Jess Lander's Leftovers: The best burger in Napa Valley -- and more

Jess Lander's Leftovers: The best burger in Napa Valley -- and more

Jess Lander Headshot

Jess Lander 

Editor’s note: I concur with Jess’s admiration of Charter Oak’s burger, but think that Compline’s gives it good competition. Let us know your favorite burger in the valley, at — Sasha Paulsen

This is a tough thing for a food writer to admit, but I can be a creature of habit. If I absolutely fall in love with a specific dish at a restaurant, it’s unlikely I’ll order something different ever again. I’ve learned there’s nothing worse than taking a risk, trying something new and then it ends up not being nearly as delicious as your old favorite.

I have a lot of go-to dishes in Napa Valley: the lamb salad at Small World, steak frites at Bouchon, the crispy chicken sandwich at R+D Kitchen, French dip sandwich at the Rutherford Grill, Susie’s Remedy at Lovina in Calistoga, and my latest obsession, the burger at The Charter Oak.

I tell everyone about this burger. While there are a few others in the running (Goose & Gander, add the bone marrow) I truly believe it’s the best one in Napa Valley, which is surprising, because it’s not even fat and juicy. Instead, The Charter Oak burger consists of two large, but thin patties, so thin that you can’t even order it cooked a certain way. They cook it in the restaurant’s hearth, which you can watch from your seat, each patty is topped with melted cheese and it comes with most delicious jalapeño relish that isn’t spicy, just insanely flavorful.

If you haven’t tried it, I highly recommend you do so (Tip: at Happy Hour, it’s $5 off), but the other day, the bartender managed to steer me away from my usual. He was toting a dish that I would never order, or even give a second glance: the ham and cheese sandwich.

I’m a bacon girl all the way, but I’d much rather have turkey or lamb or pretty much any other kind of meat for Easter dinner than a ham.

Convincing me it was a menu sleeper, I reluctantly agreed to go for it, but only after my dining companion promised to order the burger so that we could split them both in half and share.

It was pretty good! The fondue cheese and pretzel bun made it. While I’d totally eat it again, I’ll still probably order my beloved burger on my next visit.

Still, it was a good reminder to try something new now and again, especially if the staff is recommending it.

A special occasion in Sonoma

People put some restaurants in the “special occasion” category. These are places that are at least a little fancy, consistently serve up a delicious and memorable meal, but are out of budget for an everyday dinner. The splurge is best saved for a birthday or anniversary celebration. In recent years, that restaurant for my family in Napa is Cordeiro’s Steakhouse. Every time we go, the meal is absolutely fantastic, but it’s not exactly easy on the wallet.

Recently, I was reminded of another great special occasion restaurant that I think few Napans know about. Located at the Vintners Resort in Santa Rosa (it’s right off Highway 101), John Ash & Co. is classic fine dining at, well, its finest. Think, white tablecloths, an intimate, romantic ambiance, and great service. It’s the kind of place that brings out a complimentary amuse-bouche from the chef just to make you feel special, but it’s not stuffy either.

On my visit, every table around us was celebrating a birthday (they actually have a Birthday Club that you can sign up for and get a free meal). You can choose from the four-course Chef’s Tasting Menu or order a la carte from the regular menu, which has plenty of delicacies that you don’t see every day, like Dungeness crab, veal sweetbreads, and bone marrow. One of my favorite dishes is the lamb trio, featuring a grilled chop, zin-braised boneless shank, and house-made sausage.

If you are celebrating something special with a partner, I recommend booking a room (request one of the new ones completed last year). You can then enjoy breakfast the next morning at their on-site cafe—double up with a crab omelet, perhaps—and even indulge in a treatment at their gorgeous new spa.

Have a favorite go-to dish or special occasion restaurant that I must try? Drop me an email.

Jess can be reached at For more Napa Valley food inspiration, follow her on Instagram at @willwrite4wine.

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