Charlie Palmer in Napa, Finally
Charlie Palmer celebrates a long-awaited expansion into Napa Valley.
Courtesy of The Charlie Palmer Group
With 14 bars and restaurants in seven cities across the country, three hotels, and appearances on television shows such as Top Chef, Charlie Palmer is a bona fide culinary star. Yet over the years, one market had perpetually eluded the Healdsburg resident: Napa Valley.
That all changed when Palmer bought the moribund Harvest Inn in St. Helena in January 2014, added a new restaurant there in May 2015, and recently unveiled plans for a Charlie Palmer Steak restaurant at the soon-to-open Archer Hotel Napa.
We talked to Palmer about his plans for the future and his favorite spots within walking distance of the new digs.
Q: It was big news when you bought the Harvest Inn. When did you start thinking it might work as a Charlie Palmer property?
A: I have had my eyes on Napa Valley for a while, and we worked on this deal for a long time. The place wasn’t really for sale; it wasn’t on the market or anything. My partner and I started talking to the former owner, and it took us a while to convince him that we should own it. He was kind of at a point where he was ready to step back a little bit, so it worked for everyone.
Q: What did you like most about the place?
A: I think it’s the greatest location of any hotel in Napa. It really is right in the heart of everything, within walking distance to all of St. Helena. I mean, the address is 1 Main Street. It doesn’t get any better than that. Add to this the fact that the hotel is eight acres of land surrounded by vineyard. It has redwoods. It has mature oak trees. And it’s right in the middle of Wine Country. You don’t see this kind of old-growth greenery very often. The location also makes it a great place to explore local wineries. Hall St. Helena is next door. Louis M. Martini Winery is across the street. Drive a mile in any direction, and you’re at some of the greatest wineries in the world. You can’t beat that.
Q: I’ve heard the style [at the Harvest Inn] described as old-school. How would you describe it, and how do you plan to change it over time?
A: Absolutely, it’s old-fashioned. I’d even call it sleepy. It’s got 78 rooms and a ton of potential. We’re transitioning the character into a more progressive-looking decor. We’ll renovate rooms. We’ll build new facilities—a new spa eventually, and new gardens have already been completed. We’ll expand the art program, which already has 26 pieces—and open it to the public. Definitely a mix of old and new, but still something totally unique.
Q: How does Harvest Table, the new restaurant at Harvest Inn, fit into your plans?
A: Harvest Inn never had a restaurant before. Adding the restaurant has changed the whole dynamic of the property. Prior to the restaurant, the only reason to come to the Harvest Inn was if you were a hotel guest. But now, locals are coming to the restaurant and the bar, entertaining, and having parties here—that’s what really makes the property dynamic. We have people flip out when they come in and see Mike Grgich at the next table. For people who love wine and travel here for the wine experience, to have that opportunity is amazing.
Q: What else will the restaurant bring to the property?
A: Catering will be a very big part of it, too. This is a great property for weddings and events. Who doesn’t want to get married in Wine Country? Who doesn’t want to have their 50th anniversary party in one of the most gorgeous places in the world?
Q: Your annual Pigs and Pinot event in Healdsburg is incredibly popular. Will you have a similar event in Napa as well?
A: Absolutely. Maybe not Pinot, though. When I think Napa, I think Cabernet.
Q: Can you tell us about the cocktail and beer programs at the restaurant?
A: They’re a huge part of what we’re trying to do—again, it’s all about creating this experience for locals and guests to intersect. We rolled out a cocktail program earlier this year, and people love it. Our beer program is growing. We have a small microbrewery, and it’s really neat that we can produce our own beer. We can only serve it here on the premises, so we’re excited about the exclusivity of that.
Q: For someone who cut his teeth in the restaurant business, what are the unique challenges of the hotel business?
A: The hardest part is understanding the intricacies of marketing hotel rooms as opposed to restaurants, which is not totally dissimilar but has a different nuance. It also comes down to services. Believe it or not, the number one thing guests desire pertains to Internet speed: They want it faster.
Q: Between Douglas Keane and Sang Yoon’s new yakitori restaurant (Two Birds/One Stone), and Chris Cosentino and Oliver Wharton’s new restaurant slated to open in October at Las Alcobas on the north side of town, what’s it like to be a chef in St. Helena right now?
A: It’s exciting. Over the last 10 years, Thomas [Keller] and the Yountville restaurants have dominated headlines in this valley. Now, that’s all changed, and I think there’s a new way of looking at things. St. Helena is hot; there’s no denying it. But I think that the more exciting things happening in an area are, the better it is for all of us.
Q: Let’s talk about the downtown Napa project. Why another Charlie Palmer Steak restaurant, and why in the Archer Hotel Napa?
A: Our downtown Napa project should open in the spring of 2017, and for us, the timing was spot-on. Downtown Napa is hot, and the way the city is transforming that area around the Archer Hotel Napa will make that entire downtown corridor spectacular. Add in the new CIA [Culinary Institute of America] facility in the old Copia building, by the Oxbow Public Market, and people will come to the valley just to visit [the city of] Napa.
Our hotel will be the tallest building in the city, and it will have a killer rooftop bar, which we’ll also operate. We’ve had success with rooftop venues in other cities.
The restaurant [on the ground floor] will be our fifth Charlie Palmer Steak. [There are others in New York, Las Vegas, Reno, and Washington, D.C.] It’s a great concept that people love, and the outdoor seating that opens up to a pedestrian walkway should be a really popular place for people to enjoy a meal.
Q: What are your favorite local spots that people staying at the Harvest Inn can explore?
A: One thing they should do is walk next door to Hall St. Helena. The experience there is almost sensory overload—great wine, incredible art, a mix of historic and modern buildings. I also love Prager Winery and Port Works, the port-makers here in town—if for no other reasons than because they make port and they are big cigar guys. Just a mile away near Farmstead (which is a great restaurant) is the Napa Valley Olive Oil Manufacturing Company, an
old-school, family-owned olive oil shop where they pour the oil right out of big tubs. Walking in there is like walking back in time. It’s been the same way for decades.
Q: Finally, what should folks who want to try Harvest Table order? What’s the signature dish?
A: As young as the restaurant is, we already have a couple of signature things. Our whole roasted truffle chicken has become kind of a cult dish. The beer is pretty special, too, since you can only get it here. We’ve brought the chocolate peanut butter bar dessert from Dry Creek Kitchen. Other than that, we’re still finding our signature items. That process takes time with a restaurant, even when you’ve done as many as I have. I just make sure we’re preparing quality food that’s changing with the seasons and progressing constantly. Whichever dishes people fall in love with, that’s up to them. charliepalmer.com.