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Reminiscing and reboot required

Do Napa Valley residents really need another big excuse to blow big bucks in a land that is already saturated with such events?

One of the first spots I frequented when I moved to Napa Valley was Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen, from culinary icon Cindy Pawlcyn. A step into the Up Valley institution always felt like Cheers, where everybody knew your name, comfort classics reigned, and a campfire pie kept people coming back for more. To the disappointment of many, the restaurant closed in 2018 and the St. Helena space has sat dormant ever since, aside from serving as the prep kitchen for Joel Gott’s The Station (another neighborhood hit).

Enter former French Laundry executive sous-chef and volunteer firefighter Elliot Bell, who has returned the space to restaurant status with the opening of Charlie’s last month. With any luck, the move might just wake up the sleepy St. Helena dining scene, which has seen little movement since The Charter Oak opened in 2017. The new spot, named after Bell’s son, keeps with the casual vibe of its predecessor with cozy banquet seating, a welcoming courtyard and a sizable wraparound bar, which will please anyone looking for a late-night nosh or night cap, with an 11 p.m. closing time on Fridays and Saturdays.

The bar also offers a glimpse into the kitchen, where guests can watch the preparation of everything from fried green tomatoes, pretzel wrapped kielbasa and Wagyu to beer can chicken steeped in a brine made with Mad Fritz brew and shrimp cocktail with fried saltines. The caviar served on top of caramelized onion dip with potato skins slides down as smoothly as cocktails like the grapefruit juice Campari sour and the Courtyard Cobbler with fig syrup, citrus and mint.

Things take a nostalgic turn in the dining room with a corner that still dons a swath of Cindy’s Backstreet’s original wallpaper, signed by Pawlcyn herself. Another tasty nod is a decidedly different (and delectable) take on Cindy’s campfire pie, with Oreo crust, chocolate ganache and a mountain of toasted marshmallow fluff.

The second floor of Charlie’s won’t be a general dining area as it once was, instead replaced with a hip-without-trying private party space with cozy couches, a vinyl turn table and other nostalgic touches that are sure to dazzle, just in time for the holiday soiree season.

Dethroning a film festival

While Cindy’s Backstreet lovers like myself may be feeling a sense of revival with the opening of Charlie’s, the same cannot be said for groupies of the Napa Valley Film Festival (NVFF). The profile of the fest has dropped considerably since its glory days under the direction of co-founders Marc and Brenda Lhormer, who grew the fest from 25,000 attendees in 2011, its inaugural year, to 50,000 in 2018.

When I sat down to write this month’s column, I had planned to cover the upcoming event, but all I could find on the website was a recap of the 2022 fest, which was renamed the Napa Valley Film, Food and Wine Showcase. It’s a name change that, to me, says: This what you call something that doesn’t know what it wants to be when it grows up. Problematic, given this year was to mark the 12th year of a well-oiled machine of an event that brought a $5 million economic boon to local businesses.

When I interviewed the Lhormers’ replacement, Tom Tardio, in 2019, he had grand plans for the festival’s growth, and went as far as stating in a release, “Ultimately, my vision is reimagineering Napa Valley Film Festival with the proper worldwide brand image and reputation deserving of the Napa community as we approach our 10th anniversary in 2020.” While it could be argued that COVID flung a torpedo into those grandiose plans, three years later, I call foul ball given other festivals in the area, including Mill Valley, have rebounded quite nicely.

Then in early October I was notified that this year’s showcase had been canceled altogether, in favor of a fundraising weekend produced with festival partner, CIA at Copia. While Copia is a beautiful event space, what I wonder is: Do Napa Valley residents really need another excuse to blow big bucks in a land that is already saturated with such events? The release included a lot of unprecedented this, and Hollywood strikes that, which were presented as reasons for the cancellation, along with all the ways people can buy into the fundraising weekend for as little as $650 and as much as $4,750. There will be some films (quantity unknown), some parties (non-descript), wine, music and unnamed luminaries attending. A major step down from the 80 films screened in venues from Calistoga to Napa, star-studded galas, culinary demos and tasting pavilions, which had all become synonymous with the fest. The question that remains for me is, when and if the real NVFF will return, because a showcase, nor fundraiser, equates to a film festival in my book.

Am I bitter about the dethroning of the highly successful and once-popular NVFF? Pining for what once was and what might never be again. Absolutely. The best I can hope for is the fundraising weekend represents a step toward the fest we once knew, and not a drift into obscurity.

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