Prepare for sensory overload on a Wine Country visit.
Wine is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to tickling your palate in Napa and Sonoma. From sorbet brunch mimosas and doughy breakfast muffins to steak and a Cab for dinner or day boat scallops in a puff pastry—not to mention red wine truffles for dessert, all-day sipping (a cult Cab and iconic craft brews), and late-night snacking (a famous chef’s lobster corn dog)—we’ve got you covered.
Screaming Eagle by the Glass
For some wine lovers, Screaming Eagle is the holy grail of cult Cabernet Sauvignon, with a waiting list a mile long for the right to pay thousands for a bottle. Jump the line at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa‘s plush 38° North Lounge, where you can savor the latest vintage for a mere $500 by the half glass or $900 for a standard pour. An outrageous splurge? Maybe so, but at least you can say you tried it.
INSIDER TIP38° North, two and a half miles from Sonoma Plaza, serves several other sought-after Cabs and Cab blends by the glass, among them Insignia from Joseph Phelps Vineyards. Priced a 90 percent discount to Screaming Eagle’s Cab, this celebrated Bordeaux-style blend almost seems like a bargain. If lighter wines are more your thing, try the California Dreamin’ Chardonnay flight or a glass of French Champagne.
Charlie Palmer's Lobster Corn Dog
Chef Charlie Palmer’s trademark lobster corn dog is simple in conception—a lump of lobster surrounded by deep-fried cornbread, served on a stick with pickled-ramp remoulade—yet somehow much more than the sum of its parts. Sure, you can taste this signature morsel at other Palmer restaurants around the country, but only at the Archer Hotel Napa‘s Sky & Vine rooftop bar can you enjoy them with Napa Valley views.
INSIDER TIPAlways a light golden brown and bursting with flavor, Palmer’s dreamy corn dog is many a local’s late-night guilty pleasure. Napans in the know head up to Sky & Vine between 9 and closing for “reverse happy hour,” when the chefs whip up the famous dogs at 40% off, with beer, wine, and a few signature cocktails like the house mule with ginger and lime, similarly discounted.
Mad Fritz Ale
WHERE: St. Helena
Per an oft-quoted Wine Country adage, it takes a lot of beer to make good wine, a reference to winemakers’ beverage of choice after a hard day in the cellar. To establish Mad Fritz, founder and master brewer Nile Zacherle and his wife, Whitney Fisher, both winemakers, describe turning the phrase on its head, making a lot of wine for boutique wineries before embarking on their now wildly successful craft-brew startup. Mad Fritz specializes in “origin-specific beers,” with the source of each ingredient acknowledged on the back label. Tales from a Renaissance-era Aesop’s Fables edition provide most of the beers’ names and all the front-label illustrations.
INSIDER TIPMad Fritz’s St. Helena tasting room is open from 12:30 to 6 pm daily. No appointment is necessary, though reserving a table is wise on weekends when the place tends to crowd up.
Thomas Keller Cuisine
Chef Thomas Keller stands tallest among the high-profile artists who elevated the Napa Valley’s status in the culinary world. The intricate Oysters and Pearls (oysters, caviar, pearl tapioca) has been a staple of The French Laundry‘s prix-fixe menu for years, and while the dish is highly recommended you needn’t break the bank to experience Keller’s cuisine.
A few blocks south of TFL at four locations near each other you can sample mussels and frites at Bouchon Bistro, a perfectly golden, buttery croissant at Bouchon Bakery, Oaxacan-influenced plates at Keller’s latest eatery, La Calenda, and (at Finesse, the Store) K+M Extra Virgin Chocolate bars made with olive oil instead of cocoa butter. Still farther south, Keller’s Ad Hoc restaurant and its seasonal Addendum takeout window serve American classics like buttermilk fried chicken.
INSIDER TIPThe Keller restaurants, the bakery, and the shop are all on Washington Street in downtown Yountville.
WHERE: Yountville, Forestville, St. Helena
Speaking of fried chicken, Keller and other chefs of note have raised this guilty pleasure to an art form. At Ad Hoc and Addendum, Keller’s secret involves brining his well-sourced chicken for half a day before frying, also the method of choice in Forestville (Sonoma County) at Backyard, one of whose owner-chefs was on the team that opened Ad Hoc in 2006. Brining helps the chicken stay juicy during the frying process.
INSIDER TIPFor a more traditional (i.e., Southern) interpretation, toddle over to St. Helena’s Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch for Tuesday fried-chicken night. The cheddar biscuits with honey butter have almost as big a following as the crispy chicken they accompany.
Day Boat Scallops en Croûte
The ingredients list alone—butter, fresh local fennel and leeks, Pernod, fennel butter, scallops flown in from Maine, caviar, Champagne beurre blanc (i.e., more butter), and a light and fluffy pastry—sounds heavenly, but it’s chef Dustin Valette‘s sublime execution that makes his namesake restaurant’s signature day boat scallops en croûte a Healdsburg must-try. Food Network chef Beau MacMillan agrees, raving about Valette’s creation on an episode of The Best Thing I Ever Ate.
INSIDER TIPThis delicate dish cries out for a crisp Chardonnay. Chef Valette recommends ones by Bob Cabral and Benovia, though a sparkling wine, of which there are a dozen-plus local and French choices on the list, would work well, too. Valette is downtown, a block from Healdsburg Plaza.
Model Bakery English Muffins
WHERE: Napa, Yountville, St. Helena
Three parts English muffin, one part doughnut, and also a whole lotta butter, the Model Bakery‘s fluffy, doughy, orgasmically delicious signature baked good seduces on every level. Even Oprah swoons for these muffins, which more than once have made the celeb’s Favorite Things list.
INSIDER TIPThe Model Bakery has locations on Main Street in St. Helena (the original) and in downtown Napa’s Oxbow Public Market. You can also pick up muffins in Yountville at the Mini Model Bakery, which occupies an old caboose attached to the Napa Valley Railway Inn. Arrive early during summer and fall, when the delectable pastry often sells out.
One of the principals in Lovina is also involved with San Francisco’s beloved Zazie restaurant, where brunch isn’t brunch without a zesty mimosa with a scoop of divine blood-orange sorbet. The tradition continues at Lovina, which debuted in 2017 in a Calistoga bungalow. Go for the mimosa, but stay for the fantastic brunch: the something-for-everyone menu is divided into “breakfast kind of brunch” items (try Susie’s Remedy if you had too much the night before, otherwise French toast or a breakfast burrito) and “lunch kind of brunch” offerings, of which the warm duck confit spinach salad and Chef Jenna’s Chicken Tiki Yum Yum (on jasmine rice with sour cream and lentils) stand out.
INSIDER TIPOn sunny days, brunch is best enjoyed seated on the street-side patio out front, accompanied by some downtown people-watching.
Red Wine Truffle
Chocolatier Chris Kollar might be self-taught, but he’s obviously a quick study: less than a decade after he established Yountville-based Kollar Chocolates, Dessert Professional Magazine named him one of North America’s top-ten chocolatiers. He draws inspiration from European counterparts who favor flavor over sweetness, but he’s just as apt to skew Californian with items like his fennel pollen truffle. The winner of a gold award at an International Chocolate Salon Tasting, the sweet was inspired by the omnipresent roadside fennel Kollar passed on lengthy bike rides through the Napa Valley.
INSIDER TIPKollar intentionally installed an open kitchen in his space inside V Marketplace in downtown Yountville. On weekdays you can often see him at work, experimenting with new confections or whipping up another batch of his popular red wine truffles made from Napa Valley Zinfandel.
Steak and a Cab
WHERE: St. Helena
St. Helena’s steakhouse extraordinaire Press can buy meat from anywhere in the world, but the purveyor of choice for an exquisitely marbled dry-aged steak is Northern California’s Flannery Beef. Compound your bliss with an equally well-aged bottle from the restaurant’s extensive lineup of late-1990s Cabernets—a sturdy 1996 or 1999 from Mayacamas Vineyards on Mt. Veeder, perhaps, or a magnum (mustn’t run out mid-meal) of 2006 Caymus Special Selection from valley-floor Rutherford fruit.
INSIDER TIPThe sommeliers at Press are among the Napa Valley’s best and can guide you to the right wine for your palate.
Chef Curtis Di Fede modeled his downtown Napa restaurant Miminashi after the Japanese gastropubs known as izakaya, where sake or cocktails accompany appetizers and small plates. Crispy skewered chicken skin was an early hit, but wok-fried edamame emerged as the starter that regulars craved. The recipe’s deceptively simple: stir-fry over high heat in safflower oil and top with toasted nori and white sesame seeds. The success is all in the execution—and, if desired, the sake that sommelier Jessica Pinzon selects to accompany this clever dish.
INSIDER TIPMiminashi is also known for its soft-serve ice creams and sorbets, so popular that a separate Instagram account alerts patrons to the flavors du jour, which might include brown-sugar crème fraîche with miso caramel and black sesame seeds, pomegranate and citrus punch sorbet, and, yes, one featuring edamame. If you’re not staying for dinner, you can purchase them at a window out front.
Chef Anita Cartagena cites a meal at Yountville’s The French Laundry as the catalyst for her transformation from fashion model into chef, but at Protéa, her fast-casual restaurant on the opposite side of town, she channels the street cuisine of the Caribbean and her native Puerto Rico. Cartagena posts her daily-changing menu on social media, always drawing a crowd when she’s preparing chillo frito (fried whole red snapper).
The energetic chef says this “taste from back home” recalls “mom-and-pop places on the beach where you order fish straight off the line, into the pot, and onto your plate.” As in Puerto Rico, rice, beans, sweet plantains, mixed greens, salsa borracha (drunk salsa), and avocado lime accompany her light, crispy fish.
INSIDER TIPThe dish goes well with Heidi Barrett’s La Sirena rosé, says Cartagena, or a Napa Valley–brewed Sons Beer on tap.
Pliny the Younger
WHERE: Santa Rosa, Windsor
Most people associate Sonoma County with wine, but for two weeks in early February this is beer country. That’s when thousands of “Pliny pilgrims” stand in line for hours to taste Pliny the Younger, Russian River Brewing Company‘s potent (10%-plus-alcohol) triple IPA. Owners Vince and Natalie Cilurzo describe it as “loaded with hop flavors, bitterness, and aromatics,” and they’re not lying. With the opening of RRBC’s vast brewpub in Windsor (between Santa Rosa and Healdsburg), the lines should move more quickly, though part of the fun is shootin’ the breeze with fellow Pliny partisans while you wait.
INSIDER TIPPliny the Younger is served for two weeks only. After that, it’s see ya next year, though the other 50 weeks you can sip Pliny the Elder—a robust double IPA—or other selections in Windsor or at the original Santa Rosa pub.
Mushroomy Mushroom Soup
“It’s so mushroomy, how does he do it?” ask most patrons at star chef Todd Humphries’s downtown Napa restaurant, the Kitchen Door. When Humphries, who made his name at top-drawer restaurants in New York and San Francisco, opened this Oxbow District homage to international comfort food (pizzas, rice bowls, duck banh mi sandwiches with duck jus), he anchored the starters with the creamy-rich mushroom soup from a previous restaurant he’d run in St. Helena.
INSIDER TIPHis soup’s secrets of success include a heavy stock, his mushroom combo, and a splash of marsala, says Humphries, whose restaurant is located inside the main Oxbow Public Market building.
WHERE: St. Helena
With an ultrachic sister property in Mexico City and rooms in a restored 1907 Georgian-style mansion flanked by contemporary steel, glass, and concrete structures, it’s perhaps fitting that the two signature craft cocktails at Las Alcobas Napa Valley provide the continuity. Imported from Mexico City and the perfect antidote to a day of high-octane Cabernets, the mellifluous Las Alcobas Margarita delights with delicate sea-salt foam and tongue-tweaking lime-skin. The Napa Valley mixologists developed the Acacia Cocktail (gin, honey, crème de violet, sparkling wine), popular poolside in summer.
INSIDER TIPIn good weather, many guests enjoy these libations on the Acacia House restaurant’s wraparound porch, parts of which overlook the garden where many of the drinks’ herbs come from.