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I never understood why people take pictures of the food they ordered at restaurants until I came to Napa. I’d been working in Napa for a few months when I decided to treat myself to lunch at a downtown restaurant. I walked in to a nearly empty restaurant and was seated in the lounge. I placed my order, and I waited.

And I waited. I glanced around the restaurant again to try and guess why my seemingly simple order was taking so long. But when the server placed the plate in front of me, I immediately understood. Dining in Napa is like going to an art show, but you get to eat the artwork.

I was delighted with the presentation, so I snapped a photo on my phone and shared it to my Facebook with the status: “New goal: Eat my way through Napa Valley.”

Napa is known for its high-end restaurants, so eating my way through Napa has been a goal I’ve had to approach cautiously. My bank account, and my waistline, simply won’t allow me to forge ahead as the culinary explorer I dream to be, but I knew I could speed things up during Napa Valley’s Restaurant Week.

During Restaurant Month in January, cities participate by hosting a week of dining specials. This year, 50 Napa County restaurants from American Canyon to Calistoga participated in Restaurant Week offering $20 lunches and/or $36 or $46 dinners, depending on the number of courses. This was my chance to eat like a queen, so I concocted a plan.

I pledged to dine at seven Napa restaurants that I’d never been to over the course of seven days. I even convinced my husband to come along with me.

And then I got the stomach flu.

Food had suddenly become the enemy. I could manage soggy cereal, ramen noodles and smoothies. Anything else made me sick. Three days into my illness, I attempted a cheeseburger. Bad idea. I began to fear my Restaurant Week dreams may have to wait until next year.

However, being the stubborn person I am, I was not going to let this opportunity pass me by. I had three days before Restaurant Week kickoff, and I was going to rebuild my strength. I began nibbling at different foods to see what I could handle and what I should avoid.

When Restaurant Week arrived, I decided to go all in: my husband and I were going to Bounty Hunter Wine Bar & Smokin’ BBQ for the barbecue platter special, which included soup or salad, a platter of brisket, pulled pork, ribs and coleslaw; and a dessert to end the night.

My husband and I used to inhale the sultry barbecue smells wafting from Bounty Hunter when we met up for lunch dates at the neighboring, now-closed, Burger-Fi. We’d always say we should check it out, but we never did. So when I told my husband we could get all this food for $36, we knew we had to go.

But, should a gal recovering from the stomach flu test her limits with barbecue? No, my doctor would later tell me, but it was too late. I’d already indulged. And it was worth it.

Eating at Bounty Hunter didn’t make me sick. It was the opposite. It reignited my appetite.

I will never order ribs at Applebee’s or any other family chain restaurant again. My meat-loving heart now belongs to Bounty Hunter.

I never thought I’d be so comfortable dining in a room with animal heads mounted to the wall, but the rustic charm of Bounty Hunter was enchanting. Whereas most restaurants in downtown Napa have a sleek, nearly sterile quality, Bounty Hunter felt like home. And the service was fantastic. The Bounty Hunter family made us feel like welcomed guests. Our server Tad took great care of us, but other staff members checked in with us throughout the meal to make sure we were having a good time.

And a good time was had. I took a scoop of everything from the platter and told myself I would take a bite of everything before deciding where to dig in. I never made it past the pulled pork, which is where I started. I gobbled it up in savory strips and let the flavors melt over my palate. As I savored every element of the experience, I noticed my husband was in a similar barbecue-induced trance.

By the time we got to dessert, I was nearly in tears. After a week of hardly eating anything, I was so overwhelmed with joy to be experiencing such a parade of flavors and textures. This meal was about to make me happy cry.

Why did it take us so long to come here?, we asked ourselves.

This became the theme of the week. Each day, we tried a place we’d never been and walked away more than satisfied. I discovered I love bread pudding after a visit to the Napa General Store (I’m still dreaming about it) and a visit to Ca’ Momi Osteria made me realize I’ve never had a proper calzone.

My husband and I now understand why people rave about the doughnuts at Boon Fly Café, and we were more than happy to offer feedback to the chef at Siena Restaurant at the The Meritage Resort and Spa regarding a new dessert he was testing out. And I’m stealing the corn flake-coated chicken breast idea from Napkins Bar & Grill. I doubt I can replicate their fried chicken sandwich at home. But even if could, I’d still go back to Napkins for their sandwich with the Creole mustard.

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But when I think about all the meals we enjoyed over the course of Restaurant Week, our lunch at Restaurant at CIA Copia stands out as the best for one simple fact: my husband ate salad.

My husband is a meat-and-potatoes man. That’s why I wanted to start our Restaurant Week adventure at Bounty Hunter. He’s not a big fan of vegetables, and he has no love for lettuce. The lunch at Copia didn’t come with a soup or salad option – just salad, so he figured he’d humor me and have a bite just for the sake of saying he tried.

“I’m in love with this salad,” I said.

“I like it, too,” he replied. I nearly dropped my fork. I was so distracted enjoying my own escarole salad with pecorino and walnut vinaigrette that I hadn’t realized he was actually eating his salad rather than picking at it.

Our server, Kent, was so helpful and walked us through the entire lunch menu. I was so thankful there was a Restaurant Week special or I would have had a tough time deciding what to order. The cacio e pepe, a bucatini pasta dish with black pepper and grana padana, was heavenly. I can’t remember a eating a meal when I couldn’t stop smiling. I treasured every bite, and the tiramisu dessert was the perfect way to end the meal. Tiramisu is my absolute favorite dessert, and since my husband doesn’t like coffee, I got to have most of his as well.

When the meal was over, my husband and I looked at each other, mystified by the entire experience. What a steal! Twenty bucks each for such a delightful meal. Any other day, the cacio e pepe is $16 alone.

As Kent placed the bill on our table and urged us to take our time, my husband gushed, “Pass our compliments to the chef! That was such a fantastic meal. Please thank her.”

As we walked through the Copia garden on our way to our car after the meal, my husband paused: “I don’t think I’ve said that before. ‘My compliments to the chef’, I mean. That’s something you only hear in movies.”

I took his arm and we kept walking. Maybe dining in Napa is like a movie. There’s a dreamlike quality, only it isn’t too good to be true.


Online Editor/Calendar Editor

Samie Hartley is the Napa Valley Register online editor. Her column Simple & Sassy runs on alternating Sundays.