If you’re looking for a high-class, “no expenses spared” kind of experience, it is no secret that the Napa Valley is the place to do it. In addition to producing some of the most upscale, sought-after wines in the world, Napa is one of the best places to dine in the country. The region has one of the highest concentrations of Michelin-starred restaurants anywhere, most of which are located in the quaint, historic towns of Yountville and St. Helena. The crown jewel of Napa Valley restaurants is The French Laundry, which has flaunted 3 Michelin stars since 2006.
Michelin Guides are a series of guide books published by the French tire company Michelin for more than a century. “Michelin Stars” are awarded to the only the top restaurants around the world and are considered a hallmark of fine dining.
What is the French Laundry?
The French Laundry is located in Yountville, California and was established in 1978. It is owned and operated by Thomas Keller, one of the most respected and influential chefs in the United States. The restaurant is known for its exquisite preparation of the finest ingredients available, many of which are grown in their culinary garden. Their cuisine is mainly French with a touch of nouveau American style. The name of the restaurant is inspired by the building’s history, which was used in the 1920’s as a French steam laundry before being converted into a restaurant.
Preparing for your Visit
The first step in planning your visit is securing reservations, which you should expect to make 2-4 months in advance. All reservations are made through Tock. Bookings open on the 1st day of every odd numbered month at 10 a.m. for 2 and 3 months in the future. This can get a bit confusing, so it is best to check Tock to see what dates are currently being booked and when more dates are opening up.
The French Laundry is open for dinner every evening and lunch Friday through Sunday. Dinner is from 5:00 p.m. to 8:45 p.m. and lunch is from 11:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. The restaurant usually closes for two weeks in the winter and in the summer.
Expect to fork out the price of your meal at the time of your reservation, which is currently $350 per person. This fee is non refundable, though can be transferred to other parties.
The French Laundry will offer refunds in special circumstances. One of the members of our party was sick, and they did refund her completely after a bit of a stern conversation.
The main dining room can accommodate groups of 1-7. For larger groups, two private dining rooms are available for groups of 6-12, as well as a large outdoor table in the warmer months. The full dining room can also be booked out for private parties. Tables for two sell out the quickest, so you may have more luck securing your desired date and time if you bring a few more friends along. We finalized our reservation for our group of 6 a couple of days after reservations opened. It is also easier to get a reservation for lunch or weekday dinner compared to weekend dinners. While it is easier to get a reservation if you are flexible on dates, your experience will include include extra perks if you visit for a special occasion such as an anniversary or birthday. These include specially printed menus, engraved wine bottles and extra birthday treats.
Kids are technically allowed at the French Laundry, though we did not see any on our visit. The restaurant can provide “kids meals” or modified tasting menus for young foodies.
The French Laundry has a semi-formal dress code, with jackets required for men, though ties are not required. In general, their dress code is fairly flexible, but dress accordingly for a fancy restaurant.
Parking by the French Laundry and in Yountville in general can be somewhat difficult, so you should carpool or take a taxi or Uber if you are staying nearby. If you do drive, leave some extra time before your reservation to make sure you can find parking.
Garden and Property
Across the street from the French Laundry is the culinary garden, where you can wander through rows of perfect vegetables that are cultivated for use on their menu. You can also say hello to the flock of pampered hens and peek through the windows of the greenhouse.
The main property is made up of a few interconnected buildings surrounding a large, manicured courtyard. Stop to take photos beside The French Laundry sign and famous blue door before heading in to be greeted by the maître d’hôtel.
The wine cellar is located across the courtyard from the main building, and you can peek inside it from a window on the streetside of the building. The wine cellar is impressive but unassuming – you wouldn’t know it contains hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars worth of wine.
The kitchen, which you can tour after your dinner, is equipped with large windows allowing you to view everything going on from outside. If you need to use the bathroom, use the ones outside next to the kitchen, where you can get some fresh air and watch the kitchen staff at work.
Two eight-course tasting menus are offered daily – the chef’s tasting menu (meat-inclusive) and the taste of vegetables (vegetarian). The menus are completely different from each other, including the meatless courses such as the bread, salad and desserts. The menus change daily depending on what is seasonal and available, with a few classic dishes that are always on the menu. Supplements will be offered for an additional price, such as black truffles, wagyu beef and caviar.
Other dietary restrictions such as gluten-free or dairy-free can also be accommodated at The French Laundry, but you should call ahead and let them know so they can prepare. The staff are there to make your experience as amazing as possible, so don’t hesitate to ask about any dietary restrictions or even personal preferences that you may have.
Chef’s Tasting Menu
Some of our favorite dishes from the chef’s tasting menu:
Taste of Vegetables Menu
Here are some of our favorite dishes from the taste of vegetables menu:
The French Laundry does not offer a set wine pairing to go with your meal. Instead, you can order wine by the full bottle, half bottle or the glass from their extensive wine list, which is presented to you on an electronic tablet. The list can be quite overwhelming, but staff will be happy to make recommendations based on your preferences and price point. Our group started off with a bottle of French Champagne, followed by two bottles of Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir from Raen and Kosta Brown wineries.
Wines by the glass range in price from $10 for a Vietti Moscato up to $75 for a glass of Dom Pérignon. For bottles, the sky’s the limit. The most expensive bottle on the list was a magnum 1992 Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon for $50,000 (an imperial bottle of this was the most expensive bottle of wine ever sold at half a million dollars). However, there are plenty of options for bottles under $100.
The French Laundry also offers an extensive list of spirits and a much smaller selection of beer, cider, and sake. You can also purchase cigars, though we did not witness anyone partaking. Tea and coffee, as well as other non-alcoholic beverages, are included in your dinner price.
If you are a tea drinker, ask for the tea list at the end of your meal instead of ordering something generic. They have some highly unusual options – all included in your dinner price.
The service at The French Laundry was truly above-and-beyond. The restaurant has a high diner-to-staff ratio, so there is always someone around to refill your water or answer a question. Our waiter was very nice and happy to answer any questions about the food, the restaurant and his job. Overall, I appreciated how the staff did their best to make you feel comfortable and enjoy the experience, and not feel overwhelmed or out-of-place at such a fancy establishment.
With your $350 dinner price paid when you made the reservation, expect to cover tax and the price of any menu supplements and alcohol at the end of your visit. Gratuity is included and extra tip is not expected, though there is an option to include extra if you wish.
The question on everyone’s mind is, of course, is it worth it? For me, I think it was definitely worth going once, but I doubt I will ever go again. The most valuable part of the experience was getting an inside look at how one of the world’s top fine dining establishments operates and what sets it apart from any other restaurant. The food was unique and delicious, and while many of the courses may only be a few bites, you will come away with a full stomach. The dessert course itself was a feast.
If you aren’t able to make it to the French Laundry, Thomas Keller operates a number of other restaurants in Yountville (as well as in a number of other cities) which are less expensive and require much less planning ahead. These include Ad Hoc, La Calenda, and Bouchon.