The city straddles the Napa River where flocks of migratory birds gather before taking flight to sweep low over the downtown brick storefronts and then fly above neighborhoods of neatly landscaped bungalows and single family homes.
For years I visited the Napa Valley to go wine tasting. In all that time, I never realized there was actually a city of Napa.
Why is that?
For most of its history, Napa has been a bedroom community for the wineries that have made the Napa Valley world-famous. Unlike Yountville, St. Helena and Calistoga to the north, Napa's downtown district was dominated by shops selling tourist trinkets, fast food restaurants and working class bars.
Napa was not a destination for a simple reason. Upscale developments avoided the city because it was located in a flood plain. At the mercy of a tidal river, the city was vulnerable to storms in San Pablo Bay and adjacent San Francisco Bay that pushed water inland where it would spill out onto city streets.
The federal government offered help. But residents fought the Army Corp of Engineers' solution to turn the river into a concrete channel.
“Let the river run wild” was a rallying cry for many. For years the debate raged with no solution and the city suffered. Ultimately in the late 1990s, a plan was approved by the community to balance the natural beauty of their “living river” and yet tame its destructiveness.
To protect the city, wetlands were reestablished and a towering wall was built alongside the river. To divert the tidal surges, an earthen channel was dug to allow the river to widen without overflowing its banks. With these protections in place, the city welcomed river front development that included upscale hotels like the Napa River Inn and quality foodie haunts including the Oxbow Market, Zuzu, Celadon, Angéle and Morimoto Napa.
Then an earthquake rocked the city in August, 2014.
Shake, Rattle and Rebuild
Many of the buildings in the downtown district were constructed out of bricks. They might have been picturesque, but the buildings were not reinforced. The earthquake brought down walls that had survived decades.
If the eternal optimist knows how to turn lemons into lemonade, the city of Napa understands that calamities are opportunities.
On the third floor deck at The Thomas, cocktails and dinner were served. We paired a lovely 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon from the Ahnfeldt winery in Napa with house-made charcuterie and local cheeses. After a tomato soup with goat cheese, we had the grilled pork chop with grits and quince butter. The night was clear and cool. We appreciated the rough brick walls and decorations that dated the building from the 1940s and earlier.
We were shown a photograph of the building the day after the 6.0 earthquake rattled the city. The unreinforced walls cracked and shattered like old play dough. In the photograph taken in August, the third floor where we enjoyed dinner had collapsed, covering the sidewalk and street with a waist-high pile of bricks.
That was the story in many parts of downtown.
Amazingly in only a few months, the Thomas was open for business. FEMA had responded quickly. The community had rallied. Many other heavily damaged buildings were rebuilt with heavy steel braces. The same was true elsewhere on Main Street, which runs parallel to the river, and on First Street, the main downtown thoroughfare.
Park the car to bicycle to the nearby wineries and walk around downtown
With wineries like Judd's Hill Microcrush Winery and Luna Winery, Mike Moone's Italian varietal winery close to downtown, wine tasters can enjoy a bicycle, wine tasting tour on the Silverado Trail.
All the stores, restaurants and tasting rooms in the downtown district are within easy walking distance of one another.
Inside the Oxbow Public Market, east of the river on 1st Street, restaurants as varied as the authentically Italian Ca' Momi and Hog Island Oyster Bar share a large open loft space with bakery, coffee, ice cream, cheese, chocolate and dessert shops. At the Fatted Calf, a butcher shop that also makes sandwiches, we ate house-made charcuterie. A refrigerated, glass-fronted case takes up most of the small shop. The thick cut pork chops looked especially good to me. Brined in cider and then smoked, I wished there was a kitchen where I was staying.
Thomas' 3rd floor outdoor deck
On the west side of the river, at Morimoto Napa, I ate a plate of Alaskan king crab legs with tabanjan aioli. As expected from an Iron Chef, the crab legs were the highest quality and came to the table adorned with visual magic. The top part of the shell had been cut away making it easy to remove the sweet crab meat with its spicy sauce. What appeared to be “shell” was actually the spicy Sriracha-like mayonnaise.
There are still fast food opportunities aplenty in Napa, but now there are so many more choices.
On 1st Street at the western entrance of the bridge, the Bounty Hunter has an authentic Western feel with high ceilings and a long wooden bar well-stocked with local wines and a good supply of spirits. The specialty is barbeque prepared in the smoker out back. The beer-can chicken is a local favorite. The dishes come platter-sized, large enough to feed several hungry diners.
The hip, minimalist Torc on Main Street north of 1st Street has a seasonally driven menu. Chef Sean O'Toole prepares local vegetables, pasta, meat, poultry and seafood with an eclectic approach, borrowing from American, French, Italian, Spanish, Indian and Japanese dishes.
These days Napa is well on the way to reshaping itself as a quality destination for visitors to the valley.
Photo credit: Andy Berry
New bridges are under construction, the Napa River Trail is being lengthened, waterfront parks and the Vine Trail for bicyclists and joggers are under construction. Quality lodgings are available in a variety of settings like the river front Napa River Inn (500 Main Street, Napa, CA 94559), the Hyatt's boutique Andaz Napa (1450 First Street, Napa, CA 94559) in the downtown district and upscale inns like the gluten-free Inn on Randolph (411 Randolph Street, Napa, CA 94559) located on a quiet residential street a ten minute walk from the river.
Additional upscale residences are in the planning stages. By the end of 2016 several hundred more rooms are expected to be available with new restaurants and shops as well. At this point, Napa is reaping the benefit of a flood-control plan that has put the city onto a second act. By respecting the river, the community gave the city a revitalizing focus.
With the new plan in place, the city of Napa can rightly join the other cities of the valley as gateways to one of California's premium culinary destinations.
For more information about Napa, please go to DoNapa.com
Photos courtesy of DoNapa.com