Dining in Calistoga: What's ahead

Back in July 2015, I wrote a story in The Weekly Calistogan titled “Calistoga: A cornucopia of dining options.” I believe it might be good to revisit some of that article and see where we stand. Below are a few of the highlights:

According to the Visit Calistoga website, there are nearly 30 eating establishments in Calistoga, including coffee and ice-cream shops. To put that in perspective, the population of Calistoga is roughly 5,200, which means that there is a restaurant for nearly every 175 people.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census data, San Francisco has the most restaurants of any large metro area in America, and their ratio is about one restaurant for every 500 people. Even limiting the count to official restaurants, of which there are currently 18, it would still mean that Calistoga beats San Francisco with one restaurant for every 288 people.

We are not just talking about run-of-the mill restaurants in Calistoga, which include some of the best restaurants in the Napa Valley — Jole, Sam’s Club, Calistoga Inn, Evangeline, Calistoga Kitchen and the Michelin Star-rated Solbar, to name just a few.

Beyond just having excellent food, the restaurants are often at the cutting edge of food trends, having for years offered locally grown farm-to-table fare, innovative vegetarian options and interesting ethnic flavor combinations.

But cutting edge is nothing new to Calistogans. From art to wellness, business to bohemian, Calistogans are often considered the more laid-back, creative and down-to-earth counterparts to our more southerly neighbors.

What does the future hold for Calistoga when it comes to food? Expect at least three new what my mom would call fancy restaurants to come into Calistoga in the next few years.

The New York design and hospitality firm AvroKO, which recently reopened the infamous Fagiani’s site -- now Ninebark -- in Napa, is opening a high-end restaurant next year in the old Sunburst Hotel.

"We are still working out all the details, but we plan on creating an environment where locals and visitors feel comfortable,” said hotel consultant Christian Strobel. “What I can say is that the restaurant will have an outdoor, higher-energy space, while inside there’ll be a bar and lounge area, and a third area will have a chef’s table and dining room.”

"Before we can nail down the final concept of the restaurant and menu we need to finalize our choice for the chef,” he said. “Whether it will be a more beer-pub style or something else will ultimately depend on what’s a good fit for the chef. We are sure that the concept will be a new slant on what is known as ‘farm to table,’ sourcing from local farmers.”

"Use permits for the Sunburst project have been approved, and we are now working through the building permits,” said Erik Lundquist, senior planner for Calistoga.

According to the submitted plans, the restaurant will hold up to 252 occupants, but according to Lundquist that is a number for standing room only. The restaurant will actually only seat 110 through the three different dining rooms.

Within the plans there is a small area for brewing beer, which is becoming common for many new restaurants as the license for brewing also allows less-expensive access to a license to serve spirits at the bar, which can be prohibitively expensive and difficult to obtain. And beer itself is also becoming more popular.

Add to this two luxury resorts — one that the Four Seasons hotel chain will manage in the old Silver Rose location and a second yet-to-be-built high-end resort that was recently purchased by one of Hong Kong’s wealthiest families, the Chengs.

This brings the number of restaurants in Calistoga to 21, or more than 30 eating establishments. In order to thrive, all of these fine restaurants will need innovation and a commitment to bringing quality and value to their customers.

They will also need labor. And this is becoming a growing concern for many. A friend who owns a Calistoga restaurant mentioned that labor is already so tight that he is searching for staff outside the valley, looking to Santa Rosa and Clearlake. Even doing that he is still unable to fill their rosters.

"Maybe we get buses to bring people in to work, like they do in Aspen, Colorado," he mused, looking more serious than the comment would have suggested.

Since that article ran, Calistoga has created and nearly launched an innovative bus system to help transport employees to and from Santa Rosa; the Four Season’s Silver Rose project is under construction; the Sunburst is now owned by Eagle Point Hotel Partners of New York, which has obtained use permits for a new restaurant and spa; and Jole has closed with Johnny’s restaurant and bar taking its place.

The estimates are that more than 500 new jobs will be created in Calistoga in the next few years. If so, these new residents will certainly be able to find a table to sit at, but finding a home where they might sleep and raise a family may be a different story.

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Originally published in the Napa Register, June 2016