Downtown Napa Becoming Dining Destination

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ByJanet Fletcher

When Greg Cole opened Celadon in downtown Napa in 1996, he put a sandwich board on Main Street every evening to direct patrons to his tucked-away restaurant.

“I would go out at 9 p.m. to bring the sign in,” recalls Cole, “and I would look up and down Main and there would be no cars and no people.”

That was then. Today, visitors and locals vie for seats in popular downtown spots like Morimoto, Oenotri and Zuzu's. Napkins, a downtown newcomer, has a sizzling bar scene at hours when most of the town's residents used to be headed for bed. Late last year, chef Sean O'Toole opened Torc downtown, replacing Ubuntu.

“It doesn't matter if it's a Tuesday in February or a Friday in August, there are people all over the place,” says Cole, whose second thriving venue, Cole's Chop House, has helped draw other restaurant operators to Napa's downtown.

But for every Morimoto – reportedly Napa's highest-grossing restaurant – there is a high-profile closure like Ubuntu, Budo and Tyler Florence's Rotisserie & Wine. These pedigreed ventures didn't survive in downtown Napa, leaving questions about whether the gateway to Wine Country is living up to its hype.

The town has unquestionably enjoyed a dining renaissance since the days when an Italian meal meant malfatti and roast beef at the Depot, but even experienced operators have discovered that success here is no slam-dunk.

“Napa has been good to us, but I wish every month was a summer month,” says Michael Dellar, the veteran restaurateur behind Fish Story on the town's 4-year-old Riverfront, a $75 million retail and residential development.

Despite a doubling of overnight visitors since 2000, Napa remains a destination with obvious high and low seasons. Yusuf Topal, chef-owner of Napkins and Tarla Mediterranean Grill in Napa's blossoming West End, says winter revenue can dip 50 percent.

By all accounts, downtown Napa owes its flowering to a flood-control project approved by voters in 1998. Until engineers began their multiyear work along the Napa River, downtown merchants could count on periodic flooding, deterring investment.

“Before the flood-control project, there was a huge potential that your business could eventually be under water,” said Adam White, Tarla's general manager, in an e-mail.

Others acknowledge the positive impact of Copia, the wine, food and art museum that brought visitors and publicity to Napa.

Although the museum eventually failed and remains vacant, “it opened the gates,” says Mick Salyer, chef-owner of Zuzu. Under an arrangement with the landlord, Salyer and other Napa chefs now grow fruits and vegetables in the former Copia gardens, giving many Napa menus some local flavor.

The renovated Opera House also helped lure diners downtown, says Salyer, as did the reopening of the restored Uptown Theatre in 2010 and the swank Andaz Hotel in 2009. “We saw the biggest increase once the hotel opened,” Salyer says. “It brought people downtown to stay.”

Indeed, tourism executive Clay Gregory suspects that Napa drew more visitors than St. Helena last year. If reports confirm that, it would be a dramatic reversal for a town that tourists used to consider “a drive-by,” says Gregory, president of Visit Napa Valley.

According to Robin Klingbeil, economic development project coordinator for the city, the downtown area boasts 80 food service establishments, up from 43 in 2008.

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