Gott's Roadside (formerly Taylor’s Automatic Refresher) in St. Helena has been a Napa Valley institution for years. Everyone talks about wine when they think of Napa, but they should also think of great hamburgers.
My wife, Patricia, and I visited the St. Helena location on an unseasonably hot Saturday in November. This is a great time of year to visit Napa, because the fall colors are in full swing. The great weather brought out a throng of like-minded folk. The mid-century style building sits just south of town. A sheet metal smoke stack belched smoke form the grill.
At the refresher you order at one of two windows. They take your name and you sit at one of the many picnic tables outside to wait for your order. There was a line of at least 50 people waiting to order when we arrived. It took a good 20 minutes. But we got acquainted with burger lovers from Fresno, Denver and Mississippi while we waited in line. Pat got a white wine for her and a beer for me while we waited.
Whilst in the Napa Valley, this Farmer gave into a deadly sin – no, not drunkenness in the wine country…gluttony! There's no beating around the bush about my love for food - I write about food, I photograph food, I travel to eat and relish in reading a cookbook like a good novel. Between design projects and book tours, I was able to squeeze in a few days in the Napa Valley proper after the ACS convention was adjourned. A dear friend from home said she would meet me there, and our journey through the aforementioned valley began.
Allow me to divulge a Farmer faux pas - I do not drink much wine and worried a trip to Napa would not be as grand sans vino - boy was I wrong! Trust me, I sipped and savored some of the best vintages the valley had to offer, yet it was the food that hung the moon for my Napa trip. As I'm in a food coma recovery program now, allow me to try my best at recalling some highlights from these days of delights. In the words of Julie Andrew's “Maria” from The Sound of Music, let's “start at the very beginning- a very good place to start!"
Boon Fly Café. This cafe nestled into The Carneros Inn is wonderful! Just outside of the town of Napa towards the Sanoma Valley, Boon Fly Cafe was highly recommended for its breakfast. Now, I truly adore a big breakfast and any place that offers a starter to the starting meal is right up my alley. I commenced with some hot Earl Grey and their famous donuts. The donuts were small and delicious and served in a small galvanized metal pail. I'm a sucker for galvanized anything and a galvanized pail of cinnamon sugar donuts just may be a Farmer's fave! I grew up with a cattle farm and our cows ate and drank from ginormous galvanized troughs- looks like I'm grazing in the same fashion! Once a farm boy, always a farm boy!
I recently performed Celebrity Autobiography at the Wells Fargo Center For The Arts in Santa Rosa. I didn’t know where Santa Rosa was nor did I realize that the Welles Fargo Center was a hip destination and the setting for many legendary comedy albums. George Carlin and Bill Cosby to name a few.
My plane ticket had me spending the entire next day there with nothing to do because there were no direct flights back to Los Angeles. I asked the driver who picked me up what the local places featured. For Christsakes I was in wine country!! And that was the thing to do; tour wineries. The problem was, I don’t drink…any kind of alcohol. I know, I’m a sissy.
So, I decided that I’d rent movies that were still in the theatre, (The Apparition, Jewish Ghosts) have room service, read my Stephen Kind novel and sleep late!! Heaven in my book. But there’s only so long you can do that. I got antsy and looked at the hotel ‘things to do’ book to see if there were any restaurants to check out.
There was a map showing what areas were close to the hotel and it looked like the closest place for food and shopping was in Healdsburg. I’m always scared to venture out in a town I don’t know because I can and have gotten lost in a parking lot, but I planned my route there and back as if it were for a five year old. Success!
It was my 33rd birthday and I decided to treat myself to a nice trip to Sonoma Valley. Some call it the “Jesus year”, but I like to call it another excuse to play in wine country! With all the choices for fine dining restaurants, I had quite a task to narrow it down to one. We are talking about one of the culinary meccas, people! While I knew I’d stay multiple days in Sonoma Valley, most nights were allocated to be spent with good friends, so that left me with one night all to myself. At the end of the day, I was extremely happy with my choice: Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen.
Charlie Palmer has made a name for himself since the 1980s with his first restaurant Aureole in New York. Ever since then, he’s won award after award, including two restaurants with Michelin stars (Aureole: New York, Las Vegas). Included in the restaurant bank of awards is Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg, California, which he opened in 2001, located in the northern Sonoma Valley. From the coat check to the final escort to my taxi, I was incredibly pleased with my dining experience.
What if your favorite restaurant was in the same state you were in but it was 9 hours away???
We really couldn’t take a vacation this summer but we did run off for a week-end to Mendocino (don’t laugh). It seemed like a good idea at the time. After an extensive google search of all the best restaurants in Mendocino, I discovered one that had been there forever (or at least a very long time and this was before Mark Bittman discovered it two months later....) There was something about the comments, the user reviews, the description that just made it sound like it might actually be the real deal.
The Ledford House, tucked onto a cliff, so the views are amazing, surrounded by a weathered redwood deck on which there are always really pretty girls smoking things that don’t look (or smell) at all like cigarettes, but hey it’s Mendocino and no one seems to mind.
But the interior of the restaurant makes you feel as if you’re in the South of France. So much so, that we almost left the first night we were there – too stodgy, we thought, too over the top. And then we glanced at the menu. In addition to home-made duck paté (they had me at the duck paté), they also had cassoulet? No one makes cassoulet any more. And cassoulet and me and Alan have a funny history.
No man is an island; we are all interconnected by our humanity. That
is the philosophy of Ubuntu, a belief rooted in Zulu culture that
emphasizes people's allegiances, relationships, community, sharing, and
generosity. Ubuntu, then, is an apt name for the Michelin-starred
restaurant, which aims to connect patrons with the bounty of the earth
through produce that is sustainably and biodynamically grown. Located in
downtown Napa, Ubuntu is a restaurant, yoga studio, and store, all in
one building. The dining space is quite modern and rustic with exposed
brick, wood, steel, and conduit and features a wine bar with an
expansive wine list and an open kitchen. I had the absolute pleasure of
dining at Ubuntu on my day trip to Napa two weekends ago. What sets the
restaurant apart is its all vegetable menu. All dishes are vegetarian or
nearly vegan, but what some might consider a culinary limitation
becomes limitless in the hands of executive chef Aaron London.
The saying is true that you eat with your eyes first. At Ubuntu everything looks like it is created by an artist. As you can see by the photographs, chef London presents food in a unique and very eye-catching way. The stunning dishes don't just stop at looks, they taste wonderful too. Many dishes, such as the salads, are just combinations of different vegetables prepared simply, but with amazing flavors that speak beyond their simplicity. It definitely has something to with the fact that all the produce used by the restaurant is sourced locally, much of it from the restaurant's own garden, about 10 miles outside downtown Napa. The care that goes into the garden and the cooking definitely shows on the plates.
I was invited – along with six other authors – to talk about my latest book, “Family Meals” at the annual Author’s Luncheon in Sacramento. It benefits the National Kidney Foundation and it’s a great event. Jill came along as Muse – I never travel without my Muse – so we made it a combination work and play trip, which we always try to do.
Our first stop was at our friend Caroline’s graduation from the Napa Valley Cooking School.
Caroline is a great friend; she first worked for us as a personal
assistant and sous chef in my kitchen (I taught her everything
she knows about cooking, of course) – and now she’s a real certified
chef on her own. We’re very proud of her.
Next stop was Sacramento for the luncheon and signing and then we decided to drive up to the Russian River area to eat and drink for a couple of days before we finish the trip with a reading and signing at Books, Inc. – a great independent bookstore in San Francisco.
Guerneville is an adorable town on the Russian River – foggy, but adorable. It’s nestled under the majestic coastal redwoods that thrive on the local fog and it’s surrounded by vineyards that turn out some of the best wines California has to offer.
I went to the French Laundry restaurant located in the Napa region (specifically, Yountville, California) in 1996 and haven’t been able to get a reservation since – at least until a week ago. Of course, that’s what happens when a chef later becomes tops in the U.S. and his restaurant is voted tops in the world. But with one day’s notice, I was told my group of four were in. Pack your dinner jacket we were told. They should’ve added cash out your 401k and clean out your savings account with a scrub brush. The price to party was now $240 per person for a nine course tasting menu (two options: Chef’s and Vegetarian) not including wine – a decent bottle (not a case) of which will cost you $200 more.
Boon Eat + Drink in Guerneville on the Russian River is a delightful
place with delightful food. We stopped by one Saturday to have lunch.
The summertime crowd was out in force. The restaurant was pleasantly
busy, but not too crowded.
Perusing the menu, I spotted the Boon Burger with grass fed beef, fiscalini aged white cheddar, arugula on a toasted milk bun with house made Parmesan herb chips ($11). I could not resist adding the truffle fries with house made ketchup and garlic aioli ($6). While we waited I soaked in the modern feel of this small storefront restaurant. It has a great vibe with both locals and visitors mixing in together.
The Mountain Room restaurant at Yosemite Lodge in Yosemite National
Park in California is a great place to have a burger after a hike. If
you have never visited Yosemite, there are plenty of hikes to work up
an appetite. I joined 10 friends as we assaulted Half Dome over 2 days.
The hike covers about 4800 feet of altitude gain over a 17-mile hike.
After a night of martinis at the Ahwahnee Hotel bar, we rose early on Saturday morning and started on our hike. After climbing about 2000 feet and hiking past Vernal and Nevada falls, we camped out in little Yosemite Valley. The next morning we headed up the trail to Half Dome reaching “the Cables”. The cables are two parallel cables stretching up the shear side of half dome. It is the only way up unless you are a rock climber and was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life. The views up top were incredible. (Photo below: The team perches on top for a photo before descending 8.5 miles for a burger.