Calistoga: A Weekend in Food (and Drink)

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The Calistoga Roastery
The Calistoga Roastery: best choice for a morning fuel stop

As a kid, this time of year always brought about great vacations. When my sisters and I were in school, my parents would load us into the Volvo station wagon and we'd usually go up to Tahoe to ski (that was major when you think about navigating small kids, ski rental lines, and the occasional blizzard). If not Tahoe, we'd travel to Florida to visit relatives. But now, my sisters and I are grown adults and we all have busy lives and differing schedules, so it's tough to get everyone home with enough time to get out of Dodge even for a few days. But this year we were lucky. Zoe's home from college. Rachael flew in from Seattle. And my mom whisked us all up to Calistoga for a weekend at Solage where we ate and drank our way through town.

Calistoga is a small, sleepy town in the Napa Valley that literally sits on top of thermal hot springs, so its famous for its mineral waters and fortified mud (and thus, many resorts and spas have cropped up around the area). I hadn't been to Calistoga and was pleasantly surprised that a lot of the pretension of restaurants and wineries in the Napa Valley is noticeably absent. In many ways, if you look past the tourists, it's still very much a small, humble town. The downtown consists of a few bars and restaurants, a bank and a coffee shop, and a smattering of small retail shops. Then of course, there's Indian Springs and a few other resorts. After exploring downtown (it won’t take you long), take a drive (or hop on your bike like we did) and you can experience a great deal of what the town has to offer. As we headed home, we took a survey and decided on our "best of" list. So here are the Gordon sister's favorite places to grab a bite while in Calistoga and--if you're anything like us--in between glasses of wine.

Fueling up for the day: Calistoga Roastery

Calistoga Roastery
Downtown Calistoga's favorite spot for a cup of strong coffee


This is the local coffee shop in Calistoga. Owners Clive Richardson and Jack Martin opened Calistoga Roastery in the summer of 1999 after Clive left the corporate coffee world in San Francisco looking for something smaller and more independent. They roast their own beans, and supply coffee to many of the local resorts. And after tasting a cup, you can tell why. I noticed many of the locals stopping in to sit and have one of the bottomless cups of strong drip coffee. But they do a wide variety of espresso drinks and teas as well, and offer freshly baked muffins, scones, and housemade granola. We rode over one morning after a late dinner at Bouchon, so no one was feeling much like food but we nursed our lattes on the benches outside and took in the downtown sites for a good hour or so (great people-watching). Inside, there were tables of locals talking about their Christmas holidays and what they were up to for New Year's Eve. A group of eight older men were seated at the big communal table by the window reading the paper and gossiping about their wives. There's definitely an old-timeyness about the place with its big open space, no-nonsense baristas, welcoming wooden bar with stools, and locals moseying in wearing cowboy hats. If you're a fan of caramel frou-frou drinks from Starbucks, this may not be your place. But if you actually like to taste the espresso in your latte, don't miss it.
Calistoga Roastery
1426 Lincoln Avenue
Calistoga, CA 94515
(707) 942- 5757
Hours: Daily 6:30am–6pm

Lunch (or rolling breakfast): Café Sarafornia

Cafe Sarafornia
Checking out the large morning menu at Café Sarafornia

Sam Brannan was the man touted for originally discovering the town of Calistoga. The story goes a little something like this: Brannan bought the geyser lands in the 1860s, promoting it as the "Saratoga of California" (after Saratoga, Springs in New York). One evening after having a few too many, he declared instead, "I will make this place the Calistoga of Sarafornia." Thus the name of the town, and thus the name of this quaint, old-fashioned diner. Now let's be honest about Café Sarafornia. Is it the best food you've ever had? No, no it's not. But they've got some things going for them, and I'll definitely be back next time I'm in town. First, they serve breakfast all day long (we'd originally gone for lunch but couldn't help ordering from the breakfast menu--as were many of the tables), which will score you points in my book. It's decent, reliable diner food with booths situated around a wide circular bar where locals saddle up and chat with the curt yet efficient waitresses. I had the Wildcat Scrambler with chicken apple sausage, mushrooms, and Swiss cheese and some delightfully greasy (and salty) hash browns. My sister Rachael went big with the chicken-fried steak, and my mom got the 2+2+2 (2 pancakes or French toast + 2 eggs + 2 bacon or sausage links)--kind of the perfect meal and one I don't often see on breakfast menus any more. So go knowing you won't get waited on hand and foot nor will you find artisan or organic ingredients on the menu. But go knowing it truly is the perfect spot to fill up on some hearty sustenance before heading out to the wineries--after all, you need a little something to soak up those tannins.
Café Sarafornia
1413 Lincoln Avenue
Calistoga, CA 94515
(707) 942-0555
Hours: Daily 7am-2:30pm (lunch starting at 11am)

Dinner: SolBar at Solage Resort

SolBar at Solage Resort
The inviting entrance leading up to SolBar

I'll admit it: I was hesitant when my mom told me she made reservations at the hotel restaurant. In my experience, that never bodes well. Believe me when I tell you I'll never, ever have those thoughts again. Our dinner at SolBar was the best meal I've had in a very long time--and I've done a lot of eating out this holiday season. Let me start by saying the meal wasn't inexpensive: you've got to save your pennies...or bring your mom.

Now it's obviously winter, but I've vowed to come back in the summer when we can sit outside on the outdoor patio and enjoy the oversized fire pit, bocce ball courts, and little lights strung throughout the trees. The dining room was inviting with its high ceilings, lovely big fire, and roomy tables with little Heath vases and local flowers. Knowing that SolBar had received their first Michelin Star, we were all expecting it to be a bit stuffy. But it was actually the most comfortable, laid-back fine dining experience. The servers seemed to always know when you needed something and anticipated questions and pairing advice, but were never pesky or overbearing. The menu is organized around the seasons with organic, local ingredients. I started with the Winter Squash Veloute, a creamy soup with crispy sage leaves and granny smith apples. Then I chose the Preserved Lemon and Chickpea Stew with braised kale, roasted garlic, tomato confit, and harissa. Looking back, I'm not sure why I went the vegetarian route, as the menu boasts other dishes including a delicate cod, beef short ribs with polenta, and their infamous "Lucky Pig," a dish meant for two comprised of slow roasted pork shoulder served with black sesame crepes, pickled pineapple, mongolian peanuts, and lettuce cups. For dessert, we shared the well-regarded warm donut holes (you must try these!) and a spice cake with candied persimmon. Lingering over Irish Coffees, conversation had come to a bit of a halt and it was getting late, but no one wanted to leave. We didn't want the experience to end, so we sat staring at the fire--and ordered another round of coffees. Then, we were back the next morning for breakfast.
SolBar at Solage Resort
755 Silverado Trail
Calistoga, CA 94515
(707) 226-0850
Hours: Breakfast: 7 am-11am; Lunch 11:30 am-3pm
Dinner: 5:30 pm-9pm; Lounge 11am-11pm; Sunday brunch 11:30 am-3 pm.

Small Local Wineries to Love:
Lava Vine
Lava Vine, a sweet little family-run winery with incredible Chardonnay and Zinfandel

Lava Vine: 965 Silverado Trail in Calistoga CA 94515; (707) 942-9500
August Briggs: 333 Silverado Trail in Calistoga, CA 94515; (707) 942-4912


Other Great Calistoga Food Destinations:
Brannan's Grill: 1374 Lincoln Avenue in Calistoga, CA 94515; (707) 942-2233
Calistoga Inn and Brewery: 1250 Lincoln Avenue in Calistoga, CA 94515; (707) 942-4101
Wappo Bar and Bistro: 1226 Washington Street in Calistoga, CA 94515; (707) 942-4712
Jole: 1457 Lincoln Avenue in Calistoga, CA 94515; (707) 942-5938
Palisades Deli: 1458 Lincoln Avenue in Calistoga, CA 94515; (707) 942-0145