Calistoga Restaurants Adapt to Covid

At this point in the pandemic, it’s redundant to point out that restaurants struggle with the constantly moving goal posts of the stay-at-home order. Employees have been furloughed or straight up let go, beloved area restaurants have closed permanently and those that are still holding on by their fingertips are literally surviving day to day.

While there is light on the horizon with a new, competent administration and a vaccine, local and national restaurants are getting pummeled. Yet for small, tourism-based cities like Calistoga, the punches are even more punishing.

Known for, amongst other things, soothing spas, art galleries, and the ever-popular Old Faithful Geyser, Calistoga has also carved out a niche with a small but diverse collection of wonderful restaurants. For a town with a population of less than 6,000, this is impressive. But with winter months already bringing less people to the Napa Valley, tourism and public-relations brain trusts had to come up with some ways to keep businesses humming.

Napa County’s main tourism bureau, Visit Napa Valley, had already delegated dates in January through February as “Restaurant Weeks,” each of which highlighted a Napa County–based city. But Elizabeth Davis Reynard, marketing and PR rep for the Calistoga Chamber of Commerce, decided to take this idea a step further this year and create a dedicated restaurant month just for Calistoga restaurants who are also Chamber members.

Speaking via email, Davis Reynard says, “the Calistoga Chamber created the program to help bring additional business to our restaurants. January is a slow month to begin with and the recent stay-home order adds to the challenges for the restaurants since they are only able to offer food to-go. Our restaurants are all small, locally owned and operated with no big corporations behind them to help during this challenging time. They need the community’s support as much as we can give it to them.”

Indeed, Calistoga is the rare American city with no corporate restaurants or storefronts, a modern-day accomplishment in and of itself. 

Davis Reynard says tourism is down nearly 50 percent in the last year, due to combined circumstances. Obviously, the pandemic affected numbers, but it should be remembered that nearly the entire city of Calistoga was evacuated during the Glass fire, too. While there was little to no damage structurally, the destruction to livelihoods was palpable.

Says Davis Reynard, “[the] All Seasons Bistro closed permanently earlier in 2020 following the spring shut-down, and Café Sarafornia has decided to close temporarily. Others have adjusted their hours of service, with some only offering limited take-out, like Thursday–Sunday, for instance. We also had some new restaurants scheduled to open that have experienced delays, such as Calistoga Motor Lodge, Dr. Wilkinson’s and a new Four Seasons property, all because of these shutdowns.”

Johnny’s Restaurant and Bar is highlighted on Friday, Jan. 22 during Restaurant Month. The establishment features family-style to-go meals, and owner Dan Kaiser says they’re including a bottle of their house “Kaiser Family Wine” with each order as part of their Restaurant Month special.

Of the challenges presented by 2020, Kaiser says, “the biggest challenge this year has been the same as everyone in Wine Country. Not only are we all dealing with the restrictions of Covid-19, we were also greatly hampered by fires during the small time we were allowed to be open. The inability to have people inside of our sports bar has caused business to drop about 85 percent.”  Kaiser says another compounding issue lies in the fact that “we are known for our Happy Hour and we can’t provide that service with the current restrictions.”

Like many restaurants nationwide, as part of their pivot to Covid-related takeout, Johnny’s has added a pop-up—called Amaro—within the restaurant. It specializes in Italian fare similar to the existing menu.

While Johnny’s has managed to stay afloat this year, Kaiser seems a bit skeptical when asked if he sees any hope on the horizon.

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” he says, when asked if he foresees a quick improvement for area businesses.

He adds, “the state and federal government really need to step up to the plate. At this point I do not feel safer in regard to our business. We are looking for any assistance possible to keep us afloat, as I’m sure every other business in our industry is. There just isn’t enough help out there when we are forced to be closed by our Governor.”

Sam’s Social Club in Calistoga will also be offering specials on Friday, Jan. 22.

The following Friday, Jan. 29, sees a completely different restaurant flavor profile featured, as the Lincoln Avenue Brewery steps into Calistoga’s Restaurant Month spotlight.

Owned by Damon Gault and Jennifer Sakai, the brewpub specializes in smoked pastrami and brisket that are, according to Gault, “to die for.” He also shows great pride in his burgers, which are made from brisket and short rib. Alongside the usual side orders, Lincoln Avenue Brewery offers specialties including deep-fried artichokes and arancini, as well as 25 beers on tap and growlers and pints to go.

While Lincoln Avenue Brewery has also been hit hard by the pandemic, Gault is somewhat more optimistic as he looks towards 2021, saying he believes “this spring and summer will bring the restaurants that survived back up to even.” He even adds, “probably by 2022, we’ll be back up to making a profit.”

Also sharing the Restaurant Month stage Friday, Jan, 28 is the venerable Calistoga mainstay, Palisades Eatery.

Even with so many choices in Calistoga, the vibrant hamlet may seem a bit too far away to drive to. Then again, what else does one have to do as we remain sheltered in place? Realizing travel might be an issue, Davis Reynard says to those unable to make the trip, “we encourage people to purchase gift certificates [online] for a future visit or [to] post a special memory or meal on social media, tagging the restaurant.”

Yet Gault points out, “Calistoga is only 10 miles from Santa Rosa, 22 minutes from there to here,” which really isn’t a stretch when one thinks about it.

Kaiser agrees adding, “I think Calistoga isn’t really as far as people make it out to be. We often venture to Napa and Santa Rosa to support other local businesses.”

He continues, “coming to Johnny’s, you will get great food, great drinks at a good value. You will also be supporting a small family business, which is much more appreciated by us than larger businesses. It is just my wife, myself and our Chef Taylor working right now, and we would love the ability to bring back staff. We just need the business to warrant it.”

Calistoga’s Restaurant Month continues through January, with new eateries coming aboard frequently. The city will also still take part in Visit Napa Valley’s Restaurant Week Feb. 8–13. For more information visit visitcalistoga.com/restaurantmonth.

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