When most people talk about Napa restaurants, you can be sure they’re referring to the high-end places, with expensive fusion food or California cuisine. There is some great expensive food in Napa, like that found at La Toque (see below), but there are also some tasty inexpensive meals. And many of the high-end places are just not worth the money. Our suggestion: Save your serious cash for dinner, and buy picnic supplies or tacos for lunch.
Buster’s Southern Barbeque
1207 Foothill Boulevard, Calistoga
The pork loin, pork ribs, tri-tip, and links aren’t organic or all-natural at this barbecue joint reminiscent of Napa’s blue-collar past. But portions are fresh, huge, and spicy. Try the sweet potato pie, made from a family recipe of founder Buster Davis, and the homemade lemonade.
La Luna Market and Taqueria
1153 Rutherford Road, Rutherford
No frills, no-nonsense Mexican food in Rutherford just across from La Toque (see below). The carne asada super burrito is a must-snarf. While it might not blow your culinary socks off, it’s muy, muy auténtico, and La Luna is where all the Mexican vineyard workers eat. Lunch with a drink will run you no more than $10.
Taylor’s Automatic Refresher
933 Main Street, St. Helena
Taylor’s Refresher has everything you’d want in a nouveau American diner: drippy, organic burgers wrapped in plain white paper. Fish and chips made with mahi mahi, as opposed to the bland white fish used by any other roadside diner. A full selection of great and greasy snacks like onion rings and chili cheese fries, with fine local wines and microbrews to wash it down. But save room for the thick, creamy milk shakes: almost $6 with tax, and worth every penny. The seating is at picnic tables on the grassy back patio—just walk up to the window, and they yell your name and order soon after.
Taylor’s Automatic Refresher
6476 Washington Street, Yountville
Thomas Keller’s third Napa restaurant, following the French Laundry and Bouchon, is by far his most relaxed and welcoming. A prix fixe menu (four courses, $45) changes nightly. Comfort food done well is what you’ll find here, like tri-tip, corn on the cob, and beef stroganoff. Every other Monday is the hugely popular fried chicken night. The beer and wine bar (no hard alcohol) has a large Napa selection as well as some nice international choices. All dishes are served family-style on earthenware platters and in iron pots. Put the skillet of three-cheese macaroni by me please!
540 Main Street, Napa
An old boat dock along the Napa River has been reincarnated as a delightful eatery in the heart of downtown Napa. Try one of the delicious house cocktails at the bar (some of the best in the valley). When the weather is nice, request a table outside; if it gets chilly the restaurant provides lovely little cashmere wraps for the ladies. The food marries familiar Mediterranean flavors to create interesting dishes such as duck breast with farro and marcona almond relish, or steamed clams with Espelette peppers. Angèle also offers delicious wines by the carafe, and sampling a few probably won’t break your budget.
1310 Main Street, St. Helena
This Northern Italian spot specializes in delicious house-made pastas and hearty comforting dishes like roast chicken with corona beans and black kale, and braised short ribs with scallion whipped potatoes. Settle into its casual yet classy vibe, and you’ll understand why it’s the locals’ choice for an impromptu night out.
641 Main Street, St. Helena
All-star chef Cindy Pawlcyn (who already owns two well-respected Napa institutions: Mustards Grill and Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen) opened this top-notch seafood spot with local sushi chef Ken Tominaga. Try not to let the semiannoying nautical décor bother you. Although everything is good (especially the vegetable tempura), the sushi is probably the best thing to order. Wash down the salt-crusted prawns with Grüner Veltliner. Open for dinner only; reservations required.
La Toque Restaurant
1140 Rutherford Road, Rutherford
Known as “French Laundry without the attitude,” La Toque offers a delicious prix fixe five-course menu that includes an amuse-bouche, a cheese course, and mignardises (petits fours). During truffle season there are special truffle tasting menus. Bottom line is, you can enjoy delicious high-end food here (like seared fois gras, duck breast with cherries, and freshly foraged chanterelle mushrooms) and service that consistently gets raves, without having to wait six months for a reservation.
6480 Washington Street, Yountville
Everything is spot-on for lunch or dinner at the hands of Richard Reddington, former chef of Napa’s beloved Auberge du Soleil (a luxury resort with a popular restaurant by the same name). Redd is casually elegant: Both lunchtime tourists in shorts and the folk in evening cocktail attire are welcome. The yellowfin tuna and hamachi tartare delivers a surprise crunch from tart green apples and mustard seeds. Or try the refreshing chilled calamari salad with shaved jicama, carrots, and lime-basil vinaigrette. The signature dish, caramelized diver scallops in a caramelized-cauliflower purée, melts perfectly in the mouth. Walk-ins accepted; reservations advised.
829 Main Street, Napa
Zuzu is a tiny space packed with an attractive crowd, heavy on locals. There are few true late-night places to get grub in the Napa Valley. But at Zuzu you can get Spanish-Portuguese meets Mexican tapas—dishes like chilaquiles, Spanish tortilla (a sort of eggy potato casserole), and roasted poblano chiles stuffed with Manchego cheese—until 10 p.m. No reservations accepted, which adds to the “Lemme in! Lemme in! This place is H-O-T!” vibe. Prices are in the $15 to $25 range per plate.