Riverside Renaissance

Story and photos by Janet Fullwood

Most visitors would never guess it, but the city of Napa once was a steamboatin’ town whose riverbanks were lined not with trendy restaurants and tasting rooms, but with workaday factories and dusty warehouses. Wheat, not grapes, was the major crop in the mid-1800s, and industries included what was, according to Napa waterfront.one account, “the largest wool-pulling and tanning establishment on the Pacific Coast.”

There was just one problem with being a riverside business in 19th-century Napa: floods. Hydraulic mining during the Gold Rush era washed huge amounts of sediment into the Napa River, causing overflow issues that only recently have been abated.

Downtown Napa may never see another steamboat, but kayaks and canoes now make regular appearances. And the city has gone back to the future so far as its long neglected waterfront is concerned. In a renaissance made possibleGeorge Webber tour. by a decades-long flood-control project now nearing completion, the wine-country town that tourism forgot is coming into its own as a center of sophisticated everything – particularly food, lodging, wine and entertainment.

Anchoring the turnaround are the Historic Napa Mill and Riverfront developments, one a renovated 19th-century industrial complex, the other a newly constructed residential/commercial block fronting an esplanade that eventually will extend along the river for six miles. A “who’s who” roster of celebrity chefs have taken up residence at street level, creating a restaurant row rivaling anything to be found up-valley. To compliment them, more than 20 storefront tasting rooms have sprung up nearby, most on First and Main streets. Trendy boutiques and a growing nightlife scene round out the allure for visitors.Oysters at the Oxbow Public Market.

Best of all, everything within the compact downtown area is within walking distance. Here’s how to enjoy the new Napa.

Getting oriented

Sure, you can explore downtown Napa on your own – but there’s no better way to gain an appreciation for what it was and has become than to join one of George Webber’s highly engaging “edutainment” walking tours (www.napawalkingtour.com).

Dressed in top-hat and tails, the dapper Webber walks and talks his groups through landmarks associated with times ranging from the Gold Rush to the Victorian factory era to Prohibition to the present day. Architectural styles are explored, a Victorian mansion is toured, beer and wine tastings are conducted, many a story is told.

Look, taste, shop

Downtown Napa’s reinvention as a foodie destination started a decade ago with the now defunct Copia: The American Center for Food, Wine and the Arts, a combination culinary/performing arts/museum complex intended to became a magnet for tourists and valley residents alike. What lies ahead for the architecturally striking building remains to be seen, but meanwhile, the adjacent Napa Valley Wine Train.Oxbow Public Market has taken off, garnering a crescendo of acclaim. Patterned after San Francisco’s highly successful Ferry Building, the 31,000-square-foot venue is home to 21 vendors offering artisanal food and wine in specialty shop, food-court and sit-down formats.

Again, there’s nothing like some local insight to enhance a visit, and no better way to get it than on a Gourmet Napa walking tour for foodies led by Andrea Nadel or one of her associates. Started in 2010 to address a growing interest in the farm-to-table movement, the three-hour excursions are centered in and near the Oxbow, where participants meet the vendors and make seven stops to nosh on everything from oysters to cheese, charcuterie to chocolates, pozole to pizza – with wine tasting included, of course.

Eat upNapa Valley Opera House

Napa is as much about food as it is about wine, and these days it’s a hotbed of culinary innovation. The “restaurant row” that has sprung up along the riverfront esplanade anchored by the Historic Napa Mill complex is a good place to window-shop menus before settling in, preferably at a patio table with a river view. (Word of warning: advance reservations are essential in summer.)  

An international cornucopia of cuisine is presented in just a couple of blocks. There’s Angele, a cozy French bistro; Napa General Store for combination shopping and dining; Celedon for high-end comfort food; Fish Story for ocean-fresh seafood; Ubuntu for Michelin-starred vegetarian; Rotisserie & Wine for signature Tyler Florence dishes; Zuzu for tapas;  and Morimoto, a $5 million showplace opened by “Iron Chef” Masaharu Morimoto, for contemporary Asian cuisine.

Urban wine trail

With more than 20 tasting rooms to be found in a concentrated area of downtown Napa, the dilemma for visitors is where to start. The best solution is to stroll around and surprise yourself. The Downtown Wine Tasting Card, $25, can help narrow your choices. Available from the Napa Downtown Association, it’s good for a taste at a dozen establishments, all within walking distance of each other.

Ride ‘n’ wine

Before the Napa Valley Wine Train, there was Gold Rush entrepreneur Sam Brannan, who established the spa resort of Calistoga at the north end of the Napa Valley and built a railroad to take visitors to its doorstep.  Since 1989, the Napa Valley Wine Train has been traveling the historic route as far north as St. Helena, introducing tens of thousands of visitors to regional food and wine along the way.

The Wine Train is more than a highly regarded restaurant on wheels. It’s also a meticulously maintained piece of rolling history that attracts rail buffs as well as curious tourists. Rolling stock includes several Pullman cars built around 1915 and one of few Vista Dome still in existence. Three-hour lunch and dinner excursions departing downtown Napa feature white-linen service and hard-to-find regional wines.

Let us entertain you

What do Jack London, John Philip Sousa, Joan Baez, Steve Martin and Willie Nelson have in common? They’ve all performed in downtown Napa, where the restored Napa Valley Opera House and newly revived Uptown Theatre have emerged as venues attracting national acts in addition to hosting regional performing arts groups.

The 450-seat Opera House, dating to 1880, began its second life in 2002 and quickly became the valley’s cultural cornerstone. Brand new on the scene is the Uptown Theatre, a 1937 cinema showplace that was on its last legs then Napa real estate king George Altamura, who spent many hours in the “movie palace” as a child, took it over and staged a massive renovation.

More intimate after-dark entertainment can be found at Silo’s, a jazz club in the Historic Napa Mill complex; and Bistro Sabor, a lively restaurant/tasting room that hosts salsa dances on weekends. 

Hang your hat

The Historic Napa Mill, today a chic restaurant and shopping complex, helped launch the downtown renaissance a decade ago. It’s home to the elegant, 66-room Napa River Inn (www.napariverinn.com), only downtown property to have been awarded three Michilin stars.

Downtown’s newest property, the 141-room Avia Napa (http://avianapa.hyatt.com/hyatt/hotels-avianapa/),  provides a refreshing and energetic take on wine country with contemporary décor and a handsome second-floor terrace set about with fire pits that act as magnets for guests who like to meet and mingle.

Back on the river, the Westin Verasa Napa (www.westinnapa.com)

makes a wine-country statement with intricate parquet floors and floor-to-ceiling riddling rack behind the front desk. The Verasa also houses a Michilin-starred restaurant, La Toque.

More info: Visit the Napa Downtown Association at www.napadowntown.com.

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