Whether you’re rich, poor, young, old, male, or female, everybody wipes their face at least once a day. But the word “napkin” doesn’t resonate anywhere quite like it does in the town of Napa. Here, napkins take on a special meaning, and that’s not just because the Napa Valley is internationally known for its wining and dining. In Napa, the term “napkins” has also been adopted as slang for longtime Napa residents. Some recoil at the term, but most wear it with pride. And for the past three years, local “Napkins” have had a restaurant of the same name, which seeks to embody the more than 140-year-old town.
“It refers to people who live and breathe the Napa life every day,” a 2013 news release for the Napkins restaurant said of the eatery’s name. “It expresses love and appreciation for the beautiful valley that surrounds us.”
Napkins sits in downtown Napa, alongside the Napa River. Inside, bottles of fine wine and liquor seemingly float against the bar wall, with an indoor waterfall behind them. Outdoors, a spacious patio area allows visitors to catch a great view of the water and enjoy a sunny Napa afternoon.
Fittingly, the restaurant’s name was chosen by Napans themselves, Napkins owner Ali Yildirim said.
“We asked locals and people on our Facebook page to name the place, and ‘Napkins’ was the most popular,” Yildirim said. “Napkins means: anyone who appreciates good food, good wine, and good weather. There is a restaurant called ‘Fork,’ ‘Knife,’ ‘Spoon,’ and we have the ‘French Laundry,’ so this fits right in with that.”
Napkins’ interior pays tribute to Napa natives, lined with a photographic timeline of the town’s history going back 200 years—well before Napa was incorporated. There is also a timeline integrated into a window near the entrance, detailing advancements and notable events throughout Napa’s history. Napkins’ founder, Yildirim, said he felt a need to reflect his city as much as possible.
“I want Napa locals and tourists to be able to actually see the history while they’re enjoying their food and drinks,” Yildirim said. “There’s a written part and a pictured part; you can literally walk through and in one or two minutes get a great look at Napa’s history.”
Yildirim is part of a family of restaurant owners that goes back three generations. He has managed restaurants in Turkey, the East Coast, and throughout the world. Having been born into the restaurant business, Yildirim said he “started as a dishwasher, from that to a busser to cook, then later a manager, and owner. I’ve pretty much been at all the positions.”
“I am just following my family’s legacy,” Yildirim added. “It’s something I love; I love people, I love food, and I love hosting people and making them happy. One easy way to do that is to just give them great food and service.”
He first came to Napa from New Jersey in 2010, setting up the successful Tarla Mediterranean Grill on First Street. Before that, he spent years in the cruise ship business.
“I’ve been to 50 countries, and I gained a lot of understanding of humans, food, and culture,” Yildirim said. One basic thing he learned?
“Happy belly, happy face,” Yildirim said, with a smile.
To that point, Napkins offers a range of American classics that have an international twist. Its Niman Ranch burger is stacked with arugula, fried onions, and vegetable relish, and contains layers of delicious flavors. Its porkchops come with garlic mashed potatoes and cranberry, apricot, and apple compote. Napkins’ head chef, Erasto Jacinto, co-wrote the acclaimed cookbook Big Small Plate with Cindy Pawlcyn and Pablo Jacinto. Erasto’s 20 years in the business include various chili cook-off championships and more than one head chef position. When asked, Yildirim couldn’t settle on just one favorite of Erasto’s dishes.
“Our brisket sandwich is amazing, and our grilled tostada fish of the day is really unique and a top seller,” Yildirim said. “I don’t think anyone does wings like us, that’s why we call them Napkins’ Wings. Those are a few of my favorites, but really it’s like asking me to pick my favorite child. I can’t pick my favorite child, I love all my children.”
On Friday and Saturday nights, from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m., Napkins is transformed into an upscale club with music provided by DJ’s, including—recently—DJ Big Cali and DJ Raamm. When they dim the lights, the wall waterfall is illuminated, creating a stunning effect behind the bar.
“Those bottles look like they’re floating in the water,” Yildirim said. “First we please the eye, then the stomach.”
They also have an ongoing, daily happy hour that Yildirim said he was proud of.
“Draft beer is three dollars, and most items are 50 percent off. We don’t shrink the size or portion, we give you the same,” Yildirim said. “Between 3-6 a day, seven days a week. It’s a killer deal.”
Napkins features more than 100 wines, dozens of brunch special items on weekends, and an assortment of other deals. Yildirim said that he takes the restaurant’s name seriously, and that with it comes a duty to embody what the town is all about.
“Not so many people knew of Napa’s history,” Yildirim said. “I thought that I was responsible to show tourists that Napa has a history, and that everything around us didn’t happen overnight. There are 200 years of good history that made Napa what it is today, and I think that should be known and respected.”
Napkins is open seven days a week starting at 11 a.m. Its kitchen closes at 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, and brunch goes until 3 p.m. on weekends. For more information, call them at (707) 927-5333, visit them at 1001 Second Street in Napa, and follow them on Facebook at Facebook.com/napkinsnapa or Facebook.com/napkinsnights.
Editor’s Note: “We love the Happy Hour at Napkins! It’s the best, great food and cocktails make for a great time for John and I.” – Deanna Baillie
Nate Gartrell grew up in Benicia, studied journalism in college, and has written for a handful of media outlets since age 15. He aspires to visit all 30 Major League Baseball stadiums and to hit the trifecta at the horse track.