This post on San Francisco and the Napa Valley has been long overdue; it was typed up and ready to be published over a year ago, but the arrival of our girl in the interim meant that scrolling through the 1000+ photos from our trip seemed like an unachievable task. But upon hearing that some of our friends will be visiting this beautiful part of the west coast of the US in the coming weeks, I thought it was time to hit the “publish” button.
Having been a long-time fan of Thomas Keller and his establishments in New York and Las Vegas, this trip turned out to be a mini pilgrimage to Yountville, with the highlight of the trip being dinner at The French Laundry (see my review below). This also gave us the opportunity to spend a few days in Sonoma and the Napa Valley, one of the most beautiful wine regions I have ever visited. Located just over an hour’s drive from San Francisco, it is an area rich in gastronomy which any food lover would relish.
But our time in San Francisco was just as memorable, mostly owing to the mild temperatures, the friendly locals, the great café and restaurant culture, and the beautiful local sights. I would travel again to San Francisco in a heartbeat.
Have you travelled to San Francisco and/or the Napa Valley region? What are your favourite places to eat and visit?
600 Guerrero Street San Francisco, California 94110
A great place to visit for a quick breakfast or a light lunch, especially since this bakery is famous for its breads and pastries. We arrived fairly early in the morning and found ourselves starting the day with their popular Morning Bun and a hot coffee, followed by their generously sized hot-pressed sandwiches for an early lunch. The bakery is always busy but the atmosphere is calm and friendly. We enjoyed the food so much that we couldn’t resist leaving without buying a Banana Cream Tart to take home to our hosts (it was delightfully sinful and delicious), as well as a few packets of their Chocolate Chip Cookies and Oatmeal Current Cookies to bring back as gifts for our friends. Except we ended up eating the biscuits ourselves and I have been thankful to have already had the Tartine cookbook in my collection to recreate the same biscuits at home.
? Baby-changing facilities are available in the bathroom.
352 Grant Avenue, San Francisco California 94108
This French-inspired café sits at the entrance to San Francisco’s famous Chinatown precinct and serves great French fare for breakfast, lunch and dinner. What caught our interest, though, was its extensive offering of local and international newspapers and magazines, making it the perfect place to read the latest news over a good cup of coffee.
? The café is large enough to accommodate prams and strollers, but there are no baby-changing facilities on site.
160 Jefferson St. San Francisco, California 94133
We spent a few days in the Fisherman’s Wharf area and found ourselves staying at an expensive hotel which had neither a bar fridge, nor a kettle, making it difficult for us to have milk on hand for our 2-year old toddler. Thankfully, there was a Boudin Bakery around the corner which happily made steamed milk for our little boy, and we happily indulged in the baked treats they had on offer. I particularly loved their Morning Buns; made from croissant dough and generously sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar, they were the perfect accompaniment to a large milky coffee.
When in America, you have to seek out a good diner. We came across Lori’s Diner at Ghiradelli Square and enjoyed their typical diner fare, as well as their 50’s decor.
? It’s a great place to bring your kids, although there are no baby-changing facilities on site. However, there are public restrooms nearby with a changing table.
Having attempted some of the cakes from the Miette cookbook, such as the Tomboy Cake, I was eager to visit the shop itself to try some of their delicious offerings in person. The cakes were stunning to view in person, although it would have been an impossible task to try them all. We settled for a large box of cupcakes to enjoy with our friends at home, all of which were polished off to the last crumb with much murmuring approval. It’s also a great place to pick up packaged edible gifts to take home, such as a good selection of cookies, lollies and chocolates.
4048 Sonoma Hwy, Napa, California 94559
If the name of this café doesn’t catch your eye when driving past on the highway, their sign announcing freshly-made donuts certainly will. Their hot cinnamon donuts are made all day on the premises and are the perfect accompaniment to a large cup of coffee first thing in the morning. They were so good that I dreamt of these donuts during our entire stay in California! The Boon Fly Café has a varied brunch menu which is both generous in proportion and delicious, and the chicken and waffles from their lunch menu is a must-try.
? The café is happy to accommodate children and there are high-chairs available, but there are no baby-changing facilities in the bathrooms.
6476 Washington Street, Yountville, California 94599
Ad Hoc is one of Thomas Keller’s casual eateries and the food is served family style, i.e. on large platters to share with everyone at the table. That said, we didn’t see any other family at the restaurant and felt a bit guilty for dragging our jet-lagged 2-year old son to dinner that evening, who struggled to stay awake during the meal, despite the loud music blaring through the speakers. The restaurant’s atmosphere was similar to that of a bar, and the crowd was young and yuppy. However, the food was delicious.
? Despite the absence of other families during our visit, I would describe the restaurant as family-friendly. High chairs are available for small children, but there are no baby-changing facilities on site.
6476 Washington Street, Yountville, California 94599
Addendum is a little restaurant tucked away in the garden behind Ad Hoc, and is only open for boxed take-away lunches from Thursday to Saturday. On offer are their popular Buttermilk Fried Chicken, BBQ Ribs or Pulled-Pork Sandwiches, each accompanied with two sides of your choice. Having tried Thomas Keller’s recipe for his famous buttermilk fried chicken from the Ad Hoc cookbook, I couldn’t wait to eat the real thing. As delicious as it was, the BBQ Ribs and Pulled-Pork Sandwiches won the day. The meat was deliciously sweet and tender and we couldn’t stop licking our fingers. The chocolate-chip cookies were pretty fantastic too. Orders should be placed online to guarantee your choice of dish, but you can also place your order on-site.
? If you plan to eat in the garden, there is plenty of space for the kids to roam around, and they might even enjoy exploring the vegetable patches. There are no baby-changing facilities on site, but the restrooms are quite roomy if you are ok with changing your child in the stroller or on the floor.
6534 Washington Street, Yountville, California 94599
Our first introduction to Thomas Keller’s French cuisine was at Bouchon in Las Vegas, where the food was so wonderful that even my French husband was won over. The Yountville branch of this French bistro is just as charming, although we had mixed feelings about our experience this time around. My husband’s braised beef cheeks were excellent, but my duck confit was neither meltingly tender nor bronzed with crispy skin. My summer parfait for dessert lacked any wow factor, but my husband’s potted cheesecake with apple compote and shortbread biscuits were to die for (although he didn’t think so and, therefore, allowed me to polish off his serve). If you are wanting to try French cuisine, Bouchon is a great establishment to visit. But if you are already familiar with French food, try to keep an open mind.
? High chairs are available, which indicates that small children sometimes dine at this fine establishment. However, the service we received suggested that small children are perhaps better left at home with a babysitter. We were certainly the only family there with a child on the night we attended.
6528 Washington Street, Yountville, California 94599
Long queues can often be seen outside this popular bakery in Yountville, where mostly tourists are gathering to try the exquisite breads and pastries on offer inside. If good quality croissants, éclairs, macarons, etc., are hard to come by where you live, a visit to Bouchon Bakery will delight your tastebuds. But for those who are visiting from Europe, you might want to skip the more traditional French offerings (which I found a bit underwhelmning) and try instead the more American baked goods, such as the famous chocolate bouchons (small brownie-like cakes), chocolate-dipped peanut butter biscuits with salted caramel filling, apple pie croissants, cream cheese danishes, or monkey bread. Their packets of shortbread biscuits make great gifts if you can manage to bring them home uncrushed.
6640 Washington Street, Yountville, California 94599
If you are lucky enough to secure a reservation at The French Laundry, and are able to afford your dinner there (prices for a set tasting menu start around USD 310 per person, not including drinks), then this is an experience of a lifetime. The Michelin Guide recently awarded Thomas Keller their highest rating of three stars for six years in a row, an accolade which you realise is more than deserving from the first bite of their signature salmon canapé to their exquisite handmade pralines at the end of the meal. And just when you think you can’t squeeze in anymore food after the delightful procession of eight courses, your appetite is rekindled when presented with a bowl of hot mini cinnamon donuts with an accompanying cappucino semifreddo.
You will typically be presented with two tasting menus to choose from, one of them being fully vegetarian. The kitchen is able to accommodate any dietary needs, which probably makes the meal a bit more interesting as the chefs have to create a completely new dish on the fly. At the time, my friend and I were pregnant, and so we could not eat any raw food or dishes containing alcohol. Furthermore, my pregnant friend had an aversion to cheese. The kitchen effortlessly accommodated our requirements, and the sommelier even had a special bottle of non-alcoholic grape juice which we could enjoy with our meals.
The tasting menus have several options for each course, although some options come with a hefty additional supplement for that particular course. For example, our menu featured a risotto with browned butter and shaved white truffles from Alba for an additional USD 175. Once you add wine to each course, the cost of your meal is likely to double, and you can then start to see why it is a once-in-a-lifetime meal for many. At our table, the cost of dinner ranged from USD 350 to USD 800 per person, not including tips. As it is a rare opportunity to dine at The French Laundry, you should try to ignore the prices and order the dish which appeals to you most on the menu, but make sure you have enough funds on your credit card!
Currently, rseservations can only be made 1 month in advance but, even then, there are usually no openings. Calls must be made to the restaurant directly to place your name on a waiting list and you will be notified in due course when an opening will be available, often occurring when another party has cancelled their booking. For us, it was pure luck that a table became available during our visit to San Francisco. We have heard of many people who have taken vacation at short notice just to fly across continents when a table became available for them.
? This is obviously not a place for children. Book a babysitter and you will be thankful.
TIPS FOR MAKING A RESERVATION AT THE FRENCH LAUNDRY
* Check OpenTable to see if you can make a reservation online. Currently, reservations can only be made 1 month in advance, although it was previously 2 months in advance.
* Check the website to see what time you can call the restaurant to make a reservation (usually from 5.30 pm local time in California), and keep dialling until you get through. The line is generally always busy as many people are trying to call at the same time as you are.
* Once your call is answered, you are likely to be notified that everything is booked out, but that you can be placed on a waiting list for your selected date or dates.
* For obvious reasons, the dinner session on Fridays and Saturdays tend to be the most popular time slots. You might have more luck on any other weeknight, and perhaps even at the 5.30pm or 9.00pm time slots. Keep in mind that it will take at least 3 hours to complete all of the courses.
* As soon as you are placed on a waiting list, you should book your accommodation, especially if you are travelling from out of town. A good meal usually involves good wine, so unless you have a designated driver, I would recommend booking one of the nearby hotels, preferably in Yountville itself so you can be within walking distance of the restaurant. There is not a lot of accommodation available in Yountville (unless you can afford the luxury hotels which start around USD 700 per night), and my feeling is that a lot of rooms tend to be booked out by other French Laundry guests. Most importantly, make sure that your accommodation can be cancelled without incurring any fees in the event that you do not secure a reservation at the restaurant.
* If you are not a local, it is generally quite difficult to secure a reservation at The French Laundry unless you can travel at short notice or you are flexible with your travel times. We booked our flights to San Francisco some months ahead, and then tried to make a reservation as soon as we could. What worked in our favour was being flexible with our dates; we were willing to travel to Yountville at any time during our two week stay in San Francisco (about a one hour drive). The French Laundry was fully booked during these two weeks, but they placed us on a waiting list for this period, and we were lucky to have secured a table during this time (most likely due to a cancellation by another party).