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.
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.