In Russian, there is a lovely phrase k chayu (literally ‘to tea’ or ‘to go with tea’) that assigns a better half of the Russian cuisine as appropriate to be served with a cup of tea. ‘What do we have to tea today?’ is my favorite question, usually followed by a list of some of the following: cakes, cookies, pastries, jams, chocolates, pralines, marshmallows, waffles, sandwiches, pies (pierogi) or toasts with caviar. A good Russian host will have at least three options on any given day.
The Russian tea ritual has an almost metaphysical significance: Russians sit down for a cup of tea with sweets, pastries or sandwiches to exchange news, bond, start a relationship, close deals, discuss the meaning of life, calm down, or recharge.
With this tradition so close to my heart, I naturally had to try every single option that the city of Napa can offer. Luckily, Napa has enough places for a nice cup of tea and a tasty treat.
Sweetie Pies: a cosy place for sugar buffs
Sweetie Pies is hands down Napa’s cosiest cafe. It has a great location on the riverfront in the restored 1880’s Hatt building, and a delightfully old-fashioned interior with a vintage feed bagging machine and assorted chairs.
Sweetie Pies’ four-page menu is filled with pastries, pies, cookies, muffins, and cakes made in-house from good-quality ingredients. The only shortcoming, to may taste, is that most of the treats are destined for a highly trained sweet American palate. My most devastating defeat, considering my love for chocolate, came from a lovely-looking but intensely sweet and rich chocolate mousse cake covered with chocolate shavings. I just could not go past two spoonfuls.
When I’m craving something sweet and want the cosy atmosphere of Sweetie Pie, my solution is to order their pies, an apple pie in particular, in which the dough’s sweetness and richness is balanced by tarter apples. Or just share my dessert with a friend, sit back and enjoy a cup of tea and our time together.
Sweetie Pies is open 7 days a week. Sandwich cookies and assorted muffins – $3.50, cakes are from $6.50. Tea: a selection of Mighty Leaf tea pouches.
Oxbow Public Market: a gourmand’s bliss
Located in the middle of the always lively Oxbow Public Market, Ritual Coffee Roasters is utterly modern in appearance and taste. The San Francisco-based company specializes in coffee, as evident from its name (and they’re best in town, according to my coffee-loving husband), but has an equally serious approach to tea. No tea bags here: green, oolong, red, and herbal teas are made using Hario tea drippers and are served on cute tea trays. My current favorite from the 8-item tea menu is Winter Spout oolong tea with subtle, coating flavors of “caramelized ginger, kettle corn, and cotton candy”. Yes, the menu actually has tasting notes for the tea.
Ritual Coffee offers locally-made pastries from Butter Cream Bakery and Bouchon Bakery in Yountville, as well as cookies from Annie The Baker. Of the three, Annie’s wonderfully chubby and chewy cookies are probably the best choice (others can be tasted elsewhere). My favorites are coconut and macadamia nut, neither of which is excessively sweet. If you happen to be in Napa on a Tuesday or Saturday morning between May and October, you can actually walk across the road to the Farmers Market and buy cookies directly from smiley .
Kara’s Cupcakes is another great sweet choice. I personally can’t stay cool and elegant when biting a cupcake, without leaving half of the frosting on my face, so I mostly buy the cupcakes to take home. But elegance issues aside, Kara’s cupcakes are both pretty and tasty: fairly light, moist, fluffy, and naturally-tasting. My favorite flavors are carrot, chocolate with sea salt, and raspberry.
Oxbow Market is not a meditative place to sip a cup of tea for hours. It’s a fun place to watch people and get excited by buzz, energy and the smells of food.
Oxbow Public Market is open daily.
Ritual Coffee Roasters is open 7:30 am to 8 pm. Teas are $3-4.50.
Annie The Baker’s cookies are sold at Ritual Coffee Roasters and several other locations in the Napa Valley. You can also buy them directly from Annie at the Napa Farmers Market (check the calendar on their website) at $2 a piece, or $5 for three.
Kara’s Cupcakes is open 10 am – 9 pm Monday – Saturday, and until 8 pm on Sunday. Cupcakes are $3.50, small-sized ones – $2. This San Francisco-based company has several locations in the Bay Area, from Napa to Monterey.
ABC: local feel with a touch of humor
Alexis Baking Company and Cafe (ABC) is a place to go for a local feel. This cafe/bakery on the edge of the commercial downtown has served pastries and sandwiches since 1985, and the locals seem to never get tired of them: I’ve seen as long lines outside the door on a Tuesday morning as around Saturday brunch.
The cafe closes at 3 pm, so no ‘high tea’ is served here. Nor would one expect it either – this is an American neighborhood place with hearty food, generous portions, and an unpretentious approach (think wax table-cloths). There’re some humorous touches, too, such as bathroom signs, and the general atmosphere is jovial. There’s live music on the weekends.
Of the baked goods, I particularly enjoy moist and flavorful bran-prune-walnut muffins, and fresh apple cake. The sizeable pastries are expectedly quite rich, so I could share one and still have a solid breakfast or snack.
For hot tea, you’ll be given an old wooden box with various tea bags, and selecting one always feels like a game to me. There’re also several varieties of good fresh brewed ice tea.
ABC is open from 7 am (7:30 on Saturday) to 3 pm Monday – Saturday, and from 8 am until 2 pm on Sunday. Muffins – $2.25, apple cake – $2.75, hot tea – $2.
The Model Bakery: grab-n-go
The Model Bakery in Napa isn’t technically a place to sit down with a cup of tea: while there’re a few wooden tables outside, the bakery shares them with another establishment. Accordingly, tea and coffee are only available in paper mugs to go.
But the bakery makes lots of pastries, cakes, and cookies, as well as Napa’s best bread and English muffins. There might also be a 30 people-long line for breakfast sandwiches on the weekends.
My lifehack is to get to the bakery in the morning and see if there’re any yesterday’s pastries available. A pack of four will be selling at $3, and they’ll be practically as good as today’s, except perhaps for croissants (which aren’t impeccable anyway).
Model’s Morning Glory muffins with raisins, shredded carrots and apples are excellent, as are their danishes. And nothing beats the fresh bread smell and a view of bakers at work.
The Model Bakery is open Monday-Friday from 6:30 am to 6:30 pm; Saturday, 7 am – 7 pm; Sunday 7 am – 6:30 pm. There’s also a second location in St. Helena, which has a cafe seating. Muffins & scones – $2.75, other morning pastries – $2-4.50, tea (Mighty Leaf pouches in a paper mug) – $2.50.
Molinari Caffè: small town’s big-city coffee shop
Hidden at the back of the busy Main street and temporarily obscured by post-earthquake scaffolding on both sides, Molinari Caffè is modern, airy, and tranquil. Tall windows, local art on the walls, and young patrons armed with laptops, tablets and head-phones make the place feel more like a San Francisco coffee shop than a small-town cafe. It’s a perfect place for some alone time or a soft conversation.
While most of Molinari’s sweet things come from The Model and ABC bakeries, mama Molinari makes her own biscottis. “Finally”, I said to myself, dipping one in a cup of tea, “a biscotti without artificial flavoring”. The loose tea selection is surprisingly good for an Italian place but make sure to ask for a porcelain cup, otherwise it’ll be served in a paper mug. Coffee is good here too, according to my coffee-loving husband.
Molinari Caffè is open from 7 am until 5 pm on weekdays, 7 am to 3 pm on Saturdays and 7 am to 12 pm on Sundays. Teas – $2.70 – 3.25, biscotti – $1.00.
Napa Valley Coffee Roasting Company
An advantageous location on the corner of the First and Main Streets and a great coffee smell that spills out onto the street could make this place a coffee lover’s paradise. Maybe it is, but a tea drinker might go elsewhere: tea pouches from Mighty Leaf in a paper mug isn’t my idea of great tea. I’ve also tried hot cocoa, which was wonderfully fluffy – perhaps the fluffiest cocoa ever, but it left a floury aftertaste, making me want to reach out for a glass of water.
The owners could take some advice from an interior designer or a feng shui specialist. The boring wall paint is peeling, the tables are oddly placed either in direct sunlight or in barristas’ way, and the photos on the wall look faded. To me, this might be a quick stop for a caffeine boost, not a place to linger.
Napa Valley’s Coffee Roasting Company in Napa is open 7 days a week from 6:30 am to 7:00 pm. There’s a second location in St. Helena. Tea – $2.20, hot cocoa – $3.45 for medium size (12 oz). Pastries are from Sweetie Pie.
Butter Cream Bakery and Dining: an old-school establishment for nostalgic palates
If you work in a Napa office, chances are, in the matter of few weeks someone will bring Butter Cream donuts to work. This bakery and diner is one of Napa’s staples, having baked, fried and grilled since 1949. If you visit in the morning, the bakery part looks like a busy factory, churning out trays of white and pink glazed donuts, and packing orders in one pink box after another. It’s a mesmerizing view: after 15 minutes of just watching, my sugar craving is completely satisfied.
Perhaps, leaving at this point is my best choice, as I don’t quite understand the nostalgic American palate. To me, all Butter Cream’s donuts, turnovers, and danishes are far too rich and sweet, and muffins taste like they were made from baking mixes (including the famed champagne muffin). A lot of people must think differently, however: this is the only bakery where you need to take a number during busy hours.
Butter Cream Bakery is open 7 days a week from 5:30 am to 3:00 pm (2:30 pm on Sundays). Regular donuts – $0.85, fancy donuts – $0.99, muffins – $1.59, bag tea – $1.89.
Napa for Chocoholics