On my way to Empire Napa recently, I was reminded of a peculiar smell from the spring of 2002.
I was a driver for the Bohemian and delivered the paper along the Napa Valley route. One stop was an old restaurant occupying a prime corner in town, the kind of place where county employees and local business folk meet for lunch hour, year in and year out. The carpets were faded, and a sad bouquet of grease clung to the air like tule fog.
I recently rounded that same corner to find a new restaurant, emblazoned with decorative torches, sleek and shiny inside. It teemed with excited young patrons who leaned in to fabulous conversations and pawed away at digital devices.
“Napa’s changed a lot in the last five years,” I was told as I sipped a sample of late ’60s Lafite. “It’s changed a lot in the last two years.” Visitors are younger, shinier, and they fill the streets as they flit from restaurant to bar. And not just wine bars. Cocktail bars. Dance clubs, like this place: “It’s like L.A.”
I recall, with a provincial cringe, the long-lost roster of Santa Rosa clubs hailed as the next “just like San Francisco” hotspot: the reverential walls of booze; the ubiquitous white kiddie sofas; the horror. Yet here I am, showing up with cat hair on my sweater. The only thing older than me in here is the Lafite, and that guy over there.
A hostess stood at an entrance backdropped with a painting of a smoke-shrouded city in ruins. “Go on in.” The dining room, part wine-country rustic, part dungeon, leads to the bar, and a bartender greeted me before I was halfway there. It was a quiet night at Empire.
Interior decor is by San Francisco designer Michael Brennan. He enjoys the gothic touch: there’s a sparkly black bar, black straws, black pencils with black erasers, and a black Slinky on the black bar. Exotic black ungulate horns grace the “library” room, which is furnished with red velvet booths, perfect for bachelorette parties. Leather “egg chairs” provide a throne for solitary types.
Initial reviews of Empire gushed over an overweening menu that has since been scrapped in favor of bar favorites like blue cheese sliders ($10) and mac-and-cheese ($8) with peas and bacon. Filet and frites ($24) was tempting, but the mac was just fine.
Signature cocktails include the Boulevardier ($13), a bourbon version of a Negroni served in a tumbler. It’s dry enough to let the spicy 12-year-old Elijah Craig shine through.
I visited Empire on “Sketch Wednesday.” There were crayons, pencils, an Etch-a-Sketch and the Slinky. Local artist Penelope painted an oil in the corner, some well-dressed ladies drifted in, and two younger guys sat at the bar, excitedly talking politics: “bifurcation” was tossed about. I am cool with this scene.
If you like a crowd, it’s here on Friday and Saturday. Even then, the bartender says the weekend scene features a more mature crowd than the nearest other scene—”You know, that one down the street,” she says.
I’ve never hit that place’s dance floor, but I’ll never forget the smell of the carpet.
Empire, 1400 First St., Napa. 707.254.8888. empirenapa.com.