The Napa Valley now has two restaurants that have received three Michelin stars (The French Laundry and The Restaurant at Meadowood), but the real dining discoveries in California wine country are at the more casual and lower-priced end of the scale. Over the past five years a collection of chef-driven eateries has opened with relaxed décor and delicious, market-driven menus. While most require a bit of advance planning, they don’t present the daunting reservation gauntlet of the Michelin-starred establishments. Check out these destinations for either a romantic dinner or an evening of communal fun:
Bouchon and Ad Hoc: Both places are located in Yountville and owned by celebrated Chef Thomas Keller, but that’s where the comparison to The French Laundry ends. Bouchon, which has branches in Las Vegas and Beverly Hills, a rustic French bistro featuring classic fare such as shellfish platters, charcuterie and steak frites. The wine list centers on selections from France and California, and offers carafes of “honest, truly local” wines. Ah Hoc serves a four-course family style menu five days each week; diners check the website in the morning and decide if that evening’s fare suits them.
Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen: Cindy Pawlcyn, chef-owner of Napa’s Mustards and Go Fish, has created this “hip, casual and not fussy” eatery in a restored, historic 19th century building. Specialties include Backstreet Fry, Rabbit Tostada, Chinatown Duck Burger and “Adult Grilled Cheese.” The wine list offers exotic, small-batch Napa wineries with an emphasis on good value.
Cook: Located on Main Street in St. Helena, this narrow and frequently crowded restaurant features an open kitchen and an Italian-inspired menu that changes daily. Fixtures include homemade mozzarella, a risotto of the day, housemade pastas, whole young chicken and braised short ribs. Wash it down with country wines from California or Italy.
Gott’s Roadside: Vintner brothers Joel and Duncan Gott almost created a revolution in Napa last year when they changed the name of this informal eatery from Taylor’s Refresher to Gott’s Roadside. The “mighty fine eats,” however, remain the same—thick grilled hamburgers, fish tacos, chili, shakes made from Double Rainbow ice cream, and an amazing Ahi Burger served with ginger wasabi mayo and Asian slaw. Place your order at the counter and relax at a picnic table in the back.