Monday, January 31, 2011

R.I.P. The Candy Cellar - Another Business Bites the Dust

Today I was really hoping to hop into a small local shop in Calistoga called "The Candy Cellar" and grab some jellybeans or a chunk of fudge before hopping on the bus home.

No such luck. When I arrived, the old-fashioned wooden store sign was still hanging out front, but the shop was completely empty -- just a narrow shell with a hardwood floor and a paper on the window reading "For Lease"

This is just a sobering reminder of the "feast or famine" reality that abides in Napa Valley (and, indeed, in many areas of California.) The business turnover rate here is pretty astounding. I suppose that might be expected in an area where tourism is a key factor, but it just seems strange which places fold and why and when.

Whereas some iconic institutions (wineries, mainly) have been here for over a century, other establishments -- promising and highly-touted ones, even -- pop up and then disappear in a handful of years. Here is a list of some of the ones I have personally witnessed in the 4 years I've lived here:
  • Wappo Bistro -- This was widely known as the best boutique, "fit for foodies" restaurant in Calistoga. Now, Calistoga does not have quite the culinary cache of Yountville, Rutherford, or St. Helena, but Wappo (named for the local Native American tribe that lived here) was quite good, with a cozy, interesting atmosphere, delicious food, and a good wine selection (with reasonable prices). I have heard it was the local favorite restaurant of Robert Redford. It was here for about 2 years after I arrived, and it had business every time I walked past. Then, about a year ago, it suddenly shuttered its doors... why? The rumor mill has it that the landlord was raising the rent, the restaurant owners resisted, the landlord wouldn't budge, so they said "Fine, forget it. We can't afford that, so we're closing business." Lo and behold, the property has been vacant ever since, so it looks like Wappo was quite justified in sticking it to the property owners, but I do miss the restaurant.

  • Nicola's Deli -- This casual, unassuming deli/cafe was located right on the main street (Lincoln) of downtown Calistoga. It was nothing fancy, but had a good variety on the menu -- American and Mexican and a few things in between -- and had the best prices in town. It was a favorite of working-class locals but also seemed like it would be a good place for lunch for any hungry tourists in town looking for a quick bite without breaking the bank. I guess that just wasn't good enough to stay in business?

  • Bleaux Magnolia -- This Louisiana/southern-style restaurant featuring Creole food opened in downtown Napa shortly after I moved here. I saw them advertised somewhere, a local newspaper or flyer, and Louisiana cooking is hard to come by (and I love it) so we gave it a try. Like many places in Napa, the prices were a little high, but the atmosphere was nice -- small and cozy but also with outdoor dining patio, and they would often have live music (blues or zydeco)... and the meals were delicious: jalapeno cornbread, duck jambalaya, crawfish etouffee, sausage gumbo, muffaletta sandwiches, etc. Also very enjoyable for brunch. Oh, and no wine corkage fee! The only drawback was the location -- unlike many local restaurants, housed in scenic vineyards or historic downtown main streets, Bleaux Magnolia was unfortunately tucked along a strange back road on the outskirts of suburban and commercial downtown Napa, across the street from a parking lot for Mervyn's and a gym. This may have been its downfall, because otherwise it seemed to be doing great... busy every single time we went.

  • Esquisse winery -- I don't know what happened to this place, but I went there about 7 years ago and tried Malbec for the first time... it was $50/bottle, but worth every penny. It tasted just like a juicy filet mignon. Now I notice it is "Alpha Omega" winery in the location, the tasting room has zero personality or appeal, aside from the typical Napa pretentious feel and an overpriced tasting fee, to boot.
One would think that the key to success in a place like Napa Valley would be to have a business that is not seasonal and relying on tourism. I would assume the best bet would be a place that is popular with both tourists and locals. But, from what I've seen, those are exactly the kinds of businesses that are folding and going under...

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