Empire Napa, New Wine Country Speakeasy, Brings Nightlife to Sleepy Napa, California

Instead of a long weekend of Byron Nelson golf, I jetted off to Napa, California last weekend to catch the opening of Empire Napa, a snazzy new restaurant and clubby lounge in downtown Napa from friends Arthur Prieston and Nick Rimedio.

If you’ve spent more than a couple of days in NoCal’s wine country, you’ve undoubtedly met a winemaker or three. What do they always tell you? “I’m just a farmer,” they’ll all tell you. “Great wine is made in the vineyard not in a winery,” they all preach. Arthur and Nick know a lot of winemakers. And because they live in Napa, they also know a lot of farmers, restaurateurs, bankers, real estate moguls, movie stars, doctors, lawyers, waiters and hoteliers. Which explains why they opened Empire Napa.

“We needed a place to go at night, because this town shuts down at 9 p.m.,” Prieston, a restaurateur and expert in mortgage banking, “so we built one.” The 85-seat restaurant and lounge sits adjacent to the upscale Andaz Hotel on First Street and down the block from two Napa favorites: Gott’s Burgers and the Oxbow Market, an area not known for late night entertainment.

“We designed Empire Napa to be a late night playground for us and for Napa visitors who are used to big city nightlife,” continued Prieston. “People who come here and taste wines all day long like to go out for a nice dinner, but then what? They don’t want to go back to their hotel room. Empire Napa is meant to fill that space.”

“There’s nothing like this in all of Napa,” says Garrett Ahnfeldt, a young winemaker who owns tiny boutique winery G Wine Cellars near Napa’s Spring Mountain. Ahnfeldt grew up in the area and liked the idea of Empire Napa so much he invested in the project. “I loved that Arthur and Nick completely understand the hospitality business,” says Ahnfeldt. “Their philosophy is that anything a customer wants, the answer is always yes. Then, they’ll figure out a way to make it happen.”

Empire Napa has a big city feel to it, a speakeasy designed for a wine bar town. Black ceilings, dim lighting, hidden alcoves, leaded glass, walls of candles, car service, VIP entrance off the alley, live DJs. Instead of a soft music and earth tones, noted Bay Area restaurant designer Michael Brennan, injected the space with references that marry federal architecture, art deco, even a bit of the old Empire saloon that once inhabited downtown Napa.

Rimedio, a long-time alum of Charlie Trotter’s restaurant team, brings that same local/seasonal/pristine ingredient attitude to Napa Empires’s F&B side. Custom cocktails, barreled spirits, local beers and an constantly changing blackboard menu of small production Napa wines line a deep bar in the rear. Off to the side, a full-service kitchen helmed by chef Jennifer Petrusky, also a Charlie Trotter alum, turns out small plates for sharing (lamb belly, eggplant crostini, Moroccan barbecue) and pairing with classic cocktails and wines.

“Our wine list will reflect the diversity of the valley,” says Rimedio. “We’ll pour six reds, six whites and six sparkling wines from producers right here (in Napa), but the selections will keep changing. We intend to pick up a few bottles here, a few bottles there, and change it up as we find new bottles we like.”

“The beauty of Empire’s location and our connections in the valley is that we can get our hands on small production wines that no one else can touch,” adds Ahnfeldt, whose terrific G Wine Cellars cabernets and cabernet franc wines are featured on a secret “partners” list that anyone can order – if you know to ask.

Wine expert (and master sommelier candidate) DLynn Proctor, who moved to Napa from Dallas last year and now represents Penfolds in North America, agrees that Napa needed a place like Empire Napa, which serves well-made cocktails, boutique wines and food until 2 a.m. If you moved to Napa from LA, San Francisco, New York, or Dallas, says Proctor, you’re used to this kind of place, “but there’s nothing else like it in Napa.”

1400 First Street
Downtown Napa
Open daily at 5 pm