Six weeks after devastating fires swept through Northern California’s wine country, the Charlie Palmer Steak house opened in Napa as the first major outlet within the nearly completed 183-room Archer Hotel. Since then it has quickly grown into a hub for locals and tourists alike, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner and also providing a place to gather, unwind and commune.
Launching a restaurant is never an easy endeavor, but given the added complexity of natural disasters (construction of the Archer has been delayed by earthquakes, floods and fires) and shifting consumer trends, what you need is someone at the helm who has the experience, good sense, creativity and a strong work ethic to navigate in what are challenging seas.
Charlie Palmer might be the hardest-working chef in America. And unlike many “celebrity chefs,” even with a dozen restaurants around the country that he visits on a rotating basis, he finds time to sit as a board member for the Citymeals-on-Wheels charity and the Culinary Institute of America. He often appears as a guest on NBC’s “Today” show, has authored six cookbooks, and is a husband for 25 years and father to four grown children.
“At our restaurants, I think it’s important to be involved and available, but mostly as a mentor and guide — when you’ve hired really good people it’s important to let them know that we are all working for the same thing,” Palmer said. “Occasionally someone will say that they work for me, but that’s not exactly right. They are working for themselves, the customers, the team, and when they understand that, things can work out well for everyone.”
I have known Palmer since first meeting him at his Michelin-starred restaurant, Aureole, in New York. He started the restaurant in 1988 before he was 30 and quickly gained the attention of reviewers and the public for his dishes that often featured regional American ingredients served in creative and colorful patterns on large white plates.
By the end of the 1990s, he had been featured as one of the chefs on the PBS series “Cooking With Master Chefs: Hosted by Julia Child,” named New York’s Best Chef by the James Beard Foundation, and started the expansion of his culinary empire that now includes a dozen restaurants in locations such as New York, Las Vegas, Reno, Washington, D.C., Healdsburg and now Napa. He has also had and sold restaurants and hotels in other locations, including Los Angeles, St. Helena and San Francisco.
Beyond the quality and consistency of his cuisine, probably the most mind-boggling aspect of Palmer is that he remains a calm presence at all of his restaurants. And when I say presence, I mean present. In a period of little more than a single week, I’ve seen him working the kitchens in New York, Las Vegas and Healdsburg. Then after he returned to his home and vineyard in Sonoma County I bumped into him at a Cardinal Newman High School event where all his sons and my daughter attended. He always has the same easygoing smile, and he’s never glued to a cellphone or buried head-down in some report, but instead talking and cajoling with those around him.
The newest iteration of Charlie Palmer Steak is now here in Napa (there are five throughout the country) and is what Palmer calls “ a modern steakhouse.”
“Many people now want freedom when they eat — not forced into a composed dish, but instead able to pick and choose from ingredients that are of the highest quality but minimally garnished,” Palmer said. “For dinner they might just want a protein (beef, chicken or fish) prepared simply, served with a side of vegetables with a great bottle of wine. It’s a way of dining that we feel is a perfect match for the Napa Valley.”
Although Palmer is often working at his various restaurants, each location has its own talented team, and many of those people have worked at other Palmer locations. Executive chef Jeffery Russell is no different — he transferred to Napa straight from the DC Charlie Palmer Steak restaurant in Washington, D.C., where he was also executive chef. Russell worked his way through the Charlie Palmer network, including time at the New York Aureole.
“I’ve been with Charlie for over 10 years,” Russell said. “He’s taught me a lot, and one of the biggest things is that during that entire time he has never once yelled at me. He’s taught me how to manage a team, consider the business, maintain the highest quality while attempting to exceed our customers’ expectations day in and day out.”
The 4,000-square-foot restaurant seats 120 and spreads into the hotel lobby with a 48-seat lounge and 12-seat circular bar, plus a patio dining area.
The dinner menu has a variety of hot and cold appetizers, ranging from $11 to $24, and the main menu features items such as salmon ($33), ricotta agnolotti ($25) or Mary’s roasted chicken ($29).
But this restaurant and menu are really built for carnivores who appreciate the finest cuts of beef. A few offerings include locally sourced ingredients such as the 5 Dot Coulotte (otherwise known as a sirloin strip) for $33. Other options come from farther afield, like the highly regarded A5 Wagyu steak that is imported from Japan, 4 ounces of which go for $100, or the Mishima American flat iron from Seattle, Washington, ($50) or the Snake River Farms strip from Boise, Idaho ($74).
If these were not enough to get your Paleo soul singing, couples can order the sharable porterhouse ($125) or bone-on tomahawk steak ($130), which somehow reminded me of watching “The Flintstones.”
To augment what are hearty, meaty plates, diners can choose from six sauces, and if that were not enough there are easily a dozen sides that range from $10 to $15 and include classics like creamed spinach or a decadent truffle and bacon twice-baked potato.
Dessert, for those with the stamina, include classics like butterscotch bread putting with bourbon ice cream ($12) or “death by chocolate” cheesecake with blood orange sorbet ($12).
The wine list, created by food and beverage director Peter Triolo and Sommelier Brian Kulich, bucks the current trend toward smaller lists and instead brings diners back to a time when wine lists were more akin to small phonebooks. This one has nearly 400 different wines, most of which come from the Napa Valley.
“I believe that people come here to drink wines from Napa, and besides, we want to support our local vintners,” Palmer said. “Beyond our extensive list, for anyone who brings in a Napa Valley wine, we’ll waive the corkage.”
The full bar includes interesting cocktail offerings. My favorite is the Corpse Reviver No. 2 ($15) made with Hendricks gin and a blend of savory and sour components with a splash of carbonation. Other options include local beers, their own CP IPA ($7) and wines by the glass.
For those unwilling or unable to splurge on the normal dinner menu there are other less-expensive options. A $12 breakfast is offered every morning, and there is a daily happy hour in the bar from 4 to 7 p.m. that features discounted wine, beer and snacks from $4 to $7 (including lobster corn dogs).
If there is one person on the planet who can make a new steakhouse in the Napa Valley wildly successful, I’d put my money on Charlie Palmer. His experience and history will go a long way in helping to advance the cause of creating an environment where tourists and locals alike can feel both comfortable and satisfied in the semi-urban environment of the Archer Hotel. When the rooftop lounge and restaurant open in April, I expect the vibe only to increase.
But here are some hurdles that I believe Palmer and crew will face. First, the menu is solid and will attract a clientele who are successful and well-dressed. I am less sure it will attract those diners who frequent the Oxbow, for example, who might find the space and approach less inviting. If Napa were closer to the Bay Area, had more international traffic and the downtown were, say, 10 years more developed, the current approach might be enough.
Beyond these challenges, the hotel is still under construction and it, and the surrounding First Street area, will eventually have more than 45 retail shops, as well as a half-dozen new restaurants.
The vision, although possibly dated, is impressive — create a central hub for folks to come and enjoy a Napa Valley experience that centers on food, wine and shopping. But the problem is that the Napa downtown is not like other locations (Aspen, New York, Las Vegas) in that it’s not the destination but instead mostly functions as a distant entrance to the destination within.
Couple this with the fact that what has historically been the solid and lucrative retail model of the past has nearly vaporized in the last few years and what you have is a collection of pressures that will be difficult to overcome, no matter how good the food, the wine and the leadership.
My hope is that CP Steak Napa and the Archer find a way to become a destination in their own right, luring people from the surrounding environs to enjoy what is a beautiful and tasty expression of what some hope Napa might become.