It’s a tall order to fill when you name your restaurant after that famed two-lane highway that meanders past the vineyards, chateaus and rarefied eateries in Napa. For me, a trip along Route 29 conjures up thoughts of impossible-to-get reservations, nine-course tasting menus, stretch limos, burly cabernets, bucolic landscapes and Michelin stars—not exactly what I equate with the rip-roaring Gaslamp. But with seasoned vets Alessandro Minutella and Vincenzo Loverso (Greystone Prime Steakhouse & Seafood, Osetra Seafood & Steaks and Osteria Panevino) behind the wheel, Route 29 caught my attention as an outlier.
Walking inside is a pleasant escape; its open kitchen design and rustic-modern aesthetic gives off a wine country vibe. Sure, there’s reclaimed wood, exposed beams wrapped with faux vines, rope rigging and hanging barn doors in this casual bistro, but an upmarket, downtown-chic twist reveals itself in the tufted caramel-toned leather booths, white Carrara marble bar and private dining library nook with pearl-colored leather furniture and a pressed-gold tin ceiling.
Sitting in the main room, along the back banquette cleverly designed to look like vintage steamer luggage, I take in the abundance of eye candy: concrete chandelier medallions hang above the wine racks, blue-and-white tiles nod to the old-world wineries of Italy. The brushed aluminum bar facade and steel trellises usher in the modern, paying homage to the industrial elements of winemaking. But the pièce de résistance is the entryway collage of vintage blueprints of winemaking machinery like presses, openers and barrels on floor-to-ceiling wooden panels.
We start with a delish Golden Gate cocktail—a smooth, dry-shake sipper of organic Azuñia Tequila, passion fruit, carrot, lemon, agave, bitters and egg whites, elegantly presented in a gold coupe—and then turn our attention to the New Californian menu. When original chef Daniel Bear hit the road, his sous-chef, Jase DiNardo, took the pole position of the exhibition kitchen. Nothing says rustic like Mason jars spreads with crunchy bread, and while a dated trend, their burrata and organic heirloom tomatoes with housemade fig marmalade, balsamic glaze and candied pecans are a gratifying grilled ciabatta topping. Our wine-savvy server pours a crisp Ramón Bilbao Albariño 2017, the acidity of which performs well with the flavors of the caprese.
Our next dish, a red and golden beet salad, slightly misses its mark, as the earthy nuggets are lost in a forest of frisee, but we enjoy the Cara Cara orange and kumquat vinaigrette with chocolate crumbs and the bone-dry Turnbull sauvignon blanc pairing. Next, a share plate of honey peach-glazed pork belly arrives, glimmering with promise, and the chef succeeds here, as the tender meat rests on a smear of truffled celeriac and a St-Germain peach gelée tames its salty flavor. A Santa Barbara County 2016 grenache proves to be a playful companion to the pork with its mild to medium tannins and French oak.
Carnivore-centric entrees run the gamut, and I opt for the shitake-rubbed ribeye, an 18-ounce monster smothered in green peppercorn sauce. And while it’s not the prettiest dish (as most plates are artfully presented), it’s a toothsome cut over cauliflower puree, jazzed up with mashed sunchokes and earthy morels. A bodacious 2016 Mondavi Oberon cab meets it match on this pairing. My husband smartly orders the crispy California halibut, a perfectly moist fish with a nice outer crunch that bathes in sea of banana miso consommé and al dente rice noodles. The grassy notes of his Boya sauvignon blanc counterbalance the dish’s undercurrent of sweetness.
With communal tables anchoring the dining room, Route 29 also beckons as group gathering spot for boozy brunches with acai mimosas or indulgent bloody marys like the When Pigs Fly with duck wings, bacon and fried lotus root to accompany steak and eggs or chilaquiles. Pre-theater wine paired with cheese and charcuterie is another good call, as their boards are beauties. While Route 29 claims to be Napa-inspired and serves 20-some wines by the glass, the overall list feels oddly dominated by European wines and Paso Robles reds. A plan to shift the list to better represent Napa is underway and, undoubtedly, a smart move. But when it comes to playful design, pretty plates, thoughtful wine pairings and amiable service, Route 29 revs it up as a refreshing road-less-traveled spot in the Gaslamp. 644 Fifth Ave., 619.235.8144