In 1976, Nickie Zeller helped open the Diner in Yountville, the legendary restaurant that put Yountville on the restaurant map. The Diner served high quality American food made from scratch. If you're lucky enough to remember the Diner, you've probably followed Nicky's career.
In 1984, Nickie met Peter Zeller when he began working at the Diner as a line cook. They went on to open Brown Street Grill in downtown Napa, and in 1995 sold that restaurant and moved to a smaller, more intimate space. was born.
Julie: You opened the iconic Diner in Yountville.
Nickie: The Diner had quality, handmade seasonal food, great service and a sense of community involvement. After the write-up in the Chronicle in 1982, things were never the same again.
Julie: Do you ever long for those days?
Nickie: Actually, those were pretty wild times. It wasn’t uncommon for the Diner to average 400 breakfasts and lunches on Saturday and Sunday. And 200 dinners. The pace at Pearl is much more mellow and a much better fit at this point in our life.
Julie: Do most people come in with the restaurant's namesake, oysters, in mind?
Nickie: Absolutely. About three years ago we decided to do a $1.00 per oyster happy hour for Saturday lunch, from 11:30 until 2:00. That, along with a $5.00 glass of prosecco, caught on.
Julie: Do you eat oysters every day?
Nickie: When we first started serving oysters, I did, but like everything that is available all the time I began to moderate. Though I do love oysters. . .
Julie: The service at the Diner was as down-home as the food. What is most important to you about service at Pearl?
Nickie: Service should be efficient, friendly and welcoming. Not intrusive or hovering but just the right balance. Servers should be able to answer questions about everything on the menu.
Julie: How has restaurant service in Napa changed over the years?
Nickie: I don’t think it has changed that much. If anything there are so many more restaurants, the pool of experienced servers is so much smaller. At Pearl we like to bring employees up in our system. Most of our servers start as a bus person and graduate into the server position.
Julie: The menu reflects what you call your “un-fussy fare”. With all the “fussy” fare available in Napa now, do you think people are seeking out good old-fashioned cooking?
Nickie: I think people are mainly seeking out good quality food. It can be high end or casual, but people want seasonal, local, more sustainably produced meats, fish, poultry and vegetables. Fortunately for our area, these items are plentiful and easily obtained.
Julie: You’re on your third successful restaurant. Is there another restaurant in your future?
Nickie: Right now it seems like Pearl might be the last, but I learned along time ago to “never say never” about some things.
Julie: What would you be doing if you weren’t in the restaurant business?
Nickie: If I could get paid to travel the world and eat my way through all the great culinary countries and cities - that would be a dream job.