To understand how Yountville is and isn't your typical small California town, visit its new Little League snack bar. Made of green cinder block, it looks like most Little League snack bars you've seen, until you peer inside and notice the array of high-end appliances, including a pizza oven.
"I played baseball in school for years," says Thomas Keller. "When the Little League needed help building a new snack bar, I said yes."
Thomas Keller is, of course, the best chef in America. As for Keller's adopted Napa Valley hometown, when producer Brad Lewis wanted to observe a top-end kitchen for his movie Ratatouille, Yountville is where he came ― specifically Keller's French Laundry. The day I arrive in town, four Yountville restaurants have collectively earned an unprecedented six stars in the 2008 Michelin guide. Given that Yountville has only 3,200 residents, it boasts more Michelin stars per capita than any place on Earth.
The odd thing is that for decades, Yountville was deemed déclassé by the rest of the Napa Valley. If it was famous for anything, it was for the big state Veterans Home on the hill above town, and for its 17 seedy bars.
By some accounts, the new Yountville was born June 6, 1977. "My own personal D-Day," says Philippe Jeanty of the morning he arrived from Epernay, France, to help open the restaurant at Domaine Chandon. The next year, Don and Sally Schmitt started the French Laundry, and in 1992, Keller bought it and launched it into the culinary stratosphere when he reopened it in 1994.
To stroll downtown Yountville today is to thumb through the pages of a Zagat guide. There's Richard Reddington's Redd and Philippe Jeanty's Bistro Jeanty, with one Michelin star apiece. Then come Keller's informal Ad Hoc, one-star Bouchon, and three-star French Laundry. You think that while other towns zone land "RH" for residential, Yountville must zone "PF" for prix fixe and "AB" for amuse-bouche.
Naturally, having your town go from rural crossroads to epicurean epicenter has brought some stresses. With an influx of out-of-town diners, parking is one. "Some locals put up their own ― completely illegal ― NO PARKING signs in front of their houses," notes Yountville Sun editor Sharon Stensaas. As for the houses, Yountville cottages can now fetch more than $1 million.
And yet there are benefits. Hotel occupancy taxes fund amenities ― sidewalk plantings, underground utilities ― that other small towns envy. And while locals may not regularly sample the $240, nine-course tasting menu at the French Laundry, mayor and Yountville Chamber of Commerce executive director Cindy Saucerman says you can often find locals at Bouchon or Ad Hoc. "Really," she says, "we are so spoiled here."
Yountville has been good to its chefs too. "I love Yountville," says Thomas Keller. Once a year, Keller expresses that love by opening the French Laundry to 62 lucky Yountville residents, chosen by lottery, with prices scaled back to his 1994 opening day. Yountville, says Philippe Jeanty, "is the best of both worlds. It has the American drive, but a little bit of the French."
As it happens, Jeanty tells me this as I sit at Bistro Jeanty eating coq au vin, which I have been advised will be the best coq au vin in my life and is just that. Jeanty then reminisces about one of his customers, Cecil, a Veterans Home resident who every day puts on a beret and comes down the hill to dine at the bistro. "I always ask him, 'How is it going, Cecil?' And he says, 'Good. I woke up on the right side of the dirt today.' "
The story makes me smile. And it makes me think there is a clue to Yountville's appeal in it. The thing about Yountville is that it makes great food seem like a regular pleasure. A joy you should experience every day, and one available not just to rich tourists but to Little Leaguers and Cecil in his beret too. Not every place can become a great food town, Anton Ego, the critic in Ratatouille, might have said. But a great food town can come from anywhere.
INFO: Contact the Yountville Chamber of Commerce (707/944-0904) for more information on Yountville.