For both Bay Area locals and first-time visitors to the California wine country, the allure of Napa Valley makes it hard to resist a trip to the veritable mecca for dining and drinking. And aren’t we lucky that one of the best places in the country for wine and food rests just about an hour outside of the major metropolitan city of San Francisco?
Whether you’re a seasoned wine country expert planning a quick jaunt to Napa Valley with out-of-towners or making the trip for the first time yourself, this guide aims to cover a little of everything. You’ll hit both a well-established winery and one that’s more avant-garde as you eat your way up Highway 29 with pitstops to see some of the valley’s most recognizable sites — because even if you aren’t dropping serious dollars to dine at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry, you can still get a glimpse of the restaurant and the garden where the team grows much of what ends up on diners’ plates, all for the affordable price of free.
Let this be either a ready-made itinerary for your first Napa Valley day trip or a template for designing your own perfect food day in one of Northern California’s most destination-worthy places.
8 a.m. coffee at Naysayer in Napa
1813 Old Sonoma Road, Napa
If you’re driving up to wine country from San Francisco, this Napa coffee roaster’s freshly opened shop makes a great first stop on your way into town. Get a caffeine fix in the form of any of the usual coffee and espresso beverages — or go for a refreshing espresso and tonic, which comes just so subtly sweetened with honey. The seasonal drinks are also worth exploring and feature ingredients like tulsi simple syrup and iced hibiscus tea.
9 a.m. breakfast at Loveski Deli
610 1st Street at Oxbow Public Market, Napa
For your next stop, head to Oxbow Public Market in the heart of downtown Napa. The famous food hall offers plenty to taste and see but for breakfast, your best bet is Loveski Deli, the self-described “Jew-ish” deli counter from the Restaurant at Meadowood chef Christopher Kostow and his wife Martina. The bagels here — sourdough, of course, and always boiled — can be ordered with sides of schmear in unexpected flavor combos like yellow chive and fermented onion or miso vegetable. Whatever you do, don’t skip an order of golden fried mini potato latkes, which come with sour cream and chives and can be elevated even further with a side of trout roe. While you’re in the area, might as well swing by Model Bakery for a 6-pack of Oprah’s favorite English muffins and explore the downtown area for an hour or so.
11 a.m. wine tasting and lunch at Ashes & Diamonds
4130 Howard Lane, Napa
Kick off the actual wine tasting at Ashes & Diamonds, the incredibly chic mid-century modern winery just about a 10-minute drive up the road from Napa. While you can book a wine tasting or a wine tasting accompanied by light snacks like cheese, crackers, and fresh baked focaccia, the smarter move is to go all-in on the A&D Wine + Food tasting ($165), which includes a multi-course lunch spread. Chef Ethan Speizer presents a full meal that might start with thick and crispy fermented potato bread with tangy labneh followed by a beguilingly simple and satisfying wedge salad scattered with made-in-house furikake. The main course — perhaps a whole roasted chicken or maybe hearty slices of tender steak — usually sees the inside of the winery’s wood-fired oven before landing on your table. Of course, it all serves to underscore the merits of the wine itself, made in a lighter more lively style than you may be used to finding in the valley.
1 p.m. pastries and espresso at Bouchon Bakery
6528 Washington Street, Yountville
Next, continue working your way up the valley before making a pitstop in Yountville, practically a mandatory pilgrimage for fine dining fanatics. Most famously, this tiny town is home to Thomas Keller’s three-Michelin-star French Laundry but before you head over to gawk at its understated exterior, pick up a pain au chocolat (and maybe more coffee?) at Bouchon Bakery. There will likely be a line; there almost always is. But once you’ve secured those flaky goods, snack and saunter over to the French Laundry gardens just across the street from the restaurant to take in the neat rows of tiny leaf lettuce and beds exploding with vining summer squash.
3 p.m. tasting at Robert Mondavi Winery
7801 St. Helena Highway, Napa
If the first wine tasting provided a taste of new-school Napa, an afternoon at Robert Mondavi’s sprawling estate leans heavily in the other direction. There are two tasting options, either the 1-hour Estates Collection ($65) or the Kalon Reserve Tasting ($125), which lasts 75 minutes. Both give you a chance to taste through a list of classic Napa Valley varietals while taking in the impressive grounds. The wine-only tastings don’t include a tour, but the historic estate offers photo-worthy views of grape vines stretching out to the horizon with the valley walls rising steadily up in the background.
5 p.m. burgers and shakes at Gott’s Roadside
933 Main Street, CA-29, St. Helena
You may have had a Gott’s burger at one of the mini-chain’s eight locations around the Bay Area but this roadside outpost is the original and worth experiencing at least once. Pullover outside St. Helena for the full Americana diner experience. Nab a seat on the shaded front patio to enjoy a hefty Niman Ranch burger patty cloaked in melted American cheese, plus lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, and tangy sauce on a toasted egg bun. There are plenty of other options too — including fancier burgers, chicken sandwiches, salads, hot dogs, and Impossible-brand proteins for those avoiding meat. Round out the meal with an order of fries (the garlic variety is always a good choice) and a milkshake, which come in both classic flavors like chocolate and vanilla, as well seasonal ones like strawberry shortcake for summer. Afterward, there’s plenty to do and see up and down St. Helena’s quaint streets including dozens of boutiques, galleries, and other specialty shops. You can easily kill an hour or two meandering the area; if you need a gift to bring back to friends and family, pick up a bottle or two of infused olive oil or vinegar at upscale specialty grocery Olivier Napa Valley.
8 p.m. drinks and live music at Blue Note Napa
It’s finally time to turn around and head back south, but before you return trip to San Francisco, stop for a drink and some live music at the legendary Blue Note. Located on the 1st floor of the Historic Napa Valley Opera House, this restaurant and music venue hosts a jam-packed calendar of events including a wide array of musicians — seriously, everything from local open-mic nights to Brian McKnight to popular Polynesian artists like George Kahumoku Jr. — almost every night. There’s not exactly a robust nightlife scene in the region, but a little live jazz and a cold beer make a solid way to end a full day.