Most visitors to Napa have the county in mind, not the town. They’re headed to the valley’s famed vineyards, wineries and tasting rooms, knowing they’ll have some good food along the way. But the wines themselves, most notably big Cabernet Sauvignons, aren’t the only attraction. The city of Napa’s small downtown area is a culinary paradise, from the collection of purveyors at Oxbow Public Market, a veritable foodie epicenter, to several destination restaurants within walking distance from there, including a Michelin-starred gem.
If you’re just driving up for the day, be sure to arrive in time for breakfast, and park near Oxbow. (Street parking is usually remarkably hassle-free, unless there’s a special event going on.) While there are multiple breakfast options, the three best are C Casa for Mexican breakfast tacos (and an entirely gluten-free menu), The Model Bakery for decadent pastries and Blue Bottle coffee, and Five Dot Ranch for homemade biscuits and beef sausage made from the ranch’s own pastured cows. And don’t forget the Ritual coffee. The stand at Oxbow offers Ritual’s full line of pour-over coffees and espresso drinks.
The great thing about Oxbow is that a family or group can choose multiple dining options simultaneously at any meal, as seating is all central to the market, rather than being associated with each restaurant (with the exception of The Kitchen Door, a separate sit-down restaurant featuring chef Todd Humphries’ locally inspired cooking, and Hog Island Oyster Co., whose raw-bar seating extends on to the back patio.)
Lunch is another opportunity to experience’s the market’s bounty. The aforementioned Hog Island Oyster Co. is a seafood-lover’s dream come true, with platters of mostly West-Coast bi-valves and a few from the east, along with clams, fresh halibut, seafood stew and a well-priced wine list.
Alternatively, gather some picnic food and lounge on the banks of the Napa River and watch the little fishing boats float by. The Fatted Calf has all manner of charcuterie, as well as a selection of pastas, heirloom beans, vinegars and other kitchen staples to take home with you. Salumi from The Fatted Calf, a baguette from The Model Bakery and fruit from Hudson Greens and Goods (or fresh-pressed juice or avocado toast) make for a complete outdoor meal. Except for dessert, of course, which can be readily fulfilled by cupcakes from Kara’s Cupcakes or ice cream at Three Twins.
Another option altogether is to leave the culinary wonderland of Oxbow and walk into downtown Napa for pizza or pasta at Ca’ Momi Osteria, the restaurant version of the wood-burning pizza place at Oxbow (which has a smaller enoteca menu). At the osteria, you can make a reservation and enjoy the full experience of the brewery and the homemade pastas.
If you’re able to stay overnight, the Westin Verasa Napa is perfectly situated within walking distance of everything in the downtown area and moderately priced. The big, comfortable rooms overlook the year-round heated pool and the Napa River beyond. And there are also bocce courts for use by guests. For families, one- and two-bedroom suites with full kitchens are ideal. Service is both informal and expert, and the hotel offers free wine tastings every night, along with free chair massages on the weekends. If you have time, get a treatment at the inviting and tranquil Gloria Curry Day Spa housed on the property. A hot stone massage and a deep-cleansing facial will set you right as you continue your culinary extravaganza.
Besides its prime location, another reason to choose this particular hotel is that it is home to chef Ken Franks’ legendary restaurant, La Toque. Originally founded on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles when Frank was just 23, La Toque became a culinary institution in Wine Country, first in Rutherford from 1998 to 2008, and then at the Westin Verasa Napa, where Frank continues to cook contemporary-classic French food, beautifully plated and graciously served. The restaurant’s Michelin-star is visibly earned in Frank’s careful tasting menus that allow you to create your own three-, four-, or five-course meals. The world-class wine list, which holds a Wine Spectator Grand Award, has one of the best collections of highly allocated local wines available anywhere, not to mention the French stuff.
Our two favorite dishes were the beef carpaccio — meltingly fatty, perfectly sliced and topped with sauteed trumpet mushrooms — and the crisp rosti potato with creme fraiche and caviar.
After a good sleep, head back to Oxbow to buy some local products to take home. Whole Spice is a one-stop shop for all things aromatic and flavorful for your own home-cooking. Napastäk is a beautifully curated shop of prepared foods where you never know what you’ll find, but there are always local honeys, jams and shrubs, as well as imported condiments and sauces. End your spree at Napa Valley Distillery with a sampler of locally made spirits.
If there’s time for one last meal—and there always is—head for Oenotri, a southern Italian restaurant where everything, including the salumi and pastas are homemade. The wood-burning oven turns out crisp pizzas that make you fee like you’re in Rome.
I can’t think of a place in northern California that offers as much in a half-mile radius as downtown Napa. And there’s lots of good wine to drink if you get thirsty.
Oxbow Public Market
610 and 644 First St. [Map]
Napa, CA 94559
Ph: (707) 226-6529
Hours: 7:30am-9:30pm (check individual vendors for specific hours)
Facebook: Oxbow Public Market
Price Range: $-$$$$
Ca’ Momi Osteria
1141 First St. [Map]
Napa, CA 94559
Ph: (707) 224-6664
Hours: Daily, 11:30am-10pm
Facebook: Ca' Momi
Price range: $$-$$$ ($14-$32 entrees)