Downtown Napa continues its energetic boomlet, creating a classy alternative to its tony north-county wine country neighbors in Napa Valley. Not that wine-touring and epicurean dining aren't worthy tourist-focused delights anywhere in "the Valley." But those of us who live and work close by like to get away for an evening in downtown Napa for a friendly, yet stylish, "hometown" scene delivered with neighborly personality and first-rate quality.
The 2003 restoration of the 19th century Napa Valley Opera House helped kick off a wave of activity that has transformed this once rundown and neglected river town into a charming riverfront destination just an hour north of San Francisco. When I heard that "The Blue Note 7" jazz tour celebrating 70 years of Blue Note Records would bring some of the world's finest jazz to the 500-seat opera house theater, I snapped up a seat on a weeknight. Renowned jazz artists like Bill Charlap, Ravi Coltrane, Nicholas Payton and their colleagues gave a stunning performance of their new CD "Mosaic," then hung out with the locals in the lobby afterwards for easy conversation. Keeping the music alive, pianist Charlap and bassist Peter Washington joined 15 late-night jazz enthusiasts at Silo's, the local club that manager Keith Stansberry kept open afterhours for the occasion. (Check out Silo's schedule at 707-251-5833. Exquisitely chosen Napa wines currently complement "Great American Songbook" artists Wesla Whitfield and Mike Greensill Wednesdays-Saturdays. Not to mention the Opera House's ongoing calendar.)
A few paces from Silos in the restored 1884 Napa Mill complex, I checked into the Napa River Inn, one of the preserved Historic Hotels of America for spacious luxury in a Victorian style room with a gas fireplace, canopy bed and claw-footed bath tub. Morning brought fresh baked goods in a basket from Sweetie Pies next door, a bakery that choosy clientele know well. Sweetie Pies' pumpkin pie was recently voted #1 on the Rachel Ray Show, and it's easily shipped. As one patron confessed, "you can't walk by without going in."
We foodies are in pig heaven in places like Napa, where high standards by patrons and friendly competition among skilled chefs keep restaurant quality very high. There's something for everyone, too --from Ubuntu, the vegetarian restaurant and yoga studio that was cited in 2008 by the New York Times as one of the best two new restos in the U.S., to Vietnamese Annalien, the country French riverfront Angele, globally focused Celadon and the playful Kelley's "No Bad Days" Cafe. Mix that with stroller-friendly "The Little Gourmet: A Kid's Restaurant that is Grown-up Friendly" and many more dining spots, and it's easy to contemplate the next trip to downtown Napa.
If you're going, note these two stellar upcoming events -- the 16th annual Napa Valley Mustard Festival, January 31-March 28, 2009 and the Napa Valley Opera House League's 9th Annual "Dinner Is Served" fundraiser, where you can eat in the best restaurants, on Wednesday February 25, 2009.