Are Napans in a Culinary Bubble?

The husband and I find it increasingly difficult to enjoy food while traveling. Has Napa ruined us?

The summer travel and vacation season is upon us, and the husband and I are looking forward to some trips coming up, the first being South Lake Tahoe in a few weeks with a group of friends. While brainstorming for restaurants to put on the itinerary, the group ultimately decided that we should cook our own dinners in the condo we’re renting, as we believe anything we cook will be much better than what we can get in the area’s restaurants.

This idea brought to mind our travels of the last few years, and how my husband and I realized that it was becoming more and more difficult to find happiness at restaurants in other cities. Europe, with the starches and boiled meat of Munich and the monotonous tomato-based dishes of Florence is another matter entirely and we’ll talk about it during a future column. But here in the states, I have found that the farther I travel from Napa, the less likely I’ll be satisfied with my order.

While eating at restaurants outside of Napa, the husband and I often find ourselves commenting on the food with statements like, “If this was served in Napa, I’d send it back, but I’ll give it a pass because we’re in Gilroy/Vacaville/Sacramento.” Eateries that brand themselves as ‘gourmet’ are usually mid-level by our Napa standards. And don’t get me started on the wine lists!

Are Napans in a culinary bubble? Is it because we are surrounded by such high-caliber restaurants that even the adjacent mom-and-pop shops are encouraged to step up their games? Is it because we have access to fabulous produce, whether it’s from the local farmers’ markets or our backyards? Are we immune to the sight of Masaharu Morimoto hustling down the street to grab a bite at Oenotri?

I think one of the reasons our tastes turn toward the fresh and innovative may be that we’ve kept so many of the chain restaurants at bay, which propagate overly fatty and salty food with a minimum of taste. It seems that every time I venture out of Napa, I’m greeted with strip mall after strip mall, covered in stucco and filled with the same old Chevy’s, TGI Friday’s and Olive Garden. So far, only a couple of these sort of restaurants have infiltrated Napa, giving room for independent and creative places like and Neela’s.  

What do we Napans do, then, when traveling out of the area? Do we pack coolers filled with our favorite wines, produce and cheeses? Maybe we should embrace the fact that we’re out of our comfort zones, as if we’re on a gastronomic safari of sorts, and be all the more thankful for what we have when we return home.

Looking for restaurant ideas in Napa? Check out our "Bites Nearby" column and this .

Jason Hasdovic May 06, 2011 at 09:01 PM
Complete nonesense from someone who clearly has not sampled international cuisine for more than a week or has lived out of a guide book. I thought I was on www.theonion.com for a minute!..... but this is actually meant to be a serious article. Keep the humor coming!
Joseph Bush May 06, 2011 at 09:30 PM
I'm in Vacaville, and yes, I have to leave town to find a high-end meal. But there are hidden gems, even here, it's just that the populace is so hung up on franchises. There is a great little Mexican place with fantastic tortas, and I was eating alone while everyone was going next door to a Subway. But the main thing I have found outside of the Bay Area is that wine pours are much more generous and much cheaper. Whether it be Ft. Bragg or Portland, Spain or Italy, the wines are good and the prices fair. In Napa Valley and the Bay, if we don't bring our own bottle, we order beer. So tired of being gouged that it affects our appetites. Obviously, wine is not yet a part of the culture of Napa, despite the hype. Not at those prices.
Jamie Brown Miller May 06, 2011 at 10:22 PM
Hi Jason. As I said in the column, we'll talk about international cuisine another time. This one was focused more locally.
Louisa Hufstader (Editor) May 06, 2011 at 11:31 PM
It may be that some local restaurateurs are becoming sensitive to that issue. I recently dined at a Napa establishment that specified right on the menu that it gives a five-ounce pour. FYI, if you are dining at Farmstead in St. Helena this weekend and bringing your bottle, your corkage fee will go to support Clinic Ole, which provides affordable health care services in Napa County -- more info here: http://patch.com/B-Vv
Louisa Hufstader (Editor) May 06, 2011 at 11:31 PM
I'm looking forward to the next one already, Jamie!
Jason Hasdovic May 07, 2011 at 12:16 AM
I look forward to it! Should be very amusing. I acknowledge you said you will talk about international cuisine at a latter time. It was just after you said "the monotonous tomato-based dishes of Florence" and before you said "we’ve kept so many of the chain restaurants at bay". The latter was equally baffling when I can count Taco Bell, Black Bear Diner, McDonalds, Burger King, Jack in the Box, Subway, Carls Jr, In N Out, Denny's, Ihop, Buckhorn Grill, Panda Express, and Applebee's as popular frequented restaurants within gastronomic Napa's borders. Those poor souls in Tuscany are missing out!
Brooke Cheshier May 07, 2011 at 03:36 AM
I thought it was an interesting post, as I do feel that Napa Valley - and Bay Area - residents become accustomed to a certain standard of ingredients (for which we often pay the price!). I am curious to read a future post about Florence, as I lived there for three months and found that the tomato-based dishes are certainly present but not the mainstay for most Florentine natives. I fondly recall three hour suppers involving dripping porchetta, mushrooms, and herb-y pastas tossed in olive oil, with nary a tomato sauce-coated ravioli in sight.
Debra Green May 07, 2011 at 04:44 AM
To believe Napa is the center of the food universe is quite insular and uneducated. All you have to do is turn on the television to see shows portraying local delicacies at individually run establishments in all 50 states. True there are areas where finer restaurants are more apparent than elsewhere but to contrast Napa (home to 40,000) to New York, Chicago, even Boston is a little risible. I understand you are referring to the quantity of establishments. This too is a weak point because only down the road in San Francisco are we outnumbered by so many amazing eateries. For every good restaurant in Napa I can think of a chain. I think your article is more a love story concerning your passion for living here as opposed to a well thought critique on food. Would be very interesting to check the pages of your passport or indeed to see the holiday snaps of the 35 or so US states you surely must have visited? As for your take on international cuisine I too find it incredibly embarrassing. It is bit like saying going to Australia is annoying because everyone wears a hat with corks! Having lived in Napa for 7 years and also lived in France, Spain, Sydney, Italy and Morocco I reject the motion that "the farther I travel from Napa, the less likely I’ll be satisfied with my order. " You should get out more! But then again you might encounter Frenchmen with baguettes, berets, onion necklaces and bicycles! :)
Jamie Brown Miller May 07, 2011 at 04:17 PM
Jason - yes, we do have chains, but they are relatively small in number compared to other cities and I don't visit those establishments unless it's an emergency. Brooke - yes, there are many other offerings in Italy, but I was only there for five days and in such a short amount of time, something that pops up more often than not on a menu does seem a bit monotonous. Debra - I never said that Napa is the center of the food universe and I'm quite aware that there are some fantastic things to be had elsewhere. However, I was talking about the fact that we have such a concentrated amount of deliciousness here in Napa that makes it hard to enjoy the run-of-the-mill offerings in other cities when our 'normal' is anything but. I'm quite well traveled and enjoy any extraordinary findings I may discover. I'm sorry you're embarassed by what you think is my entire take on international cuisine, but if I were you I'd be more embarassed by proclaiming that my article is such when I clearly stated we'd talk about it another time - the one statement I made does not constitute an aritcle. I think it's funny that this column, which was meant to extol the virtues of our fabulous local food that makes it harder (but not impossible) to be happy in other places, raised such ire. Maybe everyone needs a large glass of wine to go with this bitter feast!
Sarah May 08, 2011 at 05:50 PM
Actually, I look forward to eating when I *leave* Napa on vacation. There is such a disparate void between places like Morimoto and Marie Callender's here. Yes, restaurants such as Mini Mango attempt to fill this void, but honestly - a "world class" destination such as Napa, and I can't get a decent sushi meal? With our immigrant labor worker population, one would think that authentic Mexican food could abound - no. And a decent Chinese meal? Forget about it. Yes, Napans are in a culinary bubble. One where apparently a good meal should cost well over $100, and choices in affordable, delicious world cuisine don't exist. I wish not one, but many entrepreneurs and restaurateurs would burst this bubble.
david hutchings May 20, 2011 at 05:01 PM
Awe, world travelers! Jason and Sarah, are they living togather? I've seen both in the line at the golden arches asking for an afordable blush!!!! tisk
Bill Canton August 22, 2012 at 08:31 PM
Your trite defense of bashing international cuisine is tiresome. Oh, I'll talk about that later seems shallow. I think Debra's assessment was astute, you sound insular and uneducated and more than a little arrogant. I also see you haven't made good on your promise to "write about that later." You seem like the type of smug Napa elitist that gives our residents a bad name, almost like the "typical Californian" people often complain about. You've probably been outside the country or county a few times to dine, but I doubt your meager experiences qualify you to broadly judge the quality of all establishments outside of Napa Valley. I think you are in love with the fact that you live in The Napa Valley and are too stuck up to appreciate anything outside your tiny comfort zone.
Richard Coad September 21, 2012 at 03:29 PM
Bill, nail on the head, Canton. Give this man a medal!


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