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where to eat in napa valley

In spite of its French moniker, Bistro Don Giovanni (4110 St. Helena Hwy., Napa; 707/224-3300; dinner for two $45) sets a spread that is pure Italian, meaning the vegetable of choice is garlicky broccoli rabe, the pesto ravioli is house-made, and dinner can be as simple as pizza with fennel sausage (from a wood-fired oven, of course) and a glass of Barbera d'Asti at the bar.

It's worth rising early so you can squeeze in breakfast at your hotel, plus: cornmeal pancakes at the Yountville Diner (6476 Washington St., Yountville; 707/944-2626);a morning bun from Napa Valley Coffee Roasting Co. (1400 Oak Ave., St. Helena; 707/963-1183); and a cranberry-orange buttermilk scone from the Model Bakery (1357 Main St., St. Helena; 707/963-8192).

At the French Laundry (6640 Washington St., Yountville; 707/944-2380; dinner for two $150), the problem for diners who'll try anything once is that 1+1+1+1+1+1+1 spells R-I-C-H. Though the portions are reasonable in Chef Thomas Keller's tasting-menu dishes, the ingredients are the likes of foie gras, caviar, and wild mushrooms. The strategy: Fast all day before dinner, pace yourself during the meal (take advantage of the thoughtful selection of half-bottles on the wine list), and if you edge near the precipice of complete overindulgence, borrow the clothespin that came with your napkin and apply to lips. Choose from a five-or seven-course tasting or vegetarian menu and reserve a table well ahead, in the garden if possible.

Could it be that 20 years have gone by since Domaine Chandon (1 California Dr., Yountville; 707/944-2892; lunch for two $60), the area's only full-scale winery restaurant, threw open its French doors?Chef Philippe Jeanty hooks diners with seafood in particular-- tuna pepper steak topped by a leek tumbleweed, grilled salmon wrapped in pancetta, sea scallops with sweet-pea sauce. Try a different glass of sparkling wine with every course. And if you want to dine under a market umbrella on the terrace, surrounded by vineyards and towering oaks, reserve for lunch.

Locals stream into Gordon's Café & Wine Bar (6770 Washington St., Yountville; 707/944-8246; lunch for two $20) for cinnamon buns at breakfast, and niçoise or roasted tomato tarts at lunch. But they pile up on the front porch on Friday nights, the only time the café serves dinner, a wildly popular $30 prix fixe menu. No reservations are taken, but house-cured Italian olives and local wine, available by the glass or splash, help while away the wait.

The parking lot is always full at Mustards Grill (7399 St. Helena Hwy., Yountville; 707/944-2424; dinner for two $50), where the food has never wandered far from home cooking. Out of the smoker come duck and ribs; off the grill jump hanger steak and center-cut pork chops marinated overnight and rubbed with hoisin sauce. Garlic mashed potatoes are so popular they're whipped up all day long.

Brix (7377 St. Helena Hwy., Yountville; 707/944-2749; lunch for two $40) is especially fun at lunchtime, when you can watch the cooks pluck herbs, lettuces, and root vegetables from the raised beds while you sit back, relax, and chomp on a seafood cigar-- finely ground shrimp, salmon, mahimahi, and ono combined with minced vegetables in a lumpia wrapper. Having trained most recently with Hawaiian star Roy Yamaguchi, chef Tod Michael Kawachi brings a welcome Pacific Rim influence to wine country.

A call ahead to the Oakville Grocery (7856 St. Helena Hwy., Oakville; 707/944-8802), Napa Valley's best outpost for unconventional picnic fare, reserves a box lunch. Better yet, customize your basket by sampling from the charcuterie and bakery departments. The hummus with chipotle peppers, inspired by Oaxacan deli manager Angel Perez, is a must, as are crackling orange-ginger cookies for the road. Starting this month, Sonoma County gets to share in the bounty when a new Oakville Grocery, with outdoor seating, opens on the plaza in Healdsburg (124 Matheson St.; 707/433-3200).

The smell of steak cooking over a hardwood fire at the Rutherford Grill (1180 Rutherford Rd., Rutherford; 707/963-1792; lunch for two $25) lassos hungry drivers. Inside, they find red booths and dim lighting reminiscent of old Hollywood grills and one of the tastiest bargains in the valley, an $8.50 chicken dip sandwich, served with a heap of coleslaw or wild rice salad. Kids' portions of tender rotisserie chicken or leg of lamb are $6.75; a bone for your dog, free of charge.

With Pinot Blanc (641 Main St., St. Helena; 707/963-6191, dinner for two $60), chef-owner Joachim Splichal brings his bistro empire north from Los Angeles. Tinted windows and a dining room that seats 170 hardly evoke a French country restaurant, but rabbit loin and roasted foie gras do. Other specialties of a chef known in the business as Mr. Potato: lasagna and a "layer cake," both made of spuds.

If there's one place to go with a gang of friends, Ristorante Tra Vigne (1050 Charter Oak Ave., St. Helena; 707/963-4444; dinner for two $60) is it. Order a plate of pesci fritti (calamari coated in arborio rice flour, fried, and tossed with mustard-seed vinaigrette). Or when the restaurant is too mobbed, head for the tasting bar at Cantinetta Tra Vigne in the courtyard, and work your way through the house flavored oils and vinegars.

Kids and grown-ups alike love Tomatina (1016 Main St., St. Helena; 707/967-9999; lunch for two $20) for its straightforward menu of pizzas and pastas, free drink refills, fast service, and long wooden tables that encourage family-style dining. Look for the big red tomato out front.

At Terra(1345 Railroad Ave., St. Helena; 707/963-8931; dinner for two $90), chef Hiro Sone, formerly of L.A.'s Spago, is a pilot who delights in an unexpected itinerary. You may touch down in Europe (panzanella with feta cheese) and Asia (sake-marinated sea bass) before circling back to the States (angel food cake with strawberries and lemon custard cream). It all adds up to a memorable meal, without a lot of fuss.

Like the students enrolled in the Culinary Institute upstairs, diners at the Wine Spectator restaurant (Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, 2555 Main St., St. Helena; 707/967-1100; dinner for two $55) delight in taking their t-buds on tour, a task made easy by the menu's extensive list of cold and hot tastings. The best thing about the fried-to-a-crisp fresh anchovies and the gigante beans in a tomato ragoût?Not having to slave over a hot stove, like the students upstairs, to enjoy them.

From under the wine country blanket of Mediterranean fare comes Catahoula Restaurant & Saloon (Mount View Hotel, 1457 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga; 707/942-2275; dinner for two $50), a Louisianan wake-up holler. Surrounded by two-dimensional Catahoula hound dogs, diners wash down Bienville oyster cakes and spicy barbecue shrimp-- chef Jan Birnbaum's nod to mentor Paul Prudhomme-- with Sazeracs, the house cocktail. The only way to drink this mix of Old Overholt whiskey, Herbsaint (an aromatic spirit), bitters, and sugar?Straight up in a martini glass.

On a balmy evening in Calistoga, the place to be is at a table under the grape arbor at Wappo Bar & Bistro (1226B Washington St., Calistoga; 707/942-4712; dinner for two $40), ordering something exotic. Try the seared Chilean sea bass with mint chutney and lentil crêpes, or the hornado, pork braised in chilies and beer. If you still have room, the caramel ice cream sandwich topped with caramelized bananas will take care of it.


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