When you’re in Napa Valley, sipping wine from late morning until late afternoon, you’ll want to find the best places for lunch to break up the day – and the alcohol. Much depends on where you happen to be and where you plan to head next on your Napa Valley wine tour. Maybe you’re based in Napa but find yourself in Yountville after a tasting at Domaine Chandon. Or you want lunch in St. Helena before an afternoon tour at Castello di Amorosa. Maybe you find yourself closer to the town of Napa. Because the Napa Valley is an agricultural area with only a sprinkling of towns, you need to plan, especially since many restaurants require reservations even for lunch.
No matter where you are in California, you’ll find restaurants that take food seriously. The Napa Valley is no different. Although foodies may not have a huge number of restaurants to choose from, they still have great options.
Note: Until the pandemic ends, most places serve only outside. Call ahead to determine the restrictions, if any, and to reserve.
I may never afford to dine at the French Laundry; however, I can splurge at Thomas Keller’s second Yountville restaurant, Bouchon. While lunch here doesn’t come cheap, it’s not exorbitant, either. The menu offers Provence-style bistro fare in an atmosphere that feels like you’ve stepped into a real French brasserie.
Here, lunch always starts with a crusty épi de blé, or bread shaped like a wheat stalk, placed directly on the table. This delicious, break-apart loaf comes from the fabulous Bouchon Bakery next door. Even if you’ve sworn off most bread, this loaf is worth breaking that vow.
To start, we ordered the salmon rillettes, a rich, spreadable mix of regular and smoked salmon in a small glass crock. It comes topped with solidified butter to preserve it. Remove this top before eating the rillettes underneath. It made a perfect, leisurely appetizer to share as we chatted and spread it on the accompanying grilled bread.
If you like mussels, the Moules au Safran is outstanding. Served in the French manner with fries, the dish needs bread to sop up the fragrant saffron broth. We saved some of the épi de blé just for that. The asparagus salad is likewise outstanding, though it fuses French and Italian cuisines, parting ways with the otherwise Provençal style of the restaurant. A bundle of thick spears lay between piquillo pepper marmalade and a plump ball of burrata and crispy Bayonne ham.
After lunch, don’t forget to stop by the bakery for a sampling of macarons or a gift box of chocolates.
We were introduced to Mustards Grill several years ago by the manager of the B&B where we stayed. Ever since that first visit, we make sure to reserve a lunch at this busy, local favorite when we’re in town. The white tableclothes are the only thing that’s formal here for lunch. The unassuming building sits right on Route 29, next to the Cosentino wine tasting room.
Mustard’s signature dish is its Mongolian pork chop, although I’ve never ordered it myself. We’ve only eaten lunch here, and it seems like a monster meal for that time of day. Instead, I order the lamb burger if it’s listed as a special on the chalkboard. The juicy, well-seasoned lamb patty comes with arugula, cheddar cheese, and a flavorful barbecue sauce, all on an incredible semolina bun. It goes perfectly with a glass of Lang & Reed Cabernet Franc. Also excellent: the classic half-pound hamburger and the grilled ahi sandwich with basil ai0li and pickled ginger. For dessert, the lemon meringue pie offers a delicious balance between sweet and tart.
Goose & Gander
In tiny St. Helena, Goose & Gander has its entrance on a quiet side street. The restaurant offers both indoor and patio seating as well as a bar. Because we arrived on a warm, spring day, we opted for outside dining, as did everyone else eating there that day. The attractively landscaped property lends both a lush and rustic atmosphere to the exterior.
Best described as an upscale but still casual pub, at least for lunch, Goose & Gander is also uniquely Californian with its emphasis on a mix of familiar and less common ingredients. My husband went for the grass-fed beef burger and duck fat fries. The long pickle slices under the artisanal bun lent their flavor across the whole burger. I opted for the outstanding vegetarian wood-roasted cauliflower with chimichurri, romanesco, and marcona almonds. The combination of flavors worked so well that I’d like to recreate this dish at home some day.
Unlike most Napa Valley restaurants, Goose & Gander specializes in signature cocktails. If you want to drink but are tired of sipping wine, go for one of the many excellent choices from the bar.
Oxbow Public Market
The popular Oxbow Public Market, located across the river from downtown Napa, offers many casual dining options for a variety of tastes and whims. Order your oysters and a glass of wine or beer at the Hog Island Oyster Bar. A pizza and salad at Live Fire Pizza will satisfy anyone with a hankering for wood-fired oven fare. From sit-down dining to provisions to take-out, you’ll find something for everyone. During peak hours, the Oxbow Public Market can be humming with activity, so you might want to time your dining if you want a less hectic experience.
If you’re in Yountville and don’t have the time or inclination to eat at Bouchon, the restaurant’s bakery sells prepared sandwiches, salads, and drinks to go. And of course you cannot leave without buying something sweet.
I’ve only touched upon a few places to stop for lunch, but I doubt you’ll be disappointed in any of them. In addition to the above options, consider adding food to your tasting at one of the wineries. The Hess Collection serves gourmet and artfully presented fixed price lunches that should please any foodie, but even a cheese board to go with a winery’s tasting can become a light lunch.