Downtown Napa Luring Tourists Who Once Bypassed it

February 24, 2012

Downtown Napa Luring Tourists Who Once Bypassed it
Published: Sunday, Feb. 19, 2012


NAPA  – The guests of The Inn on First, a quaint bed-and-breakfast in downtown Napa, gathered around the community table on a recent Sunday morning. Sleepy-eyed but smiling, they awaited their breakfast of fresh fruit and puff pastry stuffed with prosciutto. Some had picnic baskets in tow, ready to hit a sunny Highway 29 and go "up valley" – as the locals say – for wine tasting around Oakville and St. Helena, the usual spots for Napa tourists.

Chris and Lisa Fulton of Oakland, however, kept their car parked for the better of two days. They planned to spend the weekend decompressing around downtown Napa, checking out a Devo concert at the Uptown Theater, strolling to the nearby Napa Riverwalk and savoring meals at such restaurants as Morimoto and the Bounty Hunter.

"It's kind of nice that everything's within walking distance," Chris Fulton said. "The restaurants and downtown Napa as a whole have gotten better. It's an easy diversion where we can stay in one place and spend more time relaxing."

Without traffic, downtown Napa is about 35 minutes from the Fultons' Oakland home. From Sacramento, it's about an hour to downtown Napa, and you turn off before hitting the typical Highway 29 traffic jams.

The visitors guide at The Inn on First still cautions not to expect much in terms of local nightlife. This is, after all, primarily an agricultural area – no skyscrapers above or taxis whooshing down the avenues.

With a renaissance of new businesses and attractions that have sprung up over the past couple years, there's much more to do and see in downtown Napa than ever.

Celebrity chefs including Tyler Florence and "Iron Chef" Masaharu Morimoto each have opened restaurants here. A renovated Uptown Theater brings concerts from B.B. King to Jackie Greene and Beck. Vendors at Oxbow Public Market offer a smorgasbord of artisanal foods, and a monthly art walk shows off the town's creative community.


Expanding dining scene

You'll find the most Michelin stars per capita up Highway 29 in Yountville, but downtown Napa's emerging as a destination for foodies, too.

On the north side of First Street, in the crook of the Napa River, you'll find the Oxbow Public Market. Think of it as Napa's answer to San Francisco's Ferry Building Marketplace, where a variety of vendors sell fresh oysters (Hog Island Oyster Co.), locally raised beef from Five Dot Ranch, sumptuous ice creams at Three Twins Ice Cream, plus artisanal cheeses, local produce and much more.

Tip: Try not to show up too hungry, or you're bound to drop some some serious coin.

A nearby restaurant, Kitchen Door, is creating buzz for its variety of mushrooms – a speciality of chef and co-owner Todd Humphries – flatbreads and kid-friendly menu.

Across the First Street Bridge is Veterans Memorial Park, where during the summer bands perform free Friday night concerts in the small amphitheater. The park also is home base for the city's Fourth of July celebrations, and many folks like to hoist a pint and watch the action from the patio at nearby Downtown Joe's, a brewpub that crafts 30 beers.

The star of downtown Napa's business development is a short stroll down Main Street. Celebrity chefs Morimoto and Florence both have found restaurant homes at The Riverfront, a $72 million, 70,000-square-foot complex that also features condominiums and boutique shopping.

A slumping economy initially made it tough to find tenants at The Riverfront, but business received a boost with the summer 2010 arrival of Morimoto. Its swanky dining room and artfully plated Japanese food scream "big city," compared to the rustic vibe of many Napa restaurants.

Fish Story, a seafood restaurant run by the Lark Creek Restaurant Group, and a Florence project called Rotisserie & Wine followed – though Rotisserie & Wine is closed for the season for a remodel.


A more urbane downtown

Before the wine industry took off in the 1970s and turned the valley into a tourist destination for the world's wine and food inclined, Napa specialized in silver mining and the production of prunes and olives. The Napa River, despite its annual flooding problems, carried steamships with cargo and passengers to and from San Francisco.

Major development in downtown Napa kicked off about a dozen years ago, starting with the Historic Napa Mill on Main Street and a collection of businesses including the Napa River Inn, Sweetie Pies bakery and Silo's, a wine bar and live music spot.

Then came the well-coiffed celebrity chefs with their chic dining rooms and non-Napa roots. The move to make downtown a more cosmopolitan destination for the throngs who usually pass by on their way "up valley" has stirred some debate with the locals.

Larry and Eleanor Archambeault have lived in Napa more than 30 years and remember when downtown had more of a blue- collar feel.

"I go to an exercise group with mostly older people, and not everyone likes the change," said Leonore Archambeault, over bites of yucca fries at Oxbow Public Market.

There still are pockets in downtown Napa – such as the Napa Town Center – with lots of vacancies and little foot traffic.

But step inside Carpe Diem Wine Bar a few blocks away on Second Street, and you feel that bustling, big- city vibe. The place is packed on a Sunday night with well-heeled tourists and locals noshing on cheese plates and orange-glazed rib-eye tacos. Wine glasses clink in the dim lighting, couples laugh and the servers bustle to bring more food orders.

Steve Distler, a New York City native, opened Carpe Diem with two partners about 1 1/2 years ago. He initially lived in St. Helena.

"When I lived in St. Helena, there was no reason to go downtown," Distler said. "Now, there's all these new things coming in. There's the Uptown, the Opera House, Oxbow, the high-end furniture store at West End Napa. Those are things that Napa needs. You can't just have wine and food and nothing else to do."


Live music at Uptown

The Uptown Theatre has stood in downtown Napa since 1937, operating primarily as a movie house until it was shut down during the bulk of the 1990s. Since May 2010, the 857-capacity theater has emerged as one of Northern California's best small-sized venues.

Like the intimate Crest Theatre in downtown Sacramento, any seat at this art deco theater is basically a good one, with clear and punchy sound. The Uptown Theatre books many acts that bypass Sacramento, including Beck, the Pixies and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys.

Construction on the theater, owned by prominent Napa developer George Altamura, started in 2005 and was a stop-and-go renovation process until re-opening in May 2010. The work unearthed elaborate art deco murals that once were hidden by walls and layers of plaster.

The Uptown Theatre now partners with area restaurants and hotels for A Napa Night To Remember package. One of its most popular offerings costs $1,200 and includes dinner for two at French Laundry (one of the toughest reservations to score in the restaurant world), plus overnight lodging and VIP seats for a concert at the Uptown.

From downtown Sacramento, the drive is about 15 to 20 minutes more than the trek to the Sleep Train Amphitheatre near Marysville.

At a concert in mid- January, members of the new-wave band Devo bopped around the stage in their signature "energy dome" hats and whipped through "Whip It," "Girl U Want" and "Uncontrollable Urge."

"Greetings, spuds of wine country," said Gerald Casale, Devo's bassist, to introduce the show.

The Fultons were among the near-capacity crowd. After the show, they headed back to their room at The Inn on First to relish some more relaxation before getting back to their daily grind in Oakland.

With new shows being added regularly to the Uptown Theater, chances are they'll be back soon enough.

"We come to Napa just for the Uptown," said Chris Fulton. "It's that important to us. Usually it gets late, and we've had a bottle of wine, so if it's not a special night we'll just Priceline a hotel and stay the night. It's perfect for us."

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