrap around patio and large fire pit (with comfy couches!) outside. This would be a great spot to grab a nice dinner, or simply stop in on your way to dinner and enjoy a cocktail outside. It’s in the old Tra Vigne space (Michael Chiarello’s original Napa Italian restaurant), so you know it’s going to have good bones and good vibes!
Ok, ok, so it’s not technically in Napa (County/City/AVA!), it’s in Sonoma. But, this spot is on the way in and out of Napa, making it a perfect place to fuel up as you’re heading in…or as a hangover cure as you’re heading out. Fremont Diner reminds me of places I would go to in Texas growing up. It’s got a heavy slant towards southern comfort classics, with the down home vibe to go along with it. Go hungry, and not on a diet of any kind. Words cannot really express how sad I am that Fremont Diner closed. RIP!
Miscellaneous Fun Things
A couple other little odds and ends to know about:
Best Dog Park: If you have your dog with you, check out Alston Park. There’s a large off-leash play area, though to be very honest, most of the dogs I’ve ever seen roaming around the park are off-leash (even in non-designated areas). The park has a mix of terrains, and if you hike up the hills, you get a great view of the valley. Bonus: if you head there in the early morning, it’s where many hot air balloons take off and land, so you can see the balloons going up (or down, as we did here).
Other hiking opportunities: There’s a hike you can do in Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, out to a spot called Table Rock. The hike has moderate difficulty, and is a little over 2 miles each way. However, if you can finish, the views are unbelievable and totally worth it.
Aaaand, I’m spent. Whew, did you get all that? I hope if you have an upcoming trip to Napa — or are inspired to plan one! — that you find these tips and recommendations helpful! I’m sure I’ll add to this post as I think of or discover new things, so check back if you have a trip in the future. And of course, let me know if you have any questions, or your own recommendations to add, down in the comments. Cheers, and enjoy it.