Staying in Calistoga
With a week to spend in Napa Valley, I chose to split my time between accommodations in the cities of Napa and Calistoga in northern Napa Valley. This was done mostly for convenience; while the distance between the two towns is not great (about 25 miles), cutting the added travel time driving back to Napa every evening, sometimes with significant traffic, from visits up north is greatly appreciated.
In Calistoga I chose a very affordable option, the Comfort Inn on Lincoln Ave, just on the edge of town. It's about a 12 minute stroll down the avenue into town, where you can find a supermarket, shops and plenty of dining options. The accommodations are relatively basic here, clean, spacious, perfect for a home base for a couple of days. One nice feature of the property is that even this simple place lets you take advantage of the soothing mineral spring waters Calistoga is famous for. There is an outdoor mineral fed-spa on the property that was a rejuvenating treat to take advantage of after a busy day.
Staying in Napa
In Napa itself I stayed at the River Terrace Inn, a lovely property just on the edge of town, affording convenient access to the Silverado Trail as well as pedestrian access to town. I really appreciated the convenience of walking into town each night for dinner, and then coming back to a welcoming room afterwards. I loved the bed at the River Terrace Inn, not only was it super comfortable, but the linens were silky and inviting. In fact all the details here, like the bathrobes and towels, were of a fine quality, particularly in light of the price.
Now admittedly I was there in the off-season, and midweek to boot, so I was able to take advantage of a “stay for two, get the the third night free offer,” which brought my nightly rate down to under $130 a night. At that rate this place is a steal, but I would still heartily recommend the River Terrace Inn at standard room rates. One thing worth noting is that breakfast is served on the premises, but the restaurant is detached from the hotel so you have to take a short stroll if you want a hot breakfast. On the other hand, a continental breakfast was on offer in the lobby of the hotel each morning for those so inclined.
Pizza in Napa
Napa's culinary scene has really grown over the years and now the city is full of great dining options. As I mentioned earlier, I usually prefer something simple for dinner, so I decided to try two of the brick oven pizza restaurants in town, pizza being one of my three essential food groups!
The first stop was at Azzurro Pizzeria and Enoteca, a simply decorated place that felt convivial and friendly. The pizza here is personal size and brick oven baked, but had more of a New York pizza feel to it. In general it was delicious and affordable, great for groups or family dining. I also enjoyed their house made meatballs and a wonderful baby arugula salad along with a very modestly priced She Bang red wine produced by Morgan Twain Peterson of Bedrock fame.
The next day I made my way up 1st Street to find out for myself how good the pizza was at Oenotri. I've heard great things about this fashionable spot and my visit there supported most of them. I enjoyed the daily selection of house-cured salumi; the varied and delectable assortment makes a great start to the evening. The pizza, always a Margherita by the way (it's the pizzeria's roast chicken after all), had excellent flavors though it was a cooked a little unevenly. I'm going to chalk that up to my being the first customer of the day. I've worked a brick oven before and I know it take awhile to get one’s rhythm and the temperature of the oven just right. A glass of Carignano for Sardinia and crisp kale leaves rounded out my meal. Though a bit more expensive than Azzurro, Oenotri also offers fine value and should be tried.
And then there were the burgers. In truth I rarely eat burgers, but when I do I indulge it’s mostly on the road. This great American culinary tradition has been subjected to so many influences over the years that you really could eat almost a burger a day and not see the same thing twice. I prefer things pretty basic when it comes to a burger, so I stuck with some simple places that seem to do a good job with a classic.
In Calistoga, I stopped into the Hydro Grill right on Lincoln Avenue. The pretty basic pub setup suited me just fine so I slid into a booth and ordered their hamburger after noticing a sign outside proclaiming it the best in town. It was a pretty good burger—beefy, sizable and well prepared, so consider me satisfied.The menu’s packed with pub grub, chili, fish tacos, quesadillas, calamari. I also enjoyed a pretty convincing bowl of gumbo. This is my kind of place, unpretentious, comfortable, with a varied menu, good grub and very fair prices.
In Napa I stopped by the Squeeze Inn, a spot, or rather mini chain, that was new to me. This is a burger from another world, not to miss for nostalgic dinners searching for the next messy burger. The hamburger was fine, with plenty of good stuff on it (pickles, mustard, tomato, lettuce) but the killer here is the cheeseburger. This is not your ordinary cheeseburger, but rather something right out of the 1950s. Once your burger is cooked on a griddle, it's covered with grated cheddar and then steamed until the cheese is all melty deliciousness. The cheese runs all over the griddle and with two deft swipes of his spatula your cook will carve out a square of grilled cheese that now includes you burger and place it on your bun. You really have to see this to believe it, but it’s outrageous. Not for the faint of heart but a real treat!
Truth be known, I sort of stumbled upon Squeeze Inn while in search of fish tacos. Not any fish tacos mind you, but Michelin recommended fish tacos. (Yes, that Michelin guide.) La Taquiza Fish Tacos is a gem of a taqueria, and located in the same Redwood Village shopping center as the Squeeze Inn. Where else can you get grilled octopus tacos, and damn good ones at that? There's actually a wide array of fish tacos, grilled, fried, and shrimp along with chicken, pork, beef and veggie options. These are delicious tacos; they can be prepared mild or spicy and there is a salsa bar which allows you to add your own splash of inspiration to the finished product. Love, love, love this place and can't wait for my next visit!
Blow the Budget
So that's a quick rundown of the highlights of my lowbrow trip. I love that you can get such great experiences without busting the bank in Napa Valley and I would love to hear from you guys about all the places I've missed.
And for those of you who just won't be able to bring themselves to wolf down a Squeeze Inn burger while sitting at a picnic bench in a shopping center's parking lot, one last bone. If you want to splurge and take advantage of the best of Napa Valley, don't miss Press Restaurant. It has one of the the best back vintage selections of Napa Valley wines anywhere in the world. Prices are ambitious at times, but you can still find great deals such as a 1978 Caymus Napa Valley Cabernet ($275), a 1985 Clos du Val Stag's Leap Cabernet ($175), the 1987 Dunn Napa Valley Cabernet ($275), and the 1984 La Jota Howell Mountain Cabernet ($115), along with many other great values on the list and any of the vintages of Ritchie Creek, which range from 1983-2007 ($175 to $80)!