370 posts
  • S.F. Bay Area
Chocolate tart, Ad Hoc, Yountville
Chocolate tart, Ad Hoc, Yountville (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Yountville is a sleepy, genteel little town in the heart of Napa Valley, population about 3,000. And Thomas Keller, one of this nation's most admired chefs, has three restaurants in Yountville, on the same street. Or four. Or five, depending on how you count.

What: Keller, raised and trained in Florida and New York and renowned for his high standards, has also cooked in acclaimed kitchens in France and Los Angeles, and he has operations in New York and Las Vegas as well. (His Bouchon in Beverly Hills is scheduled to close Dec. 31.) But since he opened the French Laundry in 1994, Yountville has been the seat of his California empire.  With three Michelin stars and a nine-course chef's menu, The French Laundry may be the most celebrated restaurant in the state, and it's surely one of the priciest.

Ad Hoc, Yountville
Ad Hoc, Yountville (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

But the chef has give us options. Bouchon opened in 1998, offering French bistro fare. The Bouchon Bakery followed in 2003. In 2006 came Ad Hoc, devoted to American comfort food in a casual setting. (Its humble-brag slogan: "for temporary relief from hunger.") Ad Hoc's menu changes daily to take advantage of fresh ingredients, but it's all built around the chef's choice for a four-course family-style meal, which includes favorites like pot roast and barbecue. I came before 6 p.m. on buttermilk fried chicken night (a Monday), and found myself in a happily clamorous dining room, surrounded by families, confronting more food than I could eat. (I enjoyed the casual feeling, and I liked the chicken well enough. But I actually enjoyed the salad and cheese courses more — livelier flavors.)

Bouchon Bakery, Yountville
Bouchon Bakery, Yountville (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
  • Family-friendly
  • S.F. Bay Area
(Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times)

Why: Napa Valley has close to 500 wineries. Castello di Amorosa is the only one housed in a 107-room castle that was built in accordance with 13th century Tuscan aspirations.

What: Owner/designer Dario Sattui completed this spectacle, a 15-year project, in 2007. Besides its five towers and the barrel-vaulted retail and tasting area (which never seems to end), it's got a great hall and chapel, each with evocative murals. There's said to be a torture chamber below. Depending on your mood, you might expect a "Da Vinci Code" villain to round a corner at any moment, or Orson Welles in mid-soliloquy. Or one of the Monty Python guys, clopping coconuts together.

Not surprisingly -- given the Tuscan blueprint of the place -- the Castello di Amorosa wines are made in the Italian style. The winery suffered no damage in the wine country fires of October.   

  • S.F. Bay Area
Fountain, Indian Springs, Calistoga
Fountain, Indian Springs, Calistoga (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Calistoga is the answer to the question of what to do in the Napa Valley when you've had enough wine. It's a little, old resort town full of hot springs, so between wine-tasting excursions (and maybe the occasional bike ride) you can float listlessly in a steaming pool, untroubled by the faint scent of sulfur because you can feel the stress evaporating from your body. 

What: Samuel Brannan, a brash, controversial figure who became one of California's first millionaires in the Gold Rush, founded Calistoga in the 1860s, counting on the area's springs to draw tourists from San Fancisco. (In fact, he built a rail route from Vallejo to Calistoga, and the current Napa Valley Wine Train rolls on the Napa-St. Helena portion of that old route.) It was a clever impulse. The town (population: about 5,300) lives on as a resort escape, with hideaways like Calistoga Ranch, Dr. Wilkinson's and Indian Springs (perhaps the oldest continuously operating pool and spa facility in the state) all relying heavily on their hot springs.

Though the Napa/Sonoma wildfires of October drew near, they never reached the town of Calistoga, and it remains handsome as ever. In early November, I spent a night and stepped from the chilly morning air into the Olympic-sized, 102-degree, steam-cloaked pool at  the 17-acre Indian Springs resort. It was pleasant. In 2015, the resort added a restaurant (Sam's Social Club, which has fascinating, colorful mural over the counter) and grew from about 40 rooms to 115. Many of the interiors still have that just-upgraded, ready-for-the-magazine-photographer look. 

(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Why: If you're going to fully appreciate this valley and its globally admired vineyards, it's better that you're not driving. And on the Napa Valley Wine Train, you have the chance to dine in style while the miles and wineries roll past. 

What: The train covers about 18 miles, running north alongside Highway 29 from the city of Napa through Yountville and Oakville to St. Helena. Along the way, depending on what you sign up for, you may stop to taste at one to three wineries, eat a three-course meal on board, and be back where you started in three to six hours. It's expensive but so very comfortable.

And it's got complicated history. The rail route, first laid in the 1860s, had fallen idle by the 1980s. To get the new wine train rolling in 1989, its owners had to outmaneuver many Napa locals who feared a tourist invasion would ruin the affluent community's character. Skip forward now to 2015, when the train's management drew a storm of criticism for ejecting a group of guests, mostly African American, who were accused of being too loud.

The view from the train, near Yountville, in early November.
The view from the train, near Yountville, in early November. (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
  • Family-friendly
  • S.F. Bay Area
Dim sum counter, Market Restaurant, China Live.
Dim sum counter, Market Restaurant, China Live. (Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times)

Why: Nobody likes to say so, but a lot of San Francisco's Chinatown looks tired these days. And many of the area's best Chinese restaurants are scattered among the outer suburbs where so many affluent Chinese American families live. So it's a happy surprise to see China Live bring new energy and higher style to the neighborhood with a combination of design-intensive eating and shopping options. Its mission: "to demystify Chinese ingredients and recipes while educating guests on the rich history and influence."

What: China Live opened in March 2017, near the frontier between Chinatown and North Beach. The main downstairs space, the Market Restaurant and Bar, is full of long wood tables under a semi-raw concrete ceiling. Picture an Apple Store with steaming, edible merchandise, neighbored by open cooking areas, beckoning counters, a bar and adjacent retail rooms stocked with artisan teas, kitchen tools, condiments, shapely candles, jewelry and such. The restaurant's menu is mostly based on sharing small dishes, so you might wind up with a medley dinner of  fire-roasted sweet white corn, Dungenes crab spring rolls and Sheng Jian Bao (SJB) pan-fried pork dumplings.

Market Restaurant, China Live.
Market Restaurant, China Live. (Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times)

Near the entrance is the casual Oolong Cafe. Upstairs waits a more exclusive restaurant offering private, pricey dining in elegant rooms befitting a royal in hiding. It's called Eight Tables by George Chen (dinner only; tasting menu: $225). There are also a pair of bars upstairs, including the Gold Mountain Lounge and one called Cold Drinks -- one of those hip hideaways that seeks to be popular by maintaining quasi-secrecy.

  • Family-friendly
  • S.F. Bay Area
A 1,033-pound pumpkin on display at Oxbow Public Market in Napa.
A 1,033-pound pumpkin on display at Oxbow Public Market in Napa. (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Why: This market and food hall, set above a fetching bend in the Napa River, is a short stroll from downtown Napa, a block from the headquarters of the popular Napa Valley Wine Train, a block from the COPIA center for wine and food education. Much smaller than San Francisco's food-centric Ferry Building but placed near the starting point of many popular Napa adventures, this foodie acre (about two-thirds the size of a football field) is a point of convergence for locals and tourists and a one-stop reminder that this wine country does more than make wine.

What: The Oxbow Public Market opened in 2007, just in time to suffer from a national recession, the closure of COPIA (since rethought and reopened by the Culinary Institute of America) and construction-related disruptions of local traffic. Now those troubles are in the rear-view mirror, and a stroll around the marketplace introduces you to plenty of wine products but also duck tacos (at C Casa); American comfort food (Gott's Roadside); local seafood (Hog Island Oyster Co.); and assorted local fruits and vegetables (Hudson Greens & Goods).  

On my early November visit, Hudson was showing off a 1,033-pound pumpkin. There were also plenty of signs thanking the first-responders for their work fighting that region's wildfires in October. (Though many homes and about two dozen wineries were lost or damaged in those fires, the vast majority of the area's 500 wineries had reopened by Nov. 8.)

State parks interpreter Casey Dexter-Lee in the Immigration Station museum on Angel Island.
State parks interpreter Casey Dexter-Lee in the Immigration Station museum on Angel Island. (Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times)

Why: It's a handsome, green island in San Francisco Bay, popular with sailors, cyclists and hikers, just south of high-toned Tiburon. And from 1910 through 1940, it was something like a western Ellis Island, processing about half a million immigrants, including most of the 175,000 Chinese immigrants who arrived during those years. But those were not happy years.

What: While immigration agents at Ellis Island were admitting most European arrivals within a few hours, the objective on Angel Island was "to exclude new arrivals." Especially the Chinese, who were routinely held for weeks or months in crowded, dirty conditions. Historians say most eventually gained admission by claiming family connections to U.S. citizens -- but only after lengthy interrogations and often denials and later appeals. 

The old Immigration Station barracks, a mile's hike from Angel Island's main dock, joined the state park system in 1963 and was bolstered by a restoration and upgrade in 2009. If you arrive during the 20-22 hours per week that the Immigration Station is open, rangers can point you to the poetry etched (in Chinese characters) on the wooden barracks walls by immigrants as they waited in dire conditions, sleeping three deep on bunk beds. More than 120 poems were carved into the walls.

  • Family-friendly
  • L.A. County
(Los Angeles Times)

Why: Newcomb’s Ranch belongs in any roadhouse hall of fame. It's a rough-hewn old place dating to 1939 that has survived rock slides, arson fires and snows that reached to the roof. That it still exists is a bit of a miracle. That this mountain hangout is only an hour or so from downtown L.A. is also a dash of good fortune. It might be the quickest way to feel a million miles away.

What: On weekends, Newcomb’s Ranch is more than a restaurant/bar, it’s a showroom of L.A.’s best and most dazzling motorcycles. Most of the action takes place in the parking lot, where the owners of the heavy metal — bikes and sports cars — line up their trophies. The vibe is casual and family-friendly.

Inside, you’ll find a restaurant that is better that it has to be, given the lack of any competition on this remote, wiggly highway in the Angeles National Forest.

(Los Angeles Times)
  • S.F. Bay Area
The House Cappuccino at Tosca Cafe
The House Cappuccino at Tosca Cafe (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Why: In an Italian American neighborhood full of dim, old bars and moody Italian cafes, this might be the most stylish of them all. If you're a cocktail person, order the House Cappuccino, watch the barkeeper make it in the gleaming silver espresso machine up front, and prepare for a pleasant little jolt.

What: That warm jolt is bourbon, Armagnac, chocolate ganache and assorted secret ingredients. Like the atmosphere in deep, dark Tosca, the House Cappuccino goes back some decades. The place opened in 1919. My bartender told me the house used to quietly spike drinks for North Beach regulars during Prohibition, when Tosca had to pretend it was just a cafe.

(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

In any event, this space has changed and it hasn't. New owners brought in celebrated chef April Bloomfield — and built her new a new kitchen — in 2013 and reintroduced Tosca to the world as a place for great food to match its noir charm. The floor is still checkerboard. The juke box still includes Sam Cooke, Dolly Parton, Nina Simone, Frank Sinatra and the "Anvil Chorus" from "Il Trovatore.") On the menu is wild Italian arugula, grilled polenta and Berkshire pork chops. 

(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Telegraph Avenue might not be tidy. And the sign that says "Drug Free Zone" is not especially convincing. But this neighborhood next to the UC Berkeley campus is knee-deep in revolutionary memories and recycled pop culture riches — especially used books and old records.

What: You could start by browsing Moe's, the bookshop at 2476 Telegraph Ave. founded in 1959 by the late Moe Moskowitz and his wife, Barbara. It's got new, used and rare books on four levels — the rarest are locked up on the top level.

Then move down a few doors to the new and used books and music at the Mad Monk Center for Anachronistic Media at 2454 Telegraph. ("No digital media!" proclaims its website.)