Northside SF  

The Inquisitive Traveler
Don’t miss downtown Napa when visiting Wine Country
By Patty Burness
Photos Patty Burness

It used to be that people would drive through Napa on their way to someplace else. Not any more. There are so many choices — great accommodations, fantastic restaurants, delicious wine tasting, and a lively marketplace. I stayed for a few days with friends, and here is what we found.

Napa’s riverfront

Just about 60 minutes after leaving the Northside, we checked into the historic Napa River Inn with its prime location on the River Walk. In the main house, this boutique hotel offers comfortable rooms in a grand style reminiscent of the 1800s. Some include canopied beds and fireplaces, and all have modern amenities. The inn is within walking distance to most everything, including the Napa Wine Train, where we headed for lunch.


Historic Napa River Inn

The Wine Train is an easy way to experience the good life of the valley as you travel to St. Helena and back. Sip elegant wines and enjoy award-winning local cuisine in beautifully restored vintage rail cars. Watch the chefs at work as the train moves along. The leisurely ride gives you time to enjoy stunning scenery from the dome car, the Wine Bar, or as you stroll from one end of the energy-efficient train to the other.

After a relaxing train ride, more pampering was in order, so we slipped into La Pelle Skin Spa. Located across from the Napa River Inn, La Pelle offers treatments to rejuvenate and restore. My luxurious massage was pure heaven.
Feeling renewed, we decided a moveable feast for dinner would be a terrific way to discover downtown. We started our culinary escapade at Uva Trattoria with a specialty cocktail, arancini and a Calabrese pizza — all accompanied by live music. From there, it was on to Neela’s for contemporary Indian cuisine. Neela herself graciously served several favorites: Sev puri (potatoes, onions, chutneys with crisp pea flour noodles); karari bhindi (crunchy strips of okra); and chicken tikka (kabobs in a cilantro-green chili marinade). With room for a bit more, we walked to Azzurro’s to savor eggplant bruschetta, arugula salad and mushroom pizza. Afterward, we mellowed out to some cool jazz at Silo’s (serving exclusively Napa wine and beer).
The next day, it was time to get serious about Napa Valley wine. With our Taste card in hand, 14 tasting rooms — all downtown and within walking distance — awaited with the initial taste set at only ten cents (amount of wine varies by winery). The rooms are inviting, the people friendly, and we never had to worry about blood alcohol levels.

Wine Train

Ride the Wine Train’s vintage cars

Some of the standouts include: Ceja’s 2006 Pinot Noir and 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon; GustavoThrace’s 2006 Sierra Foothills Barbera, 2006 Suisun Valley Petite Sirah, and 2005 Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon; and Mason Cellars’s 2005 Reserve Sauvignon Blanc. At Wineries of Napa Valley, six wineries are represented, and we tried the 2006 R.A. Harrison Nobility (Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc), the 2007 Girard Artistry Red Blend (all Bordeaux varietals), and the 2007 Goosecross Napa Estate Cabernet. The last stop was Uncorked at Oxbow. This unique spot carries both Ahnfeldt and Carducci wines. Our favorite was the 2005 Quid Pro Quo, a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot.
Exhausted, we checked into the next hotel – Avia, Napa’s newest downtown luxury property. The contemporary rooms have the latest technology and upscale touches. I sunk into the stand-alone soaking tub (right outside the bathroom’s sliding doors) and drifted off.
After eating our way through town the night before, dinner was an easy choice: we took the elevator down to Avia Kitchen + Wine Bar. Small plates are made for sharing, so we sampled portobello fries, sea bream with artichoke ravioli, and seared rare ahi tuna. We sipped dessert — a NV Heitz Cellar Ink Grade Vineyard Port — then took the elevator back “home.”

BANK Cafe’s luscious pork belly


Napa River

Enjoy the Westin Verasa

Time to move from the west side of town to Napa’s Oxbow District on the east side. We picked the Westin Verasa overlooking the Napa River for the final stay. Rooms at the resort have kitchenettes, spacious bathrooms and a Heavenly (Westin branded) bed, which almost guarantees a dreamy sleep. We relaxed by the pool, played a round of bocce ball, and chose the hotel’s casual BANK Cafe & Wine Bar for lunch.
Part of chef Ken Frank’s culinary domain, BANK, offers mouthwatering dishes like Pajaro’s shrimp cocktail (slow-poached shrimp over gazpacho sauce); soy-glazed pork belly with gingered Brussels sprout slaw, daikon sesame salad with radish sprouts (served with shrimp, golden caviar and crab); and sandwiches that change daily (crab cake with Asian mustard dressing the day we visited). With a 2005 Domaine Carneros Brut, we were set.


Just down the street from the hotel is the popular Oxbow Public Market. Similar to the Ferry Building Marketplace, this is the place to experience great wines, delicious food and artisanal products. Use the Taste card at Oxbow Wine Merchant, stop by the Cheese Monger, and check out the Venezuelan food at Pica Pica Maize Kitchen. Buy treats to go or eat in — either way, the marketplace is a foodie’s delight.
The next morning, we enjoyed a final Napa breakfast at Gillwoods Cafe. Our fun stay was coming to an end, but not before the Gillwoods Scramble with bacon, mushrooms, chives, cheese, and a rich, foamy cappuchino.
Napa is no longer a sleepy dot on the map. It’s a vibrant town with an array of exciting options. Make the drive and take advantage of wine country’s good life.


Taste at Uncorked at Oxbow
Photo by Bo Links


Getting There
Napa, Ca.:
About 60 minutes northeast of the Northside.

Tourist Information:

Where to Stay           
Napa River Inn:
500 Main Street, 877-251-8500, Rooms from $209 with evening wine and breakfast included.
Avia Napa Valley:
1450 First Street, 866-664-2842, Rooms from $169 off-season.
Westin Verasa:
1314 McKinstry Street, 800-937-8461, Internet specials.

Where to Eat
Napa Wine Train:
1275 McKinstry Street, 800-427-4124, Lunch from $49.50. Internet specials.
Uva Trattoria & Bar:
1040 Clinton Street, 707-255-6646, Antipasti, salad and soup from $4.25; pizza from $14.50; cocktails $9.
973 Clinton Street, 707-226-9988, Small plates from $4, tandoori specials from $14, wines by the glass from $9.
Azzurro Pizzeria & Enoteca:
1260 Main Street, 707-255-5552, Bruschetta $6, salads from $9, pizza from $13.
Avia Kitchen + Wine Bar:
1450 First Street, 707-224-3900, Garden items from $6, land & sea from $12, port $9.
BANK Cafe & Wine Bar:
1314 McKinstry Street, 707-257-5151, Starters from $7, salads from $14, sandwiches from $13, wines by the glass from $8.
Gillwoods Café:
1320 Napa Town Center, 707-253-0409, Eggs from $10, coffee from $2.

Don’t Miss
La Pelle Skin Spa & Boutique:
1091 Fifth Street, 707-255-6182, Massages from $90.
 530 Main Street, 707-251-5833, Cover prices vary, wines by the glass from $8, beer from $5.
Taste Napa Downtown Wine Card:
1310 Napa Town Center, 707-257-0332, $20.
Ceja Vineyards:
1248 First Street, 707-226-6445,
GustavoThrace: 1021 McKinstry Street, 707-257-6796,
Mason Cellars: 714 First Street, 707-255-0658,
Wineries of Napa Valley, 1285 Napa Town Center, 707-253-9450,
Uncorked at Oxbow: 605 First Street, 707-927-5864,
Oxbow Public Market: 644 First Street, 707-226-6529,

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Patty Burness is the travel writer for Northside San Francisco. E-mail:

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