Olive Magazine

Napa Valley guide: the best places to eat, drink and sleep

Published: March 19, 2015 at 10:25 am

Toffee-ish pork belly, trumpet mushrooms slicked with maple butter, fried squash blossoms and predictably special wines form a gluttonous Holy Grail in Marina O’Loughlin’s guide to Napa.

The first time I went to the Napa Valley – galvanised, as so many were at the time, by the film Sideways – I duly schlepped out to various wineries, panicking that my research had let me down, that a better, friendlier one might be minutes along the vine-lined tracks, that the rarest white pinot noir might be just out of my reach. The whole trip gave me a dose of FOMO as bad as any teenager’s. And then, as often happens, on the plane home I read about something amazing I’d missed. So, this time, I’m letting the wines come to me.


The Valley is an absolute fantasy playground for those of us obsessed by what’s on our plates and in our glasses. You can access its riches in all manner of ways: by the Wine Train (when it drives through the main street of beautiful St Helena, parping and rumbling, it’s something to behold); you can hire limos with drivers; you can cycle from winery to winery (as if!); float by balloon; or glide along by Segway (imagine being caught DUI on a Segway…). But this time we’re doing it in style at some of the Valley’s chicest resorts – places so beautiful they frequently don’t seem real.

The Solage Calistoga resort, just outside Calistoga on the Silverado Trail (I love these Wild West names), is like a fantasy frontier town where Ralph Lauren models marry square-jawed producers, all clapboard cottages and state-of-the-art spas nestling in luscious greenery.

Napa Valley is littered with Michelin-starred restaurants, the granddaddy, of course, being The French Laundry, but I did that last time and it’s a whole other story. Solbar, Solage’s restaurant, has one twinkler for chef Brandon Sharp, whose menus are intriguing and innovative, divided into ‘healthy, lighter dishes’ for the beautiful people and ‘hearty cuisine’ for the greedy likes of us. Sharp likes to mix up pristine Californian produce with unexpected, frequently Asian flavours: exquisite cornbread; an heirloom tomato salad of remarkable intensity with a herbal, fragrant crumb; velvety yellowtail with bursts of spice; and an almost toffee-ed slab of sultry pork belly with a cake of sticky rice.

Wines, recommended by sommelier Bradley Wasserman, are predictably special: a Kenefick Ranch ‘Pickett Road White’ from Calistoga on our doorstep, and lustrous Napa dry Muscat ‘La Sirena’. This is where wine industry people come to play, and it’s entirely likely that you’ll be seduced into an impromptu tasting session by the cabernet growers at the next table. We sit outside under fairy lights, wondering if we’ll ever be able to face real life again.

Calistoga itself is as cute as a button; it’s easy to imagine yourself in some kind of idealised 1950s version of small-town America, just waiting for Doc from Back to the Future to blaze round a corner in his DeLorean. There are mud baths and a geyser called Old Faithful, for goodness’ sake. There are plenty of chi-chi places to eat in town, but after our swankfest at Solbar, we decide to sneak off to La Gitana food truck for horchata and gloriously vibrant, chilli-and-corianderspiked fish tacos.

This resort life is so, so seductive. South on the Silverado Trail, The Carneros Inn is a clever recreation of a fantasy America, boasting an American Gothic diner, the Boon Fly Café, and ‘shacks’ fringed with corrugated iron. Of course, there’s no roughing it: these shacks are beautifully designed cottages furnished with outdoor jacuzzis and our own firepit. As dusk falls, we ring for our firepit concierge – I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited.

We walk through fruit groves and past glittering pools to the resort’s restaurant, FARM; it may look like a massive barn, but the cooking is an amazing collision of sophistication and locality: day boat scallop with pomegranate from their own garden; hamachi with ancho chilli purée; beef with dry-cured egg yolk as a condiment; or smoked trumpet mushrooms, fried, then slicked with maple butter until they almost mimic bacon. All of Silicon Valley appears to be partying here: this redefines resort life for the supercool.

We expect luxury and fine food at the likes of The Carneros Inn, but the real surprise is what’s happened to downtown Napa since our last visit: defying its picture postcard neighbours (and a nasty earthquake last August), it has blossomed, with great places to eat and shop, from the gritty, wonderful likes of Taqueria Rosita, to glossy celebrity cheffed Morimoto. We’re booked into the hippest joint in town, from the people behind New York’s Saxon+ Parole: The Thomas.

Still with the original Fagiani’s neon outside – the atmospheric old building was previously a bar, the scene of an infamous 1970s murder – each floor is more chic than the last. We’re on the roof, with views over downtown and the Napa river, for wood-grilled flatbreads laden with truffled burrata; sparkling oysters from the raw bar, and a killer fritto misto, the frying done with a featherlight hand, the seafood spankingly fresh. For once, we abandon wine in favour of strong, expertlymixed cocktails: it’s that kind of joint.

Then we stumble across 1313 Main completely by accident, having been scooped up in a wine store by its charismatic owner, Al Jabarin. Every inch of this former warehouse, apart from the serene back garden, is covered in wine bottles: here are Napa Valley’s finest all under one roof. Plus there’s ambitious, excellent cooking: chef Adam Ross has worked in some notable kitchens, including Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc, and gets many of his ingredients from one of three gardens within walking distance of the restaurant: rutabaga for salt-baking with pinenuts; squash blossoms for frying into laciness.

Even the bar snacks are stellar: corn and shiso fritters with coriander shoots; pork cracklings with espelette pepper and Vietnamese nuoc cham; coq-au-vin chicken wings. Jabarin and restaurant director and sommelier Jordan Noya work together to create a menu in which wine and food have equal prominence: ‘We actually listen to each other,’ laughs Jordan.

So it’s the Holy Grail for the bibulous – without having to hire a limo or a Segway or a balloon. We’re completely FOMO-free – we’ve nailed it. And then, on the plane home, we realise we didn’t make it to the famous Culinary Institute of America, breeding ground for many a famous US chef. Or Napa’s ‘secret’ wine bar, Cadet. Oh well, next time.

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