Monday, December 13, 2010

Downtown Napa Revival Well Underway

 Downtown Napa used to be a sleepy place, with working-class roots that set it apart (some might say pleasantly so) from its increasingly chic and expensive "up valley" neighbors: Yountville and St. Helena. But these days Napa is turning into every bit the wine country destination. With about $700 million in public and private investment flowing into downtown, Napa is abuzz with more than a dozen new restaurants, several luxury hotels, wine tasting rooms, a refurbished theater and opera house, a public market and a sleek riverfront residential and commercial district.
   It's all due to a flood control project to tame the Napa River, which overflowed its banks to disastrous
 effect several times in the last 100 years, the most recent time in 1986 causing $200 million in damage. The project transformed the river, restoring the natural habitat at its shores, creating a curved channel and opening space for development. Celebrity chef Masahuru Morimoto of Iron Chef fame opened his $5 million restaurant, Morimoto along the riverfront last year.
Other notable downtown restaurants have drawn much attention: La Toque, which was recently awarded a Michelin star; Bradley Ogden's Fish Story; Angele; Oenotri, a southern Italian pizzeria; Ubuntu, a vegetarian restaurant combined with yoga studio; and Greg Cole's Celadon, one of the older of the newbies (it opened in the 1990s and later moved to the historic riverfront Hatt building).
The latest addition to the dining scene is by Food Network star Tyler Florence, who opened Rotisserie & Wine, earlier this month.
Just a few blocks from the river, in an area now called the "West End," upscale boutique hotel Avia (photo below) made its debut in July 2009, bringing a sophisticated addition to downtown with its 58 "tub suites" with in-room soaking tubs for two and a large terrace with comfortable chairs for lounging around firepits on cool wine country evenings.
I hadn't been to the Oxbow Public Market (top photo) for a couple of years -- since a disappointing visit when I found little of the bustle that makes such food halls so much fun to explore. This time was different. All the food stalls are rented out and even on a wintry weekday morning there was a lot of energy in the air, tables full of diners. The range of eateries and food available is impressive: Hog Island Oysters, the Oxbow Cheese Merchant, Ritual Coffee Roasters, The Olive Press, The Fatted Calf artisanal charcuterie (middle photo), Napa's decades-old Model Bakery, Kara's Cupcakes and a newcomer, Ca'Momi, an Italian-run pizzeria with an excellent and authentic pastry selection (a third-generation pastry chef from Tuscany is visiting for several months and his custard-filled cream puffs are delicious).
I walked through downtown Napa's historic district with George Webber, who conducts fascinating two-hour tours, and then poked through market and some local wine shops with Andrea Nadel of Gourmet Walks, a company that offers walking tours that include visits with chefs and artisan food producers. My two-day trip to downtown Napa was sponsored by the Napa Downtown Association, which is eager to show off the revitalized area. Check out its downtown visitors center where you can buy Taste Napa Downtown, a $20 card that allows users to sample wines at 14 tasting rooms within walking distance. Included are notable Ceja Vineyards (one of few Mexican-American-owned California wineries) and GustavoThrace (one of the growing number of women-owned wineries).