Cindy Pawlcyn set the bar for Napa Valley cuisine 28 years ago when she opened Mustards Grill in . Even with an abundance of options in Napa, diners still can’t resist the opportunity to feast on the tried-and-true dishes that first put Pawlcyn on the culinary map.
In addition to Mustards, Pawlcyn operates Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen and Brassica Napa Valley in St. Helena. She’s also culinary manager for the Monterey Bay Aquarium Café and Restaurant.
Pawlcyn named Mustards Grill after the wild mustard flowers that bloom throughout the valley in the late winter and early spring. According to Pawlcyn, “It makes one heck of a condiment.”
Julie: I recall you once telling me that your father was in the potato chip business.
Cindy: That’s right! He ran a potato chip business called “Lazy Sue.” He taught me about the responsibilities of owning your own business and the importance of hard work.
Julie: What was it like when you first opened Mustards?
Cindy: I just wanted guests to come and give us a try. I was focused on getting the food out and keeping the wood fire in the smoker going. I was so inexperienced that I kept buying green wood.
Julie: There would be a riot if you changed some of the famous dishes on your menu.
Cindy: Customers have stopped me on the street to complain when I tried to. Our Mongolian Pork Chop (which was featured on the “The Best Thing I Ever Ate” on the Food Network), Onion Rings, and Lemon Lime Tart are not going anywhere. By popular demand, we’ve brought back the Mushroom Toast and the Chinese Chicken Salad.
Julie: Do you spend much time in the gardens?
Cindy: Not nearly as much as I’d like. But when I do, it brings me tremendous pleasure. I love harvesting.
SP: How important are locals?
Cindy: I’ve always thought of Mustards as a locals’ hangout.
Julie: The restaurant is lively and tables are close together. It’s almost like communal dining.
Cindy: That probably comes from my love of Parisian bistros and restaurants. Everyone enjoys private conversations and the lively energy of the room.
Julie: What do you look for in a server?
Cindy: Articulate and without attitude. It’s about listening. Good servers have an intuitive sense that helps them anticipate the guest’s needs.
Julie: How much time do you spend at Mustards?
Cindy: I divide my time equally between all three restaurants.
Julie: How do you view the significant changes in the Napa dining world?
Cindy: Some of the best restaurants in the country are in the Napa Valley! People are much more knowledgeable and adventurous about food than they used to be. And there’s a lot more product readily available. I used to drive to the coast and the East Bay for fish. Now, of course, it’s delivered to our restaurants from , sources.
Julie: Have you been tempted to open a restaurant in downtown Napa?
Cindy: I’m very happy with my three restaurants and my partnership with the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Aside from the Aquarium, my restaurants are all close to my home, which is how I like it.
Julie: If you were going to sit down for dinner at Mustards tonight, what would you order?
Cindy: Tonight happens to be the Korean Pair-Off Pour-Off menu. I would start with the Meatball Soup followed by the Barbequed Baby Back Ribs.
Julie: If you weren’t in the restaurant business, what would you be doing?
Cindy: Writing more cookbooks, gardening and making pottery.