Monday, April 4, 2011

Five Cool Things About Napa

Downtown Napa, that is. Northern California's Napa Valley - "up valley'' - is world-renowned and well- worth visiting. But now, downtown Napa city - until fairly recently a drive-through or maybe a place to get gas - is a destination in its own right, the result of unusually smart urban renewal. Here is a short list of cool places and things to do there:

1. La Toque. This is chef Ken Frank's superb, Michelin-starred restaurant in the Westin Napa Hotel. Frank, who first learned to cook in France as a young whelp, describes his adult self as "a French chef in a California body'' and you can see why when you savor his French-accented California cuisine, matched with a first-rate wine list. This is a genuine destination restaurant. (

2. Back Room Wines. Located in the heart of things near the corner of First and Main streets, this well-stocked wine shop is the brainchild of properietor and wine wizard Dan Dawson, who apprenticed at the French Laundry for eight years. It's not a bargain site but there is good value for money considering the quality of the California and international vintages on offer. Dawson is often on the premises. He's easy to talk to, erudite without being pretentious and dryly witty. 1000 Main St., Napa, California 707.226.1378 or 877.322.2576,

3. Art on First. Whos on first? Art. Art who? Just kidding.
You know the old adage: If you have a lemon, make lemonade. Downtown Napa is now loaded with high-end, high-quality places to eat, hear music and drink wine, but it is still burdened by too many empty storefronts. Result: Art on First, a self-guided walking tour that takes you past storefronts graced with temporary, often imaginative art installations in what could otherwise be dreary empty spaces. I was shown around by artist Gordon Huether, a Napa native whose own Gordon Huether Gallery recently opened, also on First. Huether's late father was a window-display designer, so maybe it's in the blood. (

4. Uptown Theatre. This once-drab four-plex cinema was transformed last year into an 800-odd seat venue for live music and comedy, its Art Deco splendors carefully and lovingly restored. Touring acts like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Boz Scaggs and Joan Rivers play the place, which is a short walk from most downtown attractions. Shows are for 21-and-overs. 1350 Third St., Napa, Calif. 707.259.0123,

5. Oxbow Market. This is a scaled-down version of San Francisco's wildly successful Ferry Building, with its one-of-a-kind shops, restaurants and farmer's market. When I was last at Oxbow over a year ago, there was a tentative, unfinished feel to the place. Not so now. It was abuzz with locals and visitors at lunchtime last week, and its foodie and Wine Country line-up will please virtually anyone who eats. Hog Island Oysters, the Model Bakery, the maize restaurant Pica Pica and a branch of the Olive Press olive-oil maker are a few of the stars. First Street, Napa.

Fact is there are more than five cool places downtown, but you get the picture. Like all big-idea ventures, the new downtown Napa is a work in progress; the good news is progress is there, and not-hiding, in plain sight.

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