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Like many others, I first went to Napa for the wine and came away wowed and dazzled by the food. Great restaurants use an astonishing array of fresh ingredients to create wonderful dishes, usually of the simple, vibrant ilk. Every return trip has meant exciting new (to me) venues, including Solbar in Calistoga and Morimoto in the town of Napa last month.
And as swell as it is to savor this gastro-utopia at a table, I actually prefer to eat at the bar, at least when there are just one or two of us. The full menu is available without fail. It’s generally a great perch for people-watching. The person behind the bar is usually a seasoned pro in food service — someone who has made this his or her profession, not the “I’m just doing this until I get enough acting/modeling gigs” types encountered at all too many restaurants. Plus they almost assuredly know how lucky they are to live in such a fabulous place and work at such a cool eatery.
But the big bonus is that this is where the people who do the truly important work in Napa tend to hang out. While the nouveau riche winery owners are regaling one another in the main dining area, the winemakers, vineyard managers and cellarmasters often are just enjoying a nice meal and a beverage (often a beer; as the saying goes, “it takes a lot of beer to make good wine”) at the bar.
I’ve had particular luck meeting such folks at two of Twin Cities native Cindy Pawlcyn’s superb restaurants, Mustards Grill and Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen. But I’ve also encountered cool Napa-ites at Press, Bistro Jeanty and downstairs in the atmospheric bar at Goose & Gander.
Oh, and most recently, the octopus seemed a little more tender and the sake a touch sweeter at the convivial sushi bar at Morimoto.
People tend to go to Portland for one reason above all others. But that reason varies mightily. It might be the wonderfully wide-ranging restaurant scene (from countless food carts to the don’t-dare-miss-it Thai treasure Pok Pok); the country’s most revered big bookstore, Powell’s Books; the hipster vibe, or as a gateway to Pinot Noir Heaven, the Willamette Valley 30 miles to the southwest.
But in summertime, there’s no better impetus to go than the clunkily named International Rose Test Garden.
Tumbling down a hillside in Washington Park, the garden boasts killer views of the city and Mount Hood. But all eyes should be trained on the myriad blooms. Who knew there were so many shades of orange, pink, red, yellow and violet? Or so many ways to use white to punch up said colors in multi-hued eye-poppers?
The name is actually accurate — new hybrids have been tried out there since 1917, making this the nation’s oldest continuously operated rose test garden. But there’s also a casual feel to the endless tiers of shrubs and vines, and visitors’ reverence for roses tends to make for peaceful strolls.
The lone downside for Minnesotans: You’ll never look at that perfectly nice rose garden on Lake Harriet’s east side the same way again.
George Washington slept here, or at least in the vicinity. But the reason to go to the Inn at Little Washington is to eat one of the best meals in the country. In a still-teeny-tiny town that was mapped by a young surveyor named George Washington in 1749, the inn does of course have lodgings ($460 and up), but it’s an easy drive from “Big Washington,” not quite 70 miles to the east.
When it opened on the site of a former gas station in 1978, the closest restaurant was 40 miles away. Before long, the $4.95 dinners got fancier and tastier. The Inn at Little Washington was the first establishment to be 5-star Mobil and 5-Diamond AAA designations.
Today, Patrick O’Connell turns out stunning, thrilling dishes using the freshest local ingredients, from seasonal vegetables to country ham. Our meal started with, technically, our names printed on the menu, but the food included a crabcake “sandwich” bounded by fried green tomatoes with a tomato vinaigrette and prawns with charred onions and mango mint salsa.
It got better from there, capped by a ridiculously cool cheese cart: Faira, a wooden cow on wheels with a bountiful array of selections in a tray on her back.
The late, great New York Times food writer Craig Claiborne called this “the most magnificent inn I’ve ever seen, in this country or Europe, where I had the most fantastic meal of my life.” No argument here.
L.A.’s most endearing lunch spot: I ate tortilla soup and sipped fresh-squeezed watermelon juice, while my husband opted for tacos, from Loteria Grill, a restaurant that specializes in Oaxacan fare. My daughter went for an egg- and cheese-filled treat from the French Crepe Company. Food in hand, we grabbed a Formica-topped table in the sun and dug into our lunch, with a side of Los Angeles history.
Los Angeles’ Original Farmers Market, in the heart of the city at Fairfax Av. and 3rd St., has been serving up good food since 1934. That’s when a collection of farmers converged on land that had been a dairy farm to sell produce to residents of the burgeoning city.
The farmers market was a hit, and soon permanent stalls were being built. Today, shoppers still pull classic green wooden carts — which are built by hand on site — as they fill up on California’s fresh produce, English toffee made from a family recipe, roasted nuts and other food stuff from more than 80 vendors.
We headed there after a visit to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a fascinating network of museum buildings and open air spaces. We saw a Calder exhibit and another devoted to art inspired by soccer, “Futbol: the Beautiful Game.” That show included an Andy Warhol portrait of soccer great Pelé and a mock-up of a soccer match featuring Hulks vs. Transformers surrounded by a stadium filled with Virgin Marys, gnomes, Roman soldiers and other surprising fans.
We skipped the museum’s own open-air restaurant, because I knew the market would offer other reasons to gawk.
There is the baker decorating a cake in the window of his stall; two dapper gentlemen discussing growing old in an image-conscious town; children licking ice cream cones. And then there was the tall, bearded guy.
“Jeff Daniels,” I whispered to my husband. Not quite. Far cry, really. But it never hurts to keep an eye out, whether for actors or the hungry residents of L.A. The market always puts on a good show.
At one end of the block, scores of hipsters chat in a loosely aligned queue outside Tartine Bakery.
At the other end, a shorter line (in both length and the height of patrons) smack their lips outside the Bi-Rite Creamery.
In between, people of all ages bask at sun-splashed tables and gulp down insanely fresh salads and deftly charred pies at Delfina Pizzeria, while foodies pour into the treasure-filled Bi-Rite Grocery.
San Francisco is packed with not only a gazillion great food purveyors but also countless compact areas (North Beach, South of Market) with plentiful stops for the gastronome. But this single block of 18th Street, running between Guerrero and Dolores streets (and leading to the splendiferous Dolores Park), takes the quality cake in one of the world’s foremost food cities.
Few would argue that the city has a better bakery than Tartine; Bi-Rite’s shelves are laden with most everything a serious cook would want or need (along with a truly stellar wine selection), and at night the “regular” Delfina serves up some of the finest Italian food anywhere.
Sorry, Nicollet, but it’s hard to call anything but this “Eat Street.”
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