At the northern tip of Napa Valley is Calistoga, a town known best for it's natural mud baths. In the mid-1800's Sam Brannon bought 2,000 acres, convinced he could turn it into a resort town. This dream went bust and the man who was the first Millionaire of the Gold Rush died penniless.
Today the town is a mix of Old West and Old School combined with hip and trendy newcomers. Though not yet the dining destination of Yountville, good food isn't hard to find.... if you know where to look. Me, I can't resist the BBQ at Buster's and Cafe Sarafornia is the place to be for breakfast. More reviews coming, I promise, because Calistoga is quickly catching up to the rest of Napa as a solid food destination.
Napa has plenty of places that claim to take comfort foods to the "next level", but Buster's appear perfectly happy to stay right in his sweet spot, cooking up BBQ like he's in his own backyard.
You'll find plenty of disagreement over what makes good BBQ. To sauce or not, fall off the bone or not. But one thing you can't argue is that good BBQ is made with passion and that's the secret ingredient to Buster's food, made by Buster himself.
The standout dish is the Tri-Tip sandwich, a steal at less than $8 with a side of beans, cole slaw, potato or macaroni salad. Order at the window and grab a seat at either the outdoor picnic tables or inside the definitely no-frills dining room. A half chicken dinner is less than $10 and a rack of ribs with garlic toast and two sides is less than $11. Wait - are we still in Napa Valley? One thing to remember is that the hot sauce is Blow Your Head Off Hot, so unless you want to go to the next winery with your shirt sopping wet I suggest you go mild or half and half.
This isn't Claim Jumper. No, quite the opposite. JoLe is a small plate restaurant, "tapas" if you like, where you order a number of different items and taste them all. No giant potato, no Man V Food portions, just really good quality bites. Really good.
Don't be misled by the menu which looks surprisingly affordable at $10 to $15 per plate. Remember that each person should order two plates, a couple should get four to five plates to share. The idea is to split a bunch of items, a wonderfully romantic experience in a wonderfully intimate setting. Go cheap and you'll go hungry, but how fun is it to order scallops, and quail, and tombo, and pork shoulder, and, and, and.... Mmmmmm.
There's also a tasting and pairing option, $75 for four courses and $100 for five. Sit back, let them pick the wines, enjoy each bite, it's the Calistoga version of The French Laundry experience, only much cheaper.
JoLe website / map
1457 Lincoln Ave, Calistoga, California 94515 (707) 942-5938
Average Entree: $15, but you'll need two since they are tapa size.
Best for: Romantic dining, sharing a slow dinner with great wines.
One of the trendiest restaurants in all of Napa Valley in one of the trendiest new resorts, Solage. The modern outdoor lounge, the contemporary dining room, the upscale menu, Solbar is unique dining in Calistoga.
Serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, this Michelin star restaurant features the freshest organic ingredients. The star dish is the Lucky Pig, a slow roasted and tender pork shoulder served with crepes and lettuce cups to wrap the meat.
For lighter fare and more casual dining, the Lounge is the place to be. Looking a bit like a pool side lounge in Las Vegas with the fire pits in the water features, order a cocktail and appetizers like pork cheek tacos or spicy shrimp lettuce wraps. Lunch is actually reasonably priced, at least by Napa standards, with nothing over $19. Come on, that's Rutherford Grill or Gott's Roadside prices and as much as I love those places, they're not Michelin star level. Bottom line, you're up near Calistoga, you're hungry, you love creative food prepared with finesse and style, you go to Solbar.
WHERE TO NEXT?
LET'S CHECK OUT SOME WINERIES!
SPRING 2015: In just a few months the vines will be budding but for now take advantage of the small crowds and personal attention you'll find in the wineries and restaurants. Remember, if you're stuck just send me an email and I'll help you out... for free!
Need a driver? Lately I've been getting a lot of requests for tours or personal drivers, which is smart if you want to drink lots of wine and not risk getting pulled over. I have a few friends in Napa who can really show you the local spots so reach out to me and I'll connect you to them.
And this is way off topic but if you love Maui you should check out my latest guide, Local Wally's Guide to Maui.