Thursday, April 17, 2014

Four Haunts Napa Valley Locals Probably Don’t Want You to Know About

Napa Valley put the United States on the wine map of the world decades ago. The instant Chateau Montelena’s chardonnay won the fabled Judgement of Paris in 1976 the wine world went nuts (as soon as it got over its collective gasp of shock, dismay, and — for some — horror). 

Each year millions of visitors from all over the globe descend on the valley appearing like clouds of locusts, decimating every winery tasting room in their path. The insatiable thirst for wine, wine, and more wine drives people to throw massive amounts of cash over the counters as if they’re possessed by demons and they largely stick to the beaten path during weekend trips. But for valley locals, both workers in the trade and simple civilians, there are a few favorite places to escape the hordes because, sometimes, you just need a beer. 

Pancha’s of Yountville

The hamlet of Yountville boasts some of the most venerable haute cuisine in the U.S. It’s famous for several of Thomas Keller’s shingles (it still takes months to land a reservation at French Laundry) and all the classiness and pretense that go along with high-end food and wine. But when Keller’s staff, front and back of house, want to get away from all that class and pretense, they head to Pancha’s. Be warned: it’s a dive bar. And not the trendy sort of hipster dive one might find in San Francisco or L.A. Pancha’s is a smoking-allowed-your-feet-will-stick-to-the-floor dive. The owner is infamously prickly (on a good day). Don’t ask to charge your phone or complain about the jukebox. But if you’re looking to escape the overpriced tastings and all that class too, it’s the place. 

Trancas Steakhouse

There’s Napa Valley and then there’s Napa town. Trancas Steakhouse, in the town of Napa, is where the townies go for serious meat. They may actually have the “World’s best prime rib, according to Norm” (Norman Sawicki, the owner) but I had the filet mignon so I wouldn’t know. What I do know is that the place has a warm, casual atmosphere run by people who seem to really care that you’re there. The walls are covered in photos of customers and family and the food is quite good. Even in the middle of a Saturday night rush Norm makes the rounds to say hello. He welcomed me back mistaking me for someone else though it was my first time and when he realized he was wrong, he bought the first round for me and my friend. I love townies.


If there’s wine anywhere behind the bar at Billco’s, I didn’t see it. I was too dazzled by the 60 bright, shiny taps lining the wall behind the bartender. In the very heart of old Napa town is the come-as-you-are pool hall slinging so many microbrews and imports that it’s slightly paralyzing. But the barkeeps know that look and will help with your decision-making, so tear in. It’s the kind of place where a few visitors skinny up to the bar between the latino farm workers who harvest their favorite wines, and the winemakers and cellar managers who are so sick of wine they can’t look at it for one more hour. That doesn’t mean they aren’t all still connoisseurs, though. These people appreciate a well-made brew as much as well-made vino. Just don’t get the tasting room worker next to you started about the ubiquitous, tipsy bridesmaids’ parties that infest the valley.

Napa Valley Biscuits

While the bridal parties are sleeping it off, the locals are grabbing breakfast — at breakfast time. Owned and operated by local couple Tara and Curtis Lindley, NVB is a southern comfort-food diner in a place known for culinary experimentation. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone and an East Texas boy, Lindley does his share of experimenting, but it’s with traditional southern structure. I gobbled up the obligatory chicken and waffles, but there’s more deep(er) south on the menu. Like the collard greens with turnips and apples. The staff is swift and sweet and that Curtis ain’t too hard on the eyes back there, still working the line. 

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

BOLTBUS: Lightning on Wheels?

Not quite, but the pricing is right, if the sparse schedule is not. 

Photo: Leonard Wilson (c)
The lightning bolt slicing through the ‘O’ of BOLTBUS' branded logo may be an overzealous association with the reality of the service, but the prices are still better than its direct West Coast competitor, megabus.

I caught wind a while back of a Groupon for the Greyhound-owned and operated bus service. Since there’s no way I can pass up a $20 roundtrip ticket I slurped one up and used it to head to Napa from Los Angeles. 

Although the service has existed in the Northeast United States since 2008, it began serving the West Coast — including Vancouver, BC — in 2012 and California last year. Its sole point of departure (as well as megabus' service) from Los Angeles is Union Station, and hopefully the newness of the L.A. service accounts for there being no directions or signage at the station though emailed information told me the general area from which to board. 

At the designated curb in front of the large transit hub — not the bus bays where Amtrak, megabus, and other Greyhound coaches depart —  a cheerful, friendly company attendant greeted and checked me and my reserved seat off her list. Given the early departure, 8 a.m., I was charmed at the earnest, smiling girl who offered a passing transient cans of soup between checking in passengers. I can get behind a company who hires such compassionate people. The one sign indicating the boarding area materialized when the bus arrived. The attendant pulled it out of the luggage storage area of the coach and put it in place on the sidewalk. 

BOLTBUS is clearly Greyhound’s attempt to revamp its long-ailing reputation as a people mover for the poor at a very slow pace. It doesn’t widely advertise the association between the brands, promoting BOLTBUS as an equally hip alternative to megabus. The problem is with the schedule. While megabus has six runs between Los Angeles and San Francisco starting at 6:30 in the morning and ending with an overnight 11:30 trip, BOLTBUS has just three: 8 a.m., 12 p.m., and 2:45 p.m.

The service shoots between most of its destinations with minimal stops, which is its major selling point over traditional Greyhound routes. In my case, though, the bus stopped in San Jose and downtown San Francisco before terminating in Oakland. It took about eight hours compared to roughly six if I had driven to Oakland, or an hour and twenty minutes if I had flown. But it was $20, compared to the $204 that Southwest Airlines would have cost. The bus was brand new and immaculately clean. The seats were assigned, though the passengers were allowed to seat ourselves where we chose because it was half empty — everyone had two seats to him or herself. Good for the grumpy and unfriendly like me, but bad for business. 

As for the price, the $20 Groupon was about half the full ticket fare. Though BOLTBUS boasts $1 tickets (one-way), I had to search through seven or eight days in the online schedule to find one. Full-price tickets range from about $18 to $40 each way. megabus fares top out at about $50 each way. Although I wouldn’t have been able to do this kind of online research while I was on the bus. There is WiFi, but for me it took several tries to connect and failed frequently. On the trip home, the electrical outlet at my seat didn’t work. The last thing that I had to get used to was the absence of a sink in the lavatory — there’s hand sanitizer instead, which, when I think of it is an inspired decision given how untidy and wet a moving toilet can be. 

It’s certainly not fast as lightning, and I’m not sure I’d pay $80 for an eight-hour trip if I could get a commuter flight for less than $200, but there is value in BOLTBUS if you’ve got the time. Hopefully, the company has the time to build the ridership and business it will take to put more options on the schedule. If not, BOLTBUS may be as fleeting as lightning.