Ask anyone about a trip to Napa and they'll probably start discussing all their favorite vineyards, tasting rooms, and restaurants. A trip to Napa most often consists of a trip to Napa valley and the towns surrounding Napa proper (Yountville, Saint Helena, Sonoma). What I didn't realize when I started planning my first trip out there (and asking for advice, which I received here in spades, and was very grateful for) is that Napa itself is a town, with a downtown area and everything. The past few years have not been kind to the city of Napa, and a lot of businesses have closed. So while the wineries and restaurants in the surrounding area seemed to have flourished (and please correct me if I'm wrong on that), downtown Napa can be a little depressing, with empty storefronts. My husband and I stayed in downtown Napa, though, and boy are we glad we did. We truly couldn't have picked better.
To start, we arrived at our hotel (The Avia Napa) on a Thursday. Apparently we timed it well, as on the first Thursday of the month during the summer they shut off the street right in front of the hotel for a Chef's Market. We spent the evening wandering around listening to live music, drinking local wine and beer, and sampling all kinds of delicious food from various local vendors. It was a delightful way to start our trip. And I'm saying this as someone who normally finds street festivals to be kind of overwhelming and overrated. To me they're usually too crowded and it's not worth standing in line for mediocre food. Not the case here. We did stand in a few lines, but it wasn't suffocatingly crowded and we met so many great people; locals who were happy to stand around a table in the middle of the street chatting over a glass of wine with a couple of tourists. Including, oddly, a couple who had their two young kids with them named Zach & Caitlin. (This will only be odd if you recall that my husband's name is Zach. It also may be a lot funnier after 3 or 4 beers.)
The next morning my husband woke up early and went in search of good coffee (necessary, on a number of levels). He found a place on Yelp with stellar reviews, and went to check it out. Molinari Caffe was everything Yelp said it would be and more. Zach struck up a conversation with the owner, Rick, and came back to the hotel room telling me what a nice guy he was, and how well he knew his coffee. And Rick does know his stuff: that coffee was perfect, let me tell you. We ended up going back there every day.
We were actually in Napa for a wedding, so we went to plenty of other restaurants and wineries in Napa Valley while attending wedding events and celebrations. We also had a few extra days to spend on our own, and were constantly popping in and out of the hotel. At one point we found a flyer in our room for the Napa Valley Toffee Company, which was next door to the hotel. Again we turned to the yelp reviews, and again they didn't let us down.
They also have a wine and espresso bar and one afternoon we were in desperate need of caffeine, so we wandered next door for some refreshment. While we were there we chatted with the woman who helped us, and told her we'd come by because of the blurb the hotel had put out. (It turns out she was the owner, and she hadn't seen the hotel flyer, apparently the hotel just loves the toffee?) (We brought one down for her the next day.) We sampled some toffee, and it was quuuuite good so we got a bunch for gifts, and while we were chatting, asked if she could recommend a nearby restaurant that was off the beaten path a bit, where locals go. She recommended Carpe Diem Wine Bar, and, you guessed it, it was another Yelp hit.
Photo from tripadvisor.com.
We happened to hit it on the night they were celebrating their two year anniversary, and it was very crowded. We were lucky and surprised to find the last two seats at the bar. We were further surprised to sit down right next to Rick, from Molinari Caffe, whom Zach had met the day before. We ended up having dinner and chatting with he and a few of his friends at the bar all night, and it was a truly memorable evening. (As a bonus, he supplies their coffee and ordered one of his newest brews for us to try.)
As for Carpe Diem itself, it was my first chance to try what's become a favorite bubbly: Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs. It was recommended by a Food Lush reader, and I probably would never have tried it if not for her. Thanks, Elz! We tried a bunch of things, and our favorite was the boar meatballs. The crispy, goat cheese stuffed olives were great, and we also enjoyed one of the flatbreads and the alligator tacos, which were that night's specialty. Rick ordered the ostrich burger and when we saw it served we were sorry we didn't have enough room for one!
We hit plenty of the well-traveled places you've probably heard about in Napa (Ad Hoc, Bouchon Bakery, Domaine Chandon, etc.), and we really enjoyed them all. But we also loved making these memories of places we'd never have imagined or planned on going to, and we're so glad we did. We met some truly wonderful, gracious people and got to share delicious things with them in beautiful Napa. What's better than that?
Have you been to Napa? Have you found any hits off the beaten path?