Is Napa Hitting Restaurant Overload?

Are we finally hitting the max-out for destination restaurants in Napa? Or even Wine Country?

Ninebark Restaurant has opened in Napa. Photo: Ninebark
Ninebark Restaurant has opened in Napa. Photo: Ninebark

Is downtown Napa hitting restaurant overload?

This week two high-profile restaurants have closed in downtown Napa, Atlas Social and Ninebark. Both opened in 2015, with much fanfare and high-profile backers, but with a seeming flood of upscale eateries opening almost weekly in the small-but-exploding downtown area, could this be the first sign of the restaurant bubble popping in Napa? Or Wine Country in general?

Ninebark in Napa (PD file)
Ninebark in Napa is a conde nast reader favorite for 2016 (PD file)

Atlas Social, a project of restaurateur Michael Gyetvan, seemed a sure win after the successes of Azzurro Pizzeria and Enoteca and Norman Rose Tavern. It wasn’t.

Basically, it’s become a challenge just to decide where to eat, and with so many high-dollar entrants into the game, where to spend your money — even when money is no object.

Also closed, at least temporarily, is Ninebark, which opened in the fall of 2015 with celebrated New York chef Matthew Lightner. Publicists announced June 29 that the restaurant will be doing a “necessary but temporary closure” without any further details — leading to plenty of head scratching, since the company that owns it, AVROKO Hospitality closed another restaurant in the same spot (starting as Fagiani’s, then pivoting to The Thomas) less than two years after opening.

A quick survey of Napa County’s restaurant inspections from 2009 to 2016 does show a steady increase in the number of eateries in the county (though it includes everything from gas stations to Michelin-starred spots), with an ongoing drop throughout the county and the city of Napa in 2015. If the trend continues, it could truly signal a change. Since it’s hard to quantify (350 reported restaurant inspections in 2009 to a peak of 474 in 2014 and a decline to 466 in 2015 and 325 so far in 2016), I can only say that anecdotally, it’s not hard to feel the land-grab for attention from new restaurants hitting its zenith. And a drop off looming ahead.

Ninebark Restaurant has opened in Napa. Photo: Ninebark
Ninebark Restaurant has opened in Napa. Photo: Ninebark

With that zenith, is increasing competition for attention by critics and eaters. Most recently, Curtis de Fede’s Miminashi, Ca’Momi Osteria and Two Birds/One Stone have taken on plenty of limelight, along with the further afield openings of Charlie Palmer’s Harvest Table (St. Helena), the continued Michelin hubbub around the Restaurant at Meadowood. Meanwhile, established heavy-hitters like La Toque, French Laundry, Press, Michael Chiarello’s Bottega, Bouchon, Mustards, Zuzu, Auberge du Soliel and Oentori have become destinations, and relative newcomers like Torc, 1313 Main, Evangeline and Sam’s Social Club remain on the radar.

Basically, it’s become a challenge just to decide where to eat, and with so many high-dollar entrants into the game, where to spend your money — even when money is no object.

Not surprisingly, we’re hearing much of the same in Healdsburg, where the restaurant scene is also hitting capacity, with several more restaurants on the horizon, and lots of recent openings spreading out the attention rather than focusing it on any one restaurant.

Atlas Social Club Restaurant in Napa opened in January 2015
Atlas Social Club Restaurant in Napa opened in January 2015

Like any city, there’s a natural turnover, and not everyone will survive, but with more newcomers on the horizon, including a new steakhouse by Charlie Palmer at the forthcoming Archer Hotel in Napa, the CIA/Copia Restaurant and Michael Chiarello’s new food project in Yountville, competition is slated to get even tougher.

What’s your take? Survival of the fittest? Bubble bursting? Or just a fluke. Sound off.

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13 thoughts on “Is Napa Hitting Restaurant Overload?

  1. I am never one to say there are too many great places to eat and many of the higher end restaurants continue to thrive. Atlas Social had a great vibe but after three visits, determined the food and the bad service were not worth my time. NineBark I knew from the start would not last…. First of all, to walk away from the Faggiani story… What a travesty…
    Second, to have high end food and wine and nothing left for the locals. The corkage fees were $45 (if memory serves) and like the prior commentators, agree restaurant planners need to realize the locals will keep their establishment alive. Even to make it approachable for locals (no corkage or meal specials on certain week nights) can pay off, since not only will we dine there, but since a large % support hospitality in some way, we will also recommend he experience to valley visitors as well. I am a foodie, and can honestly say never approached NineBark. I think there is plenty of room for more restaurants… They just need to be the right ones.

  2. I recall a comment in the Register not long ago ” Napa has plenty of affordable housing-it’s called Fairfield”.
    Just wait ’till the new Archer Hotel opens up with a TON of $12-$15 and hour jobs….

    It is a running joke (although Perhpas not that funny) that those that work in the hospitality biz here cannot afford the wines we pour, or to dine at the restuarants we work at. Always amazed at how so many wineries ask their tasting room staff to sell a bottle of wine for the same $ as about three or four days worth of groceries….what does the Cornell School of Hspitality say about that phenomena?

    All that said, the people that are investing in all the hotel expansion (like Archer, like the new place in St Helena, like the Stanly Lane project, like the place that will go up next to Copia/CIA) have done their research and are confident that the wealthy will continue to be wealthy and will want to come to Napa. Hopefully some of that will trickle down to the rest of us….

  3. I think everyone above has hit the nail on the head. The marker is way oversaturated with overpriced restaurants that the locals can’t afford. Napa has basically become a place for just the 1% and there isn’t enough 1%ers coming here to support these restaurants. Even tourist who aren’t 1%er that come here all always trying to find a “cheap” way to do Napa, and trust me, visiting these restaurants aren’t on their agenda. Not to mention the whole Napa experience has become much worse as prices have climbed higher. $30 tasting fees and $75 tour fees at the winéries. $500 hotel rooms, dinner for 2 will set you back nearly $200. Then you have to deal with terrible traffic and crowded tasting rooms, why pay all that money to come here for that? And not being able to find qualified employees is a complaint echoed throughout the valley. People that work at these places can’t afford to live in Napa anymore so they have to commute in, and I don’t know anyone who would be in a good mood after sitting in an hour + of traffic to get to work. Basically you have 3 kinds of locals in Napa, the rich who can afford to eat at these places, the poor who live 8 people in a 2 bedroom apartment or are on some sort of other government assistance and can’t afford these places, and somewhat of a middle class that just make enough to get by every month and maybe could visit one of these places once a month for a special occasion. There just isn’t enough local support, and you need local support in an isolated farm community like Napa. You can’t charge $15 for a cocktail and $20 for a burger and expect locals to flock to your restaurant. The other bad thing is rents are sky high for these places downtown and that’s why these restaurants have to charge these prices, and now that the owners of these places have realized they can charge these rents and get away with it then they will never go back to cheaper rents so maybe a place that would appeal to both tourist and locals can be opened. I expect many more closing come winter time. I expect Basalt to go out of business as well as the new Corner spot near Morimotto, the Pear will probably close. I think Napkins would’ve closed awhile ago if it wasn’t for their “club” night life keeping them open because their food is terrible. The scary thing is any hiccup in the economy will lead to a lot more closures. Napa as a whole use to be a fun spot, wine is supposed to be enjoyed and fun, now its just pretentious and everyone has to say they have the best grapes and the best plot of land and the best wine, its kind of hard to listen to some of these people and not want to gag. Napa was cool 20 years ago, now its just a spot for people to go to showoff how much money they have, how else do you explain spending $250 on a bottle of Cabernet when you can find just as good if not better for less than $50, its all about being able to brag that you can spend $250. Like I said though, there’s not enough of those people coming here to support all the overpriced restaurants

  4. Napa is not Las Vegas. There is no plane pulling up every 15 minuted with another 300 tourists onboard that will fill every seat of every restaurant. There is a huge disconnect in the fact that the locals either are the haves or the have nots. The average hourly worker cannot afford to live here let alone eat here if all you have is celebrity chef driven formats. The labor pool is fixed too. It is a small AG-centric community. If the product is not good it is known fast. SF or NYC reviews hold no value here. You need to friend the locals to be successful. Come January when the streets are empty its hard to sell $70 plates. City Winery learned this real fast. Streets roll up at 8pm; locals dine and get to bed early. There are crops to deal with and wineries to run. It is (thank God) still very much a small town and we are grateful for those who serve quality food with consistency.

  5. I commute to downtown Napa from Santa Rosa everyday. Affordable eating for workers has disappeared and most of my coworkers who lived in Napa their whole lives have confirmed it as well. Downtown is just a tourist trap now.

  6. I agree with the above comment. There also is a problem with finding servers that are sophisticated enough. Understanding and being able to do the steps of service , wine suggestions it’s just not happening. The guests are international and the help is regional.

    1. The other side of that coin in terms of “sophistication”… are we all pretending that Napa is an extension of some European city?? Or is it just a small ag town in the U.S. with real, low income people who make up MOST of the population..???

  7. Any one who cooks around here for a living, can tell you that talented cooks are VERY few and far between. There are simply too many restaurants for the available amount of workers.

    the fakers will slowly fade away, those who showed up here with a fantastic resume from far off lands will soon realize that we ARENT SAN FRANCISCO, NY, or CHICAGO. Simply put, we are still an agricultural region at the tip of the bay area. we dont have the population to maintain the seemingly endless stream of big money restauranteurs coming in here and expecting to make a million bucks quick.

    Napa sold its soul decades ago. healdsburg only recently. i pray for the rest of us.

    1. Great point. I’m hearing this over and over and over again that there aren’t enough trained staff.

      I do agree that “big names” come here from outside the region, and more often than not think they’re going to teach us “rubes” about fine dining. This is too small of a community, and it’s also too dependent on seasonal tourism not to be very ingratiating to the locals. The out of towners almost never last, unless they become part of the community.

      1. I think one of the main problems with available “trained” staff, has a little bit to do with our current housing situation as well. Line cooks are (unfortunately) traditionally single males. The days of a $600-$800 studio apartment around here are long gone, and restaurants really cant pay someone who works 40-50 hours a week enough to make ends meet, it seems like quite the conundrum. I cant wait until minimum wage goes up to 15. few people realize the effect this is going to have on small, locally owned restaurants. Fine dining as we know it will become an entirely different beast, the service side of things taking the biggest hit. IMO

        We as a whole will prevail though, folks from around these parts tend to support each other, and the big fish that make an effort to become part of the community tend to flourish as well. I, for one, am excited to see the sonoma county food scene scale it back a bit. we need not pretend we are anything but ourselves. That’s what makes it so great up here.

        1. These are some of the best comments I’ve seen here regarding the issues of the North Bay food scene. As a born and raised Petaluma dude that cooks and cares about making the people that live and work here happy with food on the plate, local as possible, reasonably priced etc etc, It is a problem to solve. In this very expensive place to live how do you get great talent (for making the food that has the service to match) buy amazing local products and afford to live here? Whew but it is possible…

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