My wife and I recently had lunch at Downtown Joe’s Brew Pub at Main and Second streets in downtown Napa.
While eating lunch, I was looking at the Napa River and its ongoing flood control project and Veterans Memorial Park, but I was also remembering the businesses that once occupied the site and those in the surrounding area.
When my family moved to Napa 73 years ago this week, Main and Second streets looked a bit different than it does today.
Second Street of today now ends at Main Street. Back then, it ran another 50 yards to the riverbank. There was a barricade at the end of the street but drivers would still occasionally ram through the barricade and end up in the river.
The building that now houses Downtown Joe’s was then home to the Oberon Bar and other businesses. Today’s Wells Fargo Bank across the street was then a branch of the Bank of America.
The southwest corner, now occupied by Napkins restaurant, was the A.H. Smith insurance office. I still remember that Smith had the logo “B4 U Burn C A.H. Smith” on the office window facing Main Street. Smith was the grandfather of John and Kent Imrie, local insurance brokers.
Western Union, aka the telegraph office, was on the fourth corner, now a corner of Veterans Park.
The Napa City Directory of 1947 lists the Oberon bar at 902 Main St. and the proprietor as L.W. Silvestri. One of the other tenants in the building was Kimball’s barber shop. When I was a teenager and young adult, Mr. Kimball was my barber.
Another tenant was an Italian gentleman who operated a very popular shoe shine stand outside the barber shop. I do not remember the man’s name but he and his family were neighbors of my grandparents in Westwood in the late 1940s.
Inside the front entrance of the Oberon, there was a newsstand that sold newspapers and magazines plus cigars, cigarettes and candy. As a teenager, I would drop in and pretend to look at comic books but was actually peeking at the latest edition of Sunshine and Health, a magazine for nudists. Teenagers do things like that.
Behind the newsstand, through a separate door, was a long bar where many businesspeople and professional people would drop in for a drink. Then, in the far rear was a card room that attracted the local poker players.
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I am not sure when the Oberon closed its doors for good but its closing left a very active corner site for a future business.
Enter Chuck Ankeny, a neighbor of mine on Oak Street and also the great-grandson of Adolf Hamms who founded Hamms Brewing Co. of Milwaukee, Wisconsin in the 19th century.
In 1986, Ankeny acquired the Oberon site, installed equipment to make beer, hired a brewmaster, installed a beer bar, hired a chef to prepare food and opened Napa’s first brewpub.
In 1993, Napans Joe Peatman Jr. and Joe Ruffino purchased the business and Downtown Joe’s became part of the local scene. Ruffino retired in 2004.
In the 12 years since the Joes acquired the business, there have been major changes to the surrounding area as well as the building.
The city eliminated the Second Street extension and allowed Downtown Joe’s to expand onto one-half of the former street with an outdoor patio dining area.
The Joes acquired a liquor license and, after occupying the former barber shop space and eliminating the shoe shine stand, they remodeled the interior, lengthened the bar, expanded the brewing facility and put in more outside dining along the side and to the rear of the building.
They now serve breakfast, lunch and dinner. It has become a popular place for locals and visitors. It was crowded for lunch on the weekday that we were there.
During lunch, I remembered standing at the Second Street barricade eons ago looking at what was a dirty, smelly, neglected river that flooded every few years and passed unnoticed behind all of the businesses along Main Street. The river was not something to be proud of.
Now, I am astounded that the cleaned-up and flood-proofed river has become the focus of downtown, and businesses like Downtown Joe’s are orienting themselves toward the river. What a change.
By the way, the lunch was tasty, the beer was good and the service was excellent.