Successful relationships between a restaurant and a celebrity patron usually don’t begin with the restaurant’s director of events calling the patron “the biggest crybaby in the NBA.”
But in the case of Goose & Gander and NBA superstar LeBron James, that frank assessment by Elizabeth Naylor really was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
James has been visiting the St. Helena restaurant since August 2015, bringing along friends, family, fellow NBA stars and, on one memorable day last December, the entire Cleveland Cavaliers team. He loves the restaurant so much that he asked the staff to fly to Los Angeles and cater his private All-Star Game party on the weekend of Feb. 17-18.
Even on just two weeks’ notice, Naylor was happy to oblige.
“He’s probably one of the kindest people I’ve ever met,” said Naylor. “He has the funniest sense of humor, he can rap like nobody’s business, and he is so kind to everybody when he comes here. There’s not a shred of arrogance about him.”
Naylor arranged for herself, Executive Chef Nic Jones and two executive bartenders to travel down south and “Goose-and-Ganderize” Beauty & Essex, a glitzy Hollywood restaurant and lounge that was hosting a smaller dinner for James earlier in the day.
Once that party was over, the Goose & Gander crew had just one hour to start a pop-up restaurant that would host a bigger all-night party. Naylor said it worked beautifully, thanks in part to the accommodating crew at Beauty & Essex.
“Here was an amazing bar and restaurant allowing another bar and restaurant to come in,” Naylor said. “They had no ego whatsoever.”
By the time the more than 100 guests started showing up, the Goose & Gander team was ready to serve up all of James’ favorites, including the burger, duck fat fries and the Pimm’s Cup, James’ cocktail of choice.
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The guest list included NBA players like Kevin Love, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green, and celebrities like Kevin Hart and Khloe Kardashian.
The party continued “into the wee hours,” Naylor said. The next day she was thrilled to get a text from James saying, “You killed it.”
The connection between James and Goose & Gander goes back to that memorable visit when he took his wife Savannah there to celebrate her birthday. Naylor remembers Savannah James being delighted by the unfiltered description of her husband’s attitude on the court. Naylor said she was quick to tell James that, while she wasn’t a fan of him or the Cavs, his “crybaby” tendencies were just a sign of his intense passion and love for the game.
Naylor said James’ reacted with characteristic good humor. His Instagram post about his visit to Goose & Gander (“What a wonderful place! Love it!”) received 212,000 likes. He has introduced the restaurant to fellow NBA stars like Chris Paul, J.R. Smith, and Kevin Love, whom Naylor calls “the nicest guy you’ll ever meet in the NBA.”
In late December, the restaurant shut down for the afternoon to accommodate a team-building lunch for the Cavaliers, which had a free day to burn during a road trip to Northern California to play the Golden State Warriors and the Sacramento Kings.
Like many Napa Valley restaurants, Goose & Gander values the privacy and anonymity of its guests, Naylor said – even if that requires Naylor to stand in the Goose & Gander bar for four hours to physically block would-be autograph- and selfie-seekers from bothering James and his companions. (She checked with him and got his consent before being interviewed for this article, but she declined to share any photos of James himself.)
And while Naylor has gotten to know what she calls “the many faces of LeBron,” whom she now considers a friend, her original opinion still stands.
“He’s still the biggest crybaby in the NBA,” Naylor said with a laugh. “But now I realize it’s just his true passion for the game. They’re playing tonight at 5 o’clock and I never miss them.”