Napa native, local historian and author Alexandria Brown recently released her second book, “Lost Restaurants of Napa Valley and Their Recipes.” In its 189 pages are the stories of how different cuisines – Mexican, Chinese, Italian, for example – were established in Napa County. It also tells who the early restaurateurs were in the Napa Valley.
Brown says she hopes readers will “gain an appreciation for the diversity of ‘American’ food, that they come to understand that we only eat the way we do because of the people who came here from around the world and the Indigenous people, who were here first.”
She adds, “There really is no such thing as ‘American’ food; everything we eat came from somewhere else or was introduced to us by people who weren’t American.”
The book, too, tells stories of individual families, for example, four Chinese brothers in Napa; and individual properties, like Calistoga’s Magnolia Hotel and St. Helena’s Taylor’s Refresher, which is now Gott’s Roadside. It is filled with photos gleaned from the Napa County Historical Society, St. Helena Historical Society and Calistoga’s Sharpsteen Museum. For more than four years, Brown was the archivist and head research librarian at the Napa County Historical Society and later served on its board.
Brown said before writing “Lost Restaurants” she didn’t know much about fine dining. She started exploring the topic in fall 2018, pitched it to her editor the following February and signed a contract a month later. She submitted a final draft seven months later.
“Fortunately at the time I was working in a high school and had the summer off to do nothing but research and write,” she said. “My research process involved not just historical research about the county but on different foods, culinary history and the larger global history of the restaurant itself.” In the end, she said, “It was a lot more interesting than I expected it to be.”
After spending a few hours going through the book, there’s a lot to like in “Lost Restaurants.” A couple of the stories are familiar, including a chapter on Taylor’s Refresher and tales of Ronald Reagan announcing his run for California governor at the famed Aetna Springs Resort in rural Pope Valley.
Most of the stories, though, are not familiar and therein lies the joy of this book. Back and forth through the chapters, one discovers a few gems, including a photograph of Poy Chan, daughter of Shuck and Kum Chan, dressed in Western finery, who was the first Chinese-American to win the Highway 50 Queen pageant in 1956.
Brown spends some time on the history of the Chinese in Napa. She writes, “The history of the Chinese in California is long, complicated and challenging. It is the story of people driven to make a better life for themselves in a country that went out of its way to make that life as difficult as possible. Whether by working as cooks and waiters in homes and hotels or by running their own restaurants, food was a crucial element in helping Chinese immigrants both retain their traditional practices and introduce new experiences into American society.”
The first Chinese immigrants arrived in Napa County in the early 1850s and established Chinatown on the east bank of the Napa River by First Street. “Soon, Chinese encampments and towns sprang up across the county, from the mines in the north to the farms in the south and the vineyards inbetween,” Brown writes.
The story of Napa’s A-1 Café begins in the 1930s with the arrival of four brothers, Yuen Low, Henry Owyeong, Albert Lee and Ming “Alfred” Wong from Canton, China. Vallejo restaurateur Jew Cheong opened the A-1 Café in 1934, it was one of only a few Chinese restaurants in town. They offered dine-in and take-out of American and Chinese dishes, including chop suey, chow mein, roast chicken and port, egg foo yung and assorted other noodle dishes, Brown writes.
In 1938, Cheong moved back to Vallejo and Yuen Low and his wife, Chan San Yuen, moved in. After Yuen was killed in a hit-and-run accident in 1944, his brother, Alfred Wong, took over.
Brown writes, “By the 1950s the A-1 Café was a local favorite. Newspapers in Calistoga and St. Helena wrote rave reviews of the restaurant with ‘the best Chinese food, the most congenial spirit and the most clean and attractive of surrounds. People always come back again and again to a place which has built its good name on these standards.’”
In 1982, after 48 years in business, the A-1 Café, located on the first floor of the Napa Valley Opera House, closed its doors for good.
Brown details how the four brothers and their descendants dominated Napa’s Chinese restaurant scene for nearly 40 years. “Together, the brothers helped change the way Napans saw Chinese food. No longer was chop suey something exotic; instead, it became an all-American dish,” Brown writes. Two recipes, the first from 1902, the second printed in the Napa Register in 1931, are included at the end of that chapter.
Leafing through the book, there’s a chapter on “Chili Queens and Tamale Men,” that includes the story of Gregorio and Carmen Hernandez, who opened their El Faro restaurant on Lincoln Avenue in Calistoga in June 1971. A few years later, in 1978, the El Faro moved a few doors down into the old Reeder’s Calistoga Maid Creamery and Restaurant building. Written in The Weekly Calistogan were these words: “When the owner here decided to open, he had one primary goal in mind … to offer the people of this area the finest food, served among friendly people in a pleasant atmosphere and always with the best service in town.”
The Hernandezes closed the El Faro after 19 years of business in 1987.
Magnolia Hotel, Calistoga
Brown’s “Lost Restaurants” also tells stories that begin in the 19th century. Nearly 100 years before the El Faro was Calistoga’s grand Magnolia Hotel, built by John Chesebro, “to impress,” Brown writes. Along with 40 rooms, the hotel included a billiard room, a bar, bathrooms, a laundry, wine room, hot sulphur baths, steam baths and a barbershop, that was managed for several years by a black man, J.E. “Nick” Nichols.
Visitors stayed for a few weeks to several months, some even for the full summer season. Chesebro installed gas lighting in 1889, which marked the Magnolia Hotel as “first-class.”
Brown writes that the Magnolia was “the best place in Calistoga to see traveling actors, musicians and other performers.” It was the town’s polling place and where politicians and fraternal organizations gathered. “One supper held by the local chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star, a co-ed branch of the Masons, started at midnight and seated 112 people around two massive tables, each furnished with ‘an abundance of food, including substantials as well as delicacies.’”
But, during the late 19th and early 20th century, Brown writes that Calistoga suffered repeated fires that devastated the town. After surviving four fires, the fifth fire in 1901 “was one too many,” Brown writes. “On a blisteringly hot day in August, a fire broke out in a store on Lincoln Avenue and raced through the Spiers livery,” damaged in both the 1885 and 1890 fires. “Firefighters were stymied by the heat, high winds, little water and a hose being burned and so the flames torched both sides of the streets. Within two hours, most of the downtown business district and several homes were lost, including the Magnolia Hotel.”
The author has two favorite “lost restaurants,” both from the time of Calistoga’s Magnolia Hotel.
In response to an email request, Brown writes: “First is the Arcade Restaurant, particularly during the period when it was owned by the Hatton family. The Hattons were a prominent black family who came to California in the early 1850s and then settled in Napa, having relocated from Massachusetts. This is the only historical restaurant I have found that was owned by African Americans. The restaurant had operated in Napa since about the 1850s, and they owned it from 1887 until it burned down in July 1888.
“Second is the California Restaurant in Napa during the brief period it was operated by two Japanese American men C.M Kitoku (or Kitoa) and J. Nankagawa. They served the usual — tamales and oysters — in the spring of 1902. I couldn’t track down any information about them, but this is the only historical instance of Japanese Americans operating a restaurant in Napa County.”
Answering an email question about why she wrote “Lost Restaurants,” Brown said her first book, “Hidden History of Napa Valley,” explored “marginalized communities and how they shaped the county and made it what it is today.
“I wanted to take a similar tack with restaurants. I wanted to write a food history of Napa County and look at who makes the food we eat, how that food was introduced to the American palate, and how BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) have shaped the way we eat. I looked at different restaurants that represented different eras, regions, or types of food and used them as stepping stones to examine the county’s history, from the good to the bad and everything in between.”
About the author
Brown has a bachelor’s degree with honors in anthropology and sociology, a master’s degree of library and information science and one in U.S. history, specializing in black history in California. She writes about science fiction, fantasy and horror books, comics, television and movies for Tor.com. She blogs about bookish and historical things at bookjockeyalex.com. Brown said she lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her pet rats and ever-increasing stacks of books.