wine guy wednesday
CultureMap Wine Guy Chris Shepherd serves up his must-visit Napa Valley restaurants and bars
Editor's note: Long before Chris Shepherd became a James Beard Award-winning chef, he developed enough of a passion for wine to work at Brennan's of Houston as a sommelier. He maintains that interest to this day. When Chris expressed interest in writing about wine-related topics for CultureMap, we said yes.
In this week's column, he shares his favorite bars, restaurants, and food shops in Napa Valley. Take it away, Chris.
A month ago, I shared my list of wineries I love to visit in Napa, and now it’s time to talk about the food! Here’s a list of places I’ve loved for a long time as well as some new discoveries. Let’s take a tour of the valley — South to North.
Just a reminder that places in Napa are not as close together as they seem. If you’re staying in the city of Napa and have reservations in St. Helena, plan ahead. Rideshares are few and far between, and booking cars can be expensive. Dinners require some thought, but that’s why lunches are always a great option.
City of Napa
Let’s start with the obvious: Oxbow Market. It’s a fun haven of deliciousness, whether it’s in the morning for coffee at Ritual Roasters (one of my favorites!) or bagels at Loveski’s Deli, a restaurant from Meadowood chef Christopher Kostow. Oxbow is home to an outpost of Hog Island Oyster Co., which has a great patio for sipping Champagne and slamming oysters — one of our favorite places to go in Napa. Don’t sleep on the clam chowder.
If you have an Airbnb, Oxbow is a great spot to get groceries and stock up on wine and cheese. Bordering the market is one of the great butcher shops in the country, Fatted Calf. Next door is the famed Model Bakery. Be prepared to wait in line, but once you’re in, get yourself an English muffin. There’s also a Gott’s Roadside here, but we’ll talk about that more later.
If you’re looking for a nice lunch and a killer bottle of wine, head over to Compline. Order a French dip and a bottle of Tempier Rosé (I’ll order it anywhere I find it!). There’s also an extensive bottle shop here with a lot of selections.
I recently had my first meal at Bistro Don Giovanni, a classic Italian bistro that’s been in Napa for 25 years. It has a good wine list, pretty good cocktails, and it’s always busy with locals. It sounds crazy, but we ordered the Bambini pizza, which is pepperoni with French fries. It was good! The Bolognese was great, and their mandilli, a handkerchief pasta with pesto, was delicious. This group just opened Scala Osteria downtown a few months ago. The décor is more modern, food and service is great, and they stay open late! The Acciughe Bianchi is a fantastic salad of white anchovies, celery, Calabrian chiles, and lemon.
Yes, those are french fries on that pizza.Photo by Chris Shepherd
If you want to sit at the bar and enjoy some terrine and French wines, Angèle is your spot.
For the unexpected, if you’re craving ravioli, spaghetti, deli sandwiches (to-go only!), and a bottle of highly allocated bourbon, then Lawler’s Liquor is your place! I saw bottles there that I’ve never seen before. I can’t believe I’m saying that, because it almost never happens. They have bourbon on the shelf that you’ve only read about. When was the last time you saw Van Winkle on the shelf??This is one of my honey holes, and I’m giving it up!
When you live in Houston, it’s hard to go too long without dumplings or some dim sum. Stop by Empress M. Is it the most amazing dim sum I’ve ever had? Sometimes you just need a dumpling. That’s all I’m going to say.
If you’re staying in Napa, Cadet is the place to go after dinner. They have an amazing wine selection from all over the world—a lot of wines you don’t see on lists very often and some of the nicest staff around.
Let’s head to Yountville, the home of Thomas Keller. Any self-proclaimed foodie (I hate that word!) should visit his spots. The French Laundry is a bucket list dining experience, for sure. Bouchon is a fantastic lunch spot, and a stop at Bouchon Bakery is a must. We haven’t been to his Mexican spot La Calenda or his caviar spot Regiis Ova, but I’ve heard great things about both.
Mustard’s Grill is an iconic restaurant that’s been feeding Napa Valley for more than 40 years. I went for the first time this March and had a great lunch. The menu is right — the chicken wings are “crazy good.” So was the pork chop, chicken, and onion rings. Dessert? Can’t beat a lemon ice box pie. Classic, simple, and fantastic. I watched multiple party buses drop off large groups in the hour and a half I was there.
There’s really only one place to stop — Oakville Grocery. It’s a great spot to stop in the morning for breakfast, great sandwiches for lunch, and a perfect place to stop if you’re planning a picnic somewhere. A lot of people love the pizza — it's great if you love Neapolitan-style.
Arguably, one of the busiest restaurants in all of Napa Valley is Rutherford Grill, which is owned by the Hillstone Group. If you’re craving some spinach artichoke dip, make a reservation in advance because it’s always busy!
No trip to Napa Valley is complete without a visit to Farmstead. It’s one of my favorite places to eat in the Valley — great people, great food, great space. 10/10. They grow their own beef, and they grow a lot of their own vegetables in the onsite garden and at the farm down the street. They also produce their own olive oil and wines (Long Meadow Ranch). They have an outdoor live fire arena where they do special dinners with guest chefs. Keep your eye out for that. (hint, hint)
Across the street is another one of my favorite spots, The Charter Oak by chef Christopher Kostow. Things to order every time: the bread, the crudite (trust me, this is where to get it because they grow their own vegetables), the burger is the real deal, and never miss a side of the steamed California grown Komachi rice with cultured butter. It’s one of my true loves.
Gott’s Roadside, the original Taylor Grocery, is known for its burgers — all of them. Choose from 11 different types of burgers, but the one I hear the most about is the ahi burger. Can’t say I’ve ever had it, but this is a great place to sit outside, grab some food and a shake or a half bottle of wine, and enjoy the beautiful St. Helena sites.
I’ll be honest. I’ve neither stayed nor eaten in Calistoga. But there might be something good up there, so y’all tell me!
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Chris Shepherd won a James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southwest in 2014. Last year, he parted ways with Underbelly Hospitality, a restaurant group that currently operates four Houston restaurants: Wild Oats, GJ Tavern, Underbelly Burger, and Georgia James. The Southern Smoke Foundation, a non-profit he co-founded with his wife Lindsey Brown, has distributed more than $10 million to hospitality workers in crisis through its Emergency Relief Fund.