There's Napa, the valley. And then there's Napa, the city. Napa, the valley, is the realm of chef Thomas Keller's French Laundry in Yountville and Francis Ford Coppola's Niebaum-Coppola...

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NAPA, Calif. — There’s Napa, the valley. And then there’s Napa, the city.

Napa, the valley, is the realm of chef Thomas Keller’s French Laundry in Yountville and Francis Ford Coppola’s Niebaum-Coppola winery in Rutherford, of the luxe Meadowood resort in St. Helena and the mud baths of Calistoga.

And Napa, the city? That’s been another story. For many years and for many people, it’s been remembered as empty storefronts and a polluted river that flooded. Polite people called the place scruffy. Honest people called it something worse.

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Today, though, the name game has changed. Walk around town and you’ll hear people speak of Robert Mondavi and Julia Child, backers of Copia, the culinary theme park that’s the centerpiece of the local renaissance. You’ll hear of the Rouas family, owners of the prestigious Auberge du Soleil resort up-valley, who chose downtown Napa for Angele, their hot new restaurant. You’ll hear Coppola’s name, too, and details of the 1937 Uptown movie theater he’s helping to transform into a performing-arts palace.

As unlikely as it seems, this city finally has some backers and some buzz.


Where to taste

Copia, 500 First St., Napa; 888-512-6742 or 707-259-1600, Nonprofit center celebrates food, wine and art with cooking demonstrations, tastings, lectures, lunches, gardens and galleries. Consult the daily schedule (available online) and plan to spend at least three hours. Adults, $12.50; students 13 to 17 and seniors 62 and older, $10; children 6 to 12, $7.50; children 5 and younger, free. Wednesdays are half price.

Vintner’s Collective, 1245 Main St., Napa; 707-255-7150, Co-op representing 18 small wineries.

Bounty Hunter Rare Wine & Provisions, 975 First St., Napa; 800-943-9463, Tasting counter and wine store. Open until 2 a.m. on weekends.

To learn more

Napa Valley Conference & Visitors Bureau, 1310 Napa Town Center; 707-226-7459,

New lodgings, restaurants and galleries, plus a historic opera house that recently reopened after decades of neglect, are transforming this place into a hamlet of fine food and culture. While the rest of the valley is increasingly derided as overdeveloped and overrun by tourists, Napa doesn’t yet suffer from its successes. Crowds are smaller, pretensions fewer. The city impresses by not trying to impress.

“In the old days, Napa was a pariah. It was not part of Napa Valley,” said Garret Murphy, who opened a co-op wine-tasting room called Vintner’s Collective a year and half ago. “But in the next few years, Napa Valley will be proud to have this city. Actually, I think it already is.”

Napa’s history as an overlooked region dates to 1823, when the first Europeans to arrive, Don Francisco Castro and Father Jose Altimira, passed on Napa as a mission site. Not until 1848 did Nathan Coombs formally lay out a town called Nappa City, the name thought to have derived from a Wappo Indian village in the area.

In the decades that followed, the town did see some change: incorporation in 1872, the dropping of one “p” from its name, the building of tanneries and fuel-loading docks along the Napa River. But as the rest of the valley evolved into the nation’s premier wine country, Napa remained a sleepy bedroom community for the low-paid vineyard and restaurant workers, removed psychologically and set back geographically from State Route 29, the valley’s main highway.

Local restaurants were among the first to breathe some night life into a formerly comatose town. The first to gain notoriety was Celadon, opened in 1996 by chef-owner Greg Cole, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America.

“People wrote me off. They thought I was crazy,” Cole said. “The parking problem was that there were no cars. I used to stand at the window of Celadon, look for a single car and hope it would stop.”

Eventually, diners not only stopped, but they also followed Cole when he moved Celadon to the Napa Mill complex, next to the Napa River Inn. Tables are still packed with locals and out-of-towners feasting on an eclectic menu: baby calamari flash-fried and served with a chipotle chili glaze and Asian pickled ginger, pan-seared Hawaiian escolar and, my favorite, a Moroccan-inspired lamb shank that was fall-off-the-bone tender.

The country French restaurant Angele opened a year and a half ago to much acclaim.

After a $14 million refurbishment, the Napa Valley Opera House reopened in August after its stage was dark for an epic 89 years. The theater opened Feb. 13, 1880, with Gilbert and Sullivan’s “H.M.S. Pinafore” and went on to play host to light opera, vaudeville and community events until declining attendance forced it to close in 1914.

These days, the 500-seat venue plays host to opera, jazz, dance and other entertainment.

But wait, there’s more. Because anti-growth regulations prohibit wineries from establishing new tasting rooms on county land, entrepreneurs flocked within Napa city limits, and now these tasting rooms are some of the hottest gathering spots in town.

Back by the Napa Mill project, the city is building a private dock for Gondola Servizio owner Angelino Sandri. By summer he expects to be shuttling passengers along the Napa River in 37-foot gondolas crafted in Venice, Italy.

The river itself is getting a makeover, a $255 million project to revamp a six-mile stretch of water. Dikes and levees are being removed, land is being acquired, bridges are being replaced and soil contaminated by the tanneries and fuel-loading stations of eras past has been cleaned up. The work won’t be finished until 2007 at the earliest, but by then the Napa River will have been cleaned up and the water allowed to follow its natural course.

Jim Brandt is a former San Francisco restaurateur who moved to Napa in 1999. He and his wife, Jill, opened the Napa General Store less than two years ago. His take on Napa: “It’s like watching time working backward.”