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A downtown shopping center is gaining a second identity: as a place for Napa residents to enjoy summer evenings together.

The central courtyard of First Street Napa has become home to Locals Night Out: Mix, Mingle & More, a weekly festival where guests can mingle and socialize over glasses of Napa Valley wines, partake of small bites from Napa restaurants, and peruse the wares of Napa craftspeople.

Against a backdrop of spiffy hotel towers and wine tasting lounges, Locals Night Out, which debuted June 12 and will be held every Wednesday through July, is an occasion for some Napans to relax in their hometown among friends and acquaintances – and sometimes buy from them.

“We like to support local businesses, and we hope they can give us good value,” said Napa resident Sandi Collins early Wednesday evening as she sipped from a flute of chardonnay beneath a cork oak at the outdoor shopping plaza. “And there’s the happenstance that we’d run into friends!” she added with a laugh, pointing her wine glass at Eric and Nancy Sternberg, with whom she had struck up an amiable chat minutes before.

“This is good – it’s drawing people into an area that’s kind of hidden,” said Eric Sternberg. “It’s drawing people in: good food, good wine, a good (way) for the community to try to get people together.”

Townsfolk strolling down the brick-like central walkway of First Street Napa encountered a sampling of food, drink and handicrafts drawn from the valley – from the lamb meatballs served by the Compline restaurant facing the atrium to the wooden signs and tote bags offered by Stuck on Napa, bearing wine-laced paeans like “My Cab Is Waiting” or “Bucket List: 1. Rose, 2. Ice.”

The creator of those playful souvenirs, Shelley Mueller of Stuck on Napa, saw the early weeks of Locals Night Out as a promising start. “I think it’s fun; it would benefit from even more vendors so it would be even more of a party,” she said.

Mueller recalled the previous, much more expansive summertime event that drew weekly spectators downtown – the Chefs’ Market, which filled Napa streets with food vendors every Thursday for nearly two decades but was discontinued after 2013. “I felt like it was more of a festive party, closing the streets down,” she said.

The experience gained from the Chefs’ Market years informed the choices made in launching Locals Night Out, according to executive director Craig Smith of the Downtown Napa Association, which is organizing the new event along with various local merchants.

Rather than giving over central Napa’s major streets for pedestrians, Locals Night Out takes place within the courtyard of First Street Napa, which has slowly filled with restaurants and stores in the years since the developer Todd Zapolski began renovating the former Napa Town Center. But while keeping cars off streets no longer appeals to downtown business owners, he added, the need for a relaxed and local-friendly gathering has remained.

“It’s all local – the music, the wine, the beer, even the bartenders,” said Smith. “Also, we just wanted it to be fun.”

As the evening sun settled a bit lower, the crowds began to pick up around the central plaza, where bartenders from three Napa Valley eateries would show off their cocktail-crafting skills. Soon, dozens of people were queueing up for small samples of concoctions like Kali Olsen’s purple-hued Cheshire in the Garden, which the employee of La Toque had created out of ingredients including a good-size helping of lavender that left a pleasantly flowery scent over the evening street party.

Several yards down the courtyard, Jo Van Meensel hoped to see a few of the late-arriving visitors pass through the door of her boutique, Macbella, which opened at First Street Napa in December. The clothing store’s location farther away of the bustle of First Street has presented a challenge in promoting the business, she said – but the influx of hundreds more guests on Wednesday nights had helped spread word of Macbella among locals by word of mouth.

Soon enough, a woman broke off from the cocktail-contest crowd and entered the boutique. After a few minutes of amiable chitchat with the owner, the visitor was offered a 10 percent discount – a perk for being a Napan.

“Events like this help a lot,” said Van Meensel. “A lot of extra locals are coming and visiting us. It’s really good for the store – and the people are all in a good mood,” she added, laughing.

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City of Napa/Town of Yountville Reporter

Howard Yune covers the city of Napa and the town of Yountville. He has been a reporter and photographer for the Register since 2011, and previously wrote for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Anaheim Bulletin and Coos Bay (Oregon) World.