My never-ending quest for some of the Napa Valley’s best dive bars, overlooked delicious food destinations and forgotten old-school haunts leads me this month to Trancas Steakhouse, the Lounge at Napa Bowl, and The Runway at the airport. If you live here, you either know these places or should be annoyed at yourself that you haven’t checked out any of these places yet. If you are a visitor, try and drop by at least one of these off-the-beaten-path joints during your stay. You will be glad you did. I think. Welcome to the fleshy pink underbelly of the Napa Valley.
Let’s start with the Runway “by Patrick” at the Napa Airport. Locals will remember this place as the iconic steakhouse called Jonesy’s, where you could rip into big Flintstones-style slabs of steak, drink icy martinis and watch the private jets roll in from a cozy booth. The room is the same, although brighter and less seedy, with a wonderful new menu. I was happy to see the smiling and effervescent Mohammed tending bar, a Vallejo resident who was quick with a perfect recommendation of beef sliders and blue cheese on the happy hour menu at $5. He even slid me a glass of “home brew” beer on special for just two bucks to accompany my side of spicy hot wings. Killer happy hour choices, and they even kept local fave “Jonesy’s Special Potatoes” with grilled onions and cheddar cheese on the menu. Check it out some weekday afternoon when you want to turn off the iphone and go off the grid.
As I’m writing this, I’m enjoying a delicious glass of $3 red wine in the lounge at the legendary Napa Bowl. The folks at the bar are discussing the merits of White Zin and exactly how to drink it. This is perfect. You’ve got three options for slipping into the lounge, and I suggest the right side door at the front entrance. According to the older fellow with the disturbing cough huddled against the wall, the current bar rose up from downstairs 54 years ago. I’m guessing it hasn’t changed much. Flanked by rock walls along the back bar and painted white wood siding enclosing eight leather booths and two pool tables, this definitely has the feel of a Tarantino movie. You won’t know anyone here. If you’re hungry, there’s a grill within the bowling alley that serves decent burgers and chili cheese fries, jalapeno poppers, nachos, pizza, and turkey sandwiches. Currently I’m enjoying a bag of Funions with my red wine. Cash only.
It’s not that I’m craving a big steak for lunch normally, but I recently had a late afternoon lunch with friends at the Trancas Steakhouse! The sign outside proclaims “World’s Best Prime Rib,” and I wouldn’t necessarily dispute that from my experience. We had the pleasure of meeting Debbie, who it turns out has worked at every incarnation of this restaurant, from Pappy’s to the Tucker Bed to Pietro’s, and now for eleven years running at the Steakhouse. We were lucky, because her quick sense of humor and insider knowledge of what to eat and drink made this one of the most fun lunches I can remember. She recommended that we start with the addictive spinach and artichoke dip with chips and sour cream ($9.95), and we all shared the blue cheese wedge salad with bacon ($9.50). Yum! Of course you can order the famous prime rib; however, for lunch, or even at the bar, you can’t go wrong with the French Dip, piled high with thinly sliced hot prime rib on a bodacious sweet roll with fries ($14.95). Get in here soon, have a few cocktails, and see if you recognize any of the smiling locals framed in color 8×10’s hanging on every wall.
Finally, our congratulations go out to La Toque chef Ken Frank for allowing Californians the freedom to eat whatever we want and for becoming the national spokesperson for abolishing ridiculous legislation. Foie if you want to.