No celebrity chef lends it prestige, no rosewood paneling covers its walls, and no $100 bottles of cabernet adorn its menu. But for a generation of those living in Napa rather than visiting it, China Light has been a restaurant to call their own: unpretentious but belonging to them rather than the tourists.
Sitting at Formica tables in a smallish, red-carpeted cube on First Street, townspeople have dug into sturdy Mandarin Chinese dishes, and some diners have gradually found not only family-style food but slowly budding friendships with the husband and wife who opened the restaurant 23 years ago.
But the eatery’s easygoing routine is slated to finally end as China Light shuts its doors after Saturday’s dinner service — a casualty and, perhaps, an unwitting symbol of a new downtown Napa marked by wine tasting rooms and haute cuisine.
The closing — prompted by rent increases by the building’s owner — may not be the restaurant’s final chapter, as its husband-and-wife owners Tony and Shirley Yu are searching for another Napa location for their eatery. Still, China Light will become the third local business to depart the building at First and Main streets since Michael Holcomb purchased it for $1.9 million in late 2011.
On Tuesday, among those lunching at China Light for possibly the final time were a Napa couple who have eaten there since shortly after it opened in March 1990 — and who remembered encountering the restaurant in a much different downtown.
“We were dying for an ethnic restaurant in Napa,” Mary Beth Reyes recalled after finishing her meal of twice-cooked pork. “Twenty-three years ago, there was nothing.”
“We were walking downtown and stumbled upon this place, and it was, ‘Oh my God!’ said her husband Raymond Reyes, who had made the 10-mile drive from his job at a Yountville winery to lunch with his wife.
“It’s a heartbreak,” Mary Beth said. “For us, it’s like losing our home cooking. We like the other places downtown, but there’s nothing like this.”
Already on view to the left of the Chinese restaurant is another glimpse of the building’s — and district’s — shinier, tourist-facing present and future.
A sign indicating an alcohol license application hung in the storefront next door, marking the site of the tasting room to be opened in June by Vermeil Wines, one of four scheduled to open this year to bring the number of downtown tasting rooms to two dozen.
The First Street outlet, whose winery is owned by former NFL and college football coach Dick Vermeil, is replacing the Baker Street Downtown tobacco shop, whose owner, Brenda Roberts, closed last month after what she said was a quadrupling of her rent.
Another neighbor at the Holcomb-owned building, The Eye Works optometry shop, also moved out in September, with a Starbucks cafe taking its place across the street from the Napa Valley Coffee Roasting Co.
Set below a sign whose red letters have faded to a soft pink with age, the Yus’ restaurant is clearly a breed apart from its newer downtown neighbors. But even with only days left before turning off the stoves, Tony Yu expressed no apparent bitterness, saying he expected changes as soon as Holcomb purchased the building.
“He had a much bigger plan, and I knew the rents were not suitable for us,” said the 53-year-old Yu, who left a job at a Santa Clara computer firm to open China Light.
In a letter to the Napa Valley Register last week, the Yus announced they are receiving help from Holcomb in their search for a new location for China Light.
A call to Holcomb on Wednesday was not immediately returned.
On Tuesday, Tony Yu said he and his wife “may be getting close to final steps” but added it was too soon to say when or where the restaurant might reopen.
After more than two decades not only serving meals but getting to know customers and their hometown, Yu appeared ready to head back into the restaurant game as quickly as possible — as much to renew ties to longtime customers in his adopted home.
“If there’s one single word, it would be friendships,” he said. “(People like) the Reyeses, we treat them like family members, so now we have a bigger family. We hope we have another chance to start the business and meet our customers again.
“We didn’t want to go anywhere else; we wanted to stay here (in Napa) as long as possible,” he said. “I promised (customers) we’d be back as soon as possible, some way, somehow.”