Charlie Palmer’s decades in the kitchen have earned him fans (and restaurants) from New York to San Francisco, as well as a few James Beard Awards. But more recently he’s traded his chef’s toque for the title of hotelier, bridging the food and lodging worlds with the culinary-minded Hotel Healdsburg in Sonoma and the Mystic Hotel in San Francisco.
Now, with the just-opened Harvest Inn in St. Helena, Napa Valley, he’s building a stronger bridge between these parts of the hospitality industry. The boutique property originally opened in 1975, but Palmer has transformed it into a modern resort with new guest rooms and culinary gardens, as well as a full restaurant and bar called Harvest Table. He talked to us about the new property—and how to stand out in Napa Valley.
What’s it like to be a chef and a hotelier—does one skill inform the other?
It’s all about hospitality in both restaurants and hotels. We’re here to ensure that our guests, whether diners or hotel guests, have a great experience. That’s the reason that I began focusing on hotels, because I wanted guests to have a seamless hospitality experience that starts with hotel check in, goes through to drinks and dinner, and ends with a night cap being brought to your room.
It also means that we’re constantly trying to improve and create unique experiences. For example, we made it so that guests don’t even have to get out of their car to check in—they’re met at the driveway by our greeters who check them in via an iPad, then are escorted by a trike to their room.
In a region that’s already packed with world-class restaurants and hotels, how do you make a new one stand out?
We wanted to create a destination for people to eat and enjoy themselves in one place. Here you can have lunch or brunch on the patio and look out over Harvest Inn’s eight acres of gardens just as easily as enjoying a glass of pinot on the front porch.
Your have five culinary gardens growing produce for the restaurant. Which came first: the garden or the menu?
Both. We created a list of everything that we could possibly plant that would grow well on our grounds. We found that the land is particularly great for citrus, herbs, lettuces, and vegetables. Then as we started working on the menu and testing dishes, we would go to Laura McNiff [the staff culinary gardener] and ask her if she could grow certain things on our grounds to round out the menu, like artichokes or garden beans. It really became a synergistic process.
There must be a lot of pressure when creating a wine list for a Napa restaurant. What goes into choosing which of your neighbors make the cut?
Initially, we wanted to do an all-Napa Valley wine list. But as we started listening to community members and winemakers, we realized that we’d be better off doing something with our own twist.
Our director of operations, Steven Geddes, is a master sommelier and he created the idea of our “Blind Vine” wines, which are non-Napa Valley and international wines “blindly” denoted on our list—with only hints of what to expect, along with grape varietal and price point, mentioned.
Our team procures different and interesting selections intended to educate guests interested in blind tastings, as well as in drinking great wines from outside of the surrounding region. The program has been a huge success in our first weeks—we’re seeing tin foil-wrapped bottles all around the dining room every night.
What’s your all-time favorite destination?
I just got back from Fiji with my family, actually. We go every other year together. It’s really our favorite place to get away together as a family, and after opening six restaurants this year, it was just what the doctor ordered.
Visit T+L’s Napa Hotel Guide for more Napa Valley hotel inspiration.