The French Laundry has skewed the perception of wine. Despite the shine Thomas Keller’s famous jewel of a restaurant has created for Napa Valley dining, food in this part of the world generally serves to complement the wine, not the other way around. To dine like a native, choose a varietal and then look at the main menu.
This is cabernet country, so if you order a dry-aged rib-eye at Press in St. Helena, a red needs to accompany it. Chardonnay is your cue for the poached yellowfin tuna salad at Archetype and merlot for the mushroom and pancetta pizza at Redd Wood in Yountville.
No one will judge you for filtering your search by the view: The spa-goers scene at Solbar in Calistoga; the Valley floor from Auberge du Soleil’s terrace in Rutherford; and the Napa River from Morimoto Napa.
For your best chance at clinking glasses with vintners and winemakers, pick a restaurant with a killer wine list and eat at the bar. Industry folks patronize the establishments that carry their labels and return frequently to make sure they stay featured. Servers and bartenders don’t flinch if you ask for tastes to make sure you’re picking the right wine for each course.
If you dine during high season—June through October—start making calls way ahead. If you’d rather operate on the fly, look to hotel concierges, drivers from private touring services and your hosts at wine tastings to lock down reservations.
Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen
Cindy Pawlcyn’s follow-up to Mustards Grill has more charm, less noise and a cool outdoor patio. The Adult Grilled Cheese with white cheddar and the Campfire Pie, a superior s’more, aren’t kids’ stuff.
This St. Helena restaurant has a serious cross-cultural menu: Niman Ranch lamb gyro with garlic naan; tzatziki grilled trout with crispy skin potatoes; oven roasted Brussels sprouts, marinated shiitakes and Chinese mustard cream; and hamachi crudo with white beans.
Michael Chiarello launched an empire of shopping, dining and drinking in Yountville, and this restaurant has been hot from the start. Seasonal California ingredients are served regional Italian style.
The Restaurant at Meadowood
Chef Christopher Kostow’s brilliant work is the new Napa standard. The menu is too elastic to predict, but is sure to be driven from the curated restaurant garden.
Oxbow Public Market
Downtown Napa’s not-to-be-missed fantasy food court is made up of two dozen merchants, from C Casa’s grilled citrus shrimp tacos to Kara’s vanilla coconut cupcakes.
Aaron Williams is a Food Fanatics chef for US Foods based in Los Angeles who’s all about the Golden State.
Follow the Food Fanatic on Twitter @ChefAaronW