It’s the kind of statement sure to earn protests from many a New Yorker: some consider Yountville, CA to be the culinary capital of America.

An outrageous assertion? Not necessarily. At the heart of the Napa Valley wine country, Yountville is home to what many call the nation’s greatest restaurant in The French Laundry. It also boasts a number of great chefs in the area — from Thomas Keller to Richard Reddington to Michael Chiarello (aka Top Chef: Masters‘ second-place winner).

But unlike New York City, Yountville is an odd town that spends most of its time pretending to be somewhere else — making it more like Las Vegas in this regard. Rather than celebrating the unique qualities of the Napa Valley that surrounds it, Yountville practically tells its visitors that they would rather be in France or Italy.

The French Laundry gardens in Yountville The faux Tuscan Villa that is Yountville's Hotel Luca

Welcome to Yountville: Please Hold Your Nose and Pretend We’re Provence™

For example: the Bordeaux House hotel, odes to Provence in the Maison Fleurie and Vintage Inn hotels, streets such as Burgundy Way, and restaurants such as Bistro Jeanty and the aforementioned French Laundry. Is it France? The Vintage Inn Web site even leads with the promotion: “The most romantic week we ever spent in Provence…was the one that we spent…in Yountville.”

Or take the Italian themes of of the Villagio Inn & Spa, the Tuscan villa of Hotel Luca, Cantinetta Piero, and Chiarello’s Bottega restaurant. Is it Italy?

My mother-in-law lived in “downtown” Yountville in the early 1960s, right on Mulberry St.. Back then, Yountville was covered with fields. You could go an entire day without hearing a car go by. In the Napa Valley, wine was still more than a decade away from being any sort of notable business — let alone a cultural phenomenon. So when life in the sticks gave way to romanticized images of vineyards and exquisite restaurants, Yountville responded with aspirations of class and culture through faux Eurotrash associations.

Perhaps train yards, mills, and Wappo Native Americans don’t carry the same elitist class as Europe’s famous wine-growing regions. But playing a schizophrenic, second-rate imitation of Europe isn’t very convincing either. This copycat behavior mirrors what many in the coffee industry have been doing by shoehorning coffee as a second-rate substitute for wine.

Vintage 1870 - now known as Yountville's V Marketplace Cups & Cones - no, it's not Madonna's lingerie shop but a longtime stalwart in Yountville's V Marketplace

What happens to espresso in a food-obsessed town without any chain coffee shops?

Which brings us to the point of this post: the coffee. In Carmel-by-the-Sea we asked the question, “What happens to coffee in a town that bans Starbucks?” Here in Yountville, we asked the same question — but with the additional angle of being surrounded by this town’s notable food & wine credentials. In a town celebrated for its high cuisine, will the local standards for espresso improve at the local restaurants and cafés?

When it comes to espresso, American restaurants have always had a horrible track record. But like Carmel, we found that some of the best espresso in Yountville came from its restaurants. Unlike Carmel, we found the baseline standards for espresso to be generally decent overall.

That’s not to say that Yountville is without its surprising duds. Thomas Keller may be a fabulous chef, but his standards for serving coffee are rather poor given everything else he serves. We’ve written previously about some of the more cop-out choices they made for The French Laundry, but our recent test results of the espresso at his Ad Hoc were outright unacceptable.

Bardessono and the Yountville Coffee Caboose both represent places that looked to some of the Bay Area’s most famous roasters to raise the the bar. And although their preparation standards aren’t entirely up to par, they are good enough.

Not all imports are bad, however…

Bottega's two-group BOSCO machine at the barMore noteworthy is Michael Chiarello’s Bottega restaurant. While the place exudes the kind of singles pickup scene you’d normally find in a bar serving Jägermeister shots along SF’s Union St., there’s no questioning how serious they are about their espresso.

Bottega sports a two-group lever Bosco machine at the bar — only the third one we know of in the entire greater Bay Area — and coffee beans from Seattle’s Caffé Vita (perhaps America’s chief supplier of Bosco machines). This kind of espresso pedigree is anything but a casual or accidental decision. It’s particularly surprising given the clientele: all that effort seems lost on so many naïve customers. We literally saw customers send back their menu order of the “whole fish” in disgust because they had never seen a fish served with a head and tail on it before.

Coincidentally, our Yountville hotel room offered a Nespresso Essenza C100 machine. Every time we tried to make espresso with their Roma capsules (the least foul of the lot), we could not get over how much it literally smelled like tuna.

Name Address Espresso [info] Cafe [info] Overall [info] Last Reviewed
Ad Hoc 6476 Washington St. 4.20 5.50 4.850 2/14/2010
Bardessono 6526 Yount St. 7.70 7.80 7.750 2/13/2010
Bottega 6525 Washington St. 7.60 7.50 7.550 2/13/2010
Bouchon 6534 Washington St. 6.60 7.20 6.900 2/13/2005
Bouchon Bakery 6528 Washington St. 6.00 7.20 6.600 12/13/2005
Cantinetta Piero 6774 Washington St. 6.80 7.00 6.900 2/12/2010
Cups & Cones 6525 Washington St. 6.20 7.00 6.600 2/13/2010
French Laundry, The 6440 Washington St. 6.10 7.50 6.800 12/12/2006
Yountville Coffee Caboose 6523 Washington St. 7.10 7.00 7.050 2/13/2010