Splurge on Dinner: Wine Country’s Amazing Culinary Experiences

Tartare of Korege Beef from Shiga served at the French Laundry.
Tartare of Korege Beef from Shiga. Photo © Arnold Gatilao, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

The tiny town of Yountville boasts perhaps the biggest reputation for culinary excellence in California—a big deal when you consider the offerings of San Francisco and Los Angeles. The reason for this reputation starts and ends with restaurateur Thomas Keller’s indisputably amazing French Laundry (6640 Washington St., 707/944-2380, dinner daily 5:30–9 p.m., lunch 11 a.m.–1 p.m. Fri.–Sun., by reservation only, $240). Once you’ve obtained that all-important reservation, the fun begins. From the moment you walk in the door of the rambling Victorian, you’re treated like royalty. You’ll be led to your seat in one of the small dining rooms by one of the many immaculate black-and-white-clad staff. Even if you’re new to this level of dining—and most people are—you’ll be made to feel more than welcome. The menu, which changes often, offers two main selections: the regular nine-course tasting menu and the vegetarian nine-course tasting menu. [pullquote align=right]Most people familiar with the world of high-end food know that the best restaurant in California, and possibly in the United States, is the French Laundry.[/pullquote]You’ll have a few either-or choices as you run down each list—usually you’ll see two options for the fish course and two options for the entrée. The waitstaff can help you identify anything you don’t recognize or if you’re having trouble making a decision. The sommelier is at your beck and call to assist with a wine list that weighs several pounds.

Then the meal begins. From the start, waiters and footmen ply you with extras—an amuse-bouche here, an extra middle course there—and if you mention that someone else has something on their plate that you’d like to try, it appears in front of you as if by magic. Finally, the desserts come, and come, and come. After the fourth separate dessert course, you may want to ask for a white flag to signal your surrender. All together, a meal at the French Laundry can run up to 13 courses and take four hours to eat. Afterward, you might not eat normally for a couple of days, and you’ll have spent a good deal of money on a single meal, but it will seem worth it.

Stamped with the restauranta's name, the French Laundry's iconic clothespin is clipped to a folded napkin.
Napkins at the place setting with the French Laundry’s signature clothespin. Photo © Arnold Gatilao, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Reservations for the French Laundry

Most people familiar with the world of high-end food know that the best restaurant in California, and possibly in the United States, is the French Laundry. Thomas Keller’s culinary haven in tiny Yountville was the only restaurant in the greater Bay Area to earn the coveted three-star Michelin Guide rating in 2007. The restaurant is in a charming vintage house, and the kitchen garden is right across the street, where you can walk among the rows of vegetables and herbs. It may sound like a foodie paradise, but there’s just one problem: getting a table.

The difficulty in getting reservations to the French Laundry is almost as legendary as the French Laundry itself. Rather than expecting to dine at the French Laundry during a planned trip to the Wine Country, savvy travelers expect to plan their whole trip around whatever French Laundry reservation they manage to get.

The bare facts: The French Laundry takes reservations precisely two months in advance by phone, online, and via local concierges. Reservations are accepted for parties of two, four, or six only. Diners can choose between lunch and dinner seatings that offer the same menu. It’s easier to get a table for lunch than for dinner; both take 2.5–4 hours. Budget $500 pp for your meal if you plan to drink wine, and $300– 350 if you don’t.

The French Laundry starts taking phone reservations at 9 a.m. daily. Between 8:30 and 8:45 a.m., program their number on your speeddial and begin calling; continue calling until you get an answer. If you get a continuous busy signal past 11 a.m., you’ll probably need to try again the next day, and maybe the day after that.

Making reservations online works much the same way as on the phone, only it’s harder. Each day the French Laundry offers only one table, for lunch, online. Visit OpenTable at about 8:30 a.m. and start trying to snag that table. If you’re still trying at 9:30 a.m., it’s probably already gone.

Hands-down the low-stress way to get a coveted French Laundry table is to hire a concierge to do it for you. The French Laundry lets concierges walk downtown to the restaurant each day to put in bookings for their clients. Call or email a concierge and expect to pay a nominal fee ($20–30), but if you can afford to dine at the French Laundry, that’s pocket change. Give your new best friend a range of dates and times that will suit you, and he or she will do their best to accommodate your request. Do not expect to get your first choice of times; flexible diners will find themselves with a remarkably trouble-free reservation experience.

So, is it really worth all this rigmarole just to get into one restaurant, then pay a sizeable amount of money for a single meal? Yes. With the gracious welcome at the door, stunning service throughout, the meal, and the food that can be found nowhere else, dining at the French Laundry is worth both the hassle and the price tag.

Alternatives to the French Laundry

Departing from Yountville’s ever-present Wine Country cuisine formula, Bistro Jeanty (6510 Washington St., 707/944-0103, daily 11:30 a.m.–10:30 p.m., $26) gets lots of recommendations from locals. Certainly the interior works on the theory of whimsy rather than prestige, with a life-size toy man “riding” a bicycle down the middle of the front dining room. Parisian posters on the walls evoke just the atmosphere the proprietors are aiming for—an authentic French bistro. Jeanty’s heart is the menu, a single page devoted to the classics of Parisian bistro cuisine. Tomato bisque served with a puff pastry shell, traditional salads, cassoulet, coq au vin, and even a croque monsieur are all crafted with obvious joy. Local Yountville residents can lovingly describe their own favorite dishes. Service is friendly, and you’ll see a few locals hanging out at the bar, watching the TV tuned to a sports channel—something of a non sequitur. Jeanty has two dining rooms, making walk-in dining easy on off-season weeknights, but definitely make a dinner reservation if you’re in town on the weekend or in high season (May–Oct.).

Étoile (1 California Dr., 888/242-6366, 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m. and 6–9 p.m. Thurs.–Mon., $35) is another high-end restaurant in Yountville, set inside the tasting facility at the prestigious Domaine Chandon champagnery. Lovely white tablecloths sparkle in the sunlight and overlook Chandon’s lush green gardens. The menu at Étoile is inventive even for Napa, and each dish is prepared to utter perfection. Order the chef’s tasting menu (4 courses, $90) and add wine pairings (an additional $65) to sample Chandon’s wine list.

If you can’t access the French Laundry, try Thomas Keller’s other Yountville option, Bouchon (6534 Washington St., 707/944-8037, 11:30 a.m.–midnight Mon.–Fri., 11 a.m.–midnight Sat.–Sun., $34). Reservations are still strongly recommended, but you should be able to get one just a week in advance. Bouchon’s atmosphere and food scream Parisian bistro. Order traditional favorites such as the croque monsieur or steak frites, or opt for a California-influenced specialty salad or entrée made with local sustainable ingredients.

Situated in the V Market Place (formerly Vintage 1870), Bottega (6525 Washington St., Suite A9, 707/945-1050, 5–9:30 p.m. Mon., 11:30 a.m.– 2:30 p.m. and 5–9:30 p.m. Tues.–Thurs., 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m. and 5–10 p.m. Fri.–Sat., 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m. and 5–9:30 p.m. Sun., $15–30) is the return to the kitchen for celebrity chef Michael Chiarello. The former host of Easy Entertaining on the Food Network has come back to Napa Valley with his flair for Italian cuisine. The exposed brick and bare ceiling beams of the dining room pair nicely with such classic dishes as tagliarini with veal and porcini sugo, duck served with pickled pomegranates, and braised short ribs with spaetzle. The prices, particularly the wine list, are fairly reasonable for the area. While the menu changes with the seasons, try to finish your meal with the ricotta zeppole—Italian doughnuts fried to order and topped with praline cream.

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