Press in Napa Valley offers a playful, elegant menu. // © 2015 KristenLoken
Feature image (above): Francis Ford Coppola’s Rustic in Sonoma County is perched on a hill with vineyard views. // © 2015 Francis Ford Coppola Winery
It’s a good time to be a foodie.
In the past decade alone, television has introduced iconic celebrity chefs, hot restaurant scenes have popped up in unassuming cities (such as Louisville, Ky., Austin, Texas, and Maui) and seemingly everyone has shared photos of their impressive meals on social media.
Even hotels and resorts have been amping up their food and beverage programs with bespoke culinary adventures to meet the demand for more food-centric experiences. Hotel guests can now hunt for truffles, fish with the chef and even book a night-market food tour.
Historically, travelers embraced the idea that “food is part of the journey.” But now, the mindset has changed significantly: Food is the journey.
Memorable dining is now the motive behind booking a once-in-a-lifetime vacation. The rise of progressive restaurant culture has brought attention to the obscure (molecular gastronomy) and triggered lasting trends (food trucks), though simple dining concepts never seem to go out of style, ensuring a distinctive culinary adventure in renowned food-centric destinations such as Napa Valley, Calif.
The influential region — sprawling with pastoral farms and vineyards — is a breeding ground for top chefs, and its exceptional dining reputation has remained unrivaled for bucket-listing gourmands.
Long before “farm to table” became a fad, it was the standard in Napa Valley, primarily known for producing some of the world’s most prestigious wines. And naturally, where there’s fine wine — from high-end estates such as Chappellet, Shafer and David Arthur — there are also impressive restaurants. Most fine-dining spots in Napa are rooted in place — charming, rustic and natural — and offer innovative, farm-fresh and unforgettable menus that are worth the trip alone. In fact, Napa is home to two of the country’s six three-Michelin-starred restaurants, in addition to approximately 40 other Michelin-starred restaurants.
Napa Valley serves as the source of inspiration for many of the restaurants food-driven clients eat at today, thanks to local chefs’ philosophies on fresh produce, relationships with local growers, a larger-than-life vision and the celebration and excellence of food.
Thomas Keller led the region’s culinary movement with his world-renowned The French Laundry, which opened in the early 1990s and has been called the best restaurant in the world by top critics. At $300 per person, diners can splurge on a nine-course French-American tasting menu that utilizes expensive ingredients such as caviar and truffle. Getting a reservation can take several months, and even working a short stint here primes a chef for greatness. The French Laundry didn’t just set the bar for fine dining; it practically invented it.
The Restaurant at Meadowood, Napa’s only other three-Michelin-starred restaurant, is just as significant. The main dining outlet for the five-star resort, The Restaurant is one of the world’s most recognized destination dining spots in America. As soon as guests enter the rustic farmhouse (provided they made reservations at least four months in advance), they’re whisked away to a contemporary dining room awash in natural light from large windows. Executive chef Christopher Kostow panders to the discerning diner with an elegant tasting menu where each dish has a story. Presentation is just as important. As most past guests would assert, it’s not just a meal served here — it’s an experience.
Three Michelin stars or not, plenty of other refined restaurants have helped put Napa on the map as a must-visit food destination. Gourmands are quick to book tables at Press, a contemporary restaurant with vaulted ceilings, floor-to-ceiling windows and a skylight. The playful, elegant menu reflects the chef’s imagination even with the simplest items, such as addictive bacon butter for house-made bread and red Russian kale dip blended with kimchee. Steaks (such as the 27-day dry-aged New York strip) are seasoned to perfection with spot-on tenderness.
Sonoma County, Napa Valley’s neighbor right across the Mayacamas Mountain Range, is just as exciting for foodies looking to cross upscale dining experiences off their bucket lists.
Sonoma’s emerging dining scene warrants the short drive through scenic landscape to intimate establishments such as Scopa, a 16-seat Italian den in the hipster town of Healdsburg. With house-made pastas that are considered the best in the region (such as spaghettini with tomato-braised beef and pork-rib sugo) and a lively atmosphere, reservations here are hard to come by.
Even Francis Ford Coppola’s winery is home to a popular restaurant for locals and visitors alike. Perched on a hill with magnificent vineyard views, Rustic restaurant features hearty Italian food, with many dishes handpicked by Coppola himself to share family recipes he loves.
Moustache, a precious baked-goods shop in Sonoma, is a magnet for visiting celebrities such as Tyra Banks. It’s known for its divine wedding cakes and cupcakes that use the sweetness of local ingredients rather than sugar (think: olive oil and Meyer lemon for cake, and blackberries and rosemary for frosting). Clients will never find anything like it back home.
The celebration of great food is now a de facto journey in itself, where travelers can be inspired by food and wine in iconic, rural destinations with fabulous dining, such as Barossa Valley in South Australia, Tuscany in Italy, Spain’s San Sebastian and, of course, Napa Valley, inarguably our country’s most established dining destination.
In fact, in Napa, there’s really not much to talk about other than food — which is the whole point of the trip. With its regionally sourced, forward-thinking menus, excellent local wines and tons of heart and soul, Napa’s dining scene will be remembered for decades to come, making the region one of the most unforgettable destinations for food lovers.