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COX: Hip and happy at Empire in Napa
New restaurant and cocktail lounge is full of joyful surprises

  • Cauliflower Fritters are served at Empire cocktail lounge in downtown Napa on Wednesday, July 3, 2013. (CONNER JAY / The Press Democrat)

Whatever your preconceptions about Empire, the new restaurant and cocktail lounge in downtown Napa, leave them home. You will be surprised at what you find there.

It almost seems a shame to describe the place, as one of the joys of Empire is discovering your way into it. So, here's a spoiler alert. If you plan to go and want to discover it yourself, tear out and save this review now, stash it until after you go, and then see if the review does the place justice.

OK, if you're still with us, you enter a room that co-owner Nick Rimedio calls “The Gallery.” It has echoes of the archways in Grand Central Terminal and the low couches, short tables and comfy seats of a railroad bar car.

Empire Napa

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The Gallery leads into a separate room that Rimedio calls “The Great Room.” It's a great room, with banquettes along with couches, low chairs, short tables, dim lighting and a 10-stool full bar with faux organ pipes decorating the back bar.

Lights affixed to an overhead hanging wagon wheel and the organ pipes provide echoes of the Empire Saloon, the first commercial building built in Napa County in 1848, after which this place is named.

If you stand in the center of the Great Room and look to the ceiling, you'll see that a narrow ventilation shaft rises several stories to a constellation of starry white lights against a dark background, with small red lights spelling out the word “Yes,” recalling Yoko Ono's Fluxus art piece that so entranced John Lennon.

A main feature of the Great Room is a series of five vertical cylinders full of seawater, each containing a handful of jellyfish that wriggle up and down in their tanks like blobs in a lava lamp, with the cylinders echoing the organ pipes behind the bar.

Other, separate rooms offer privacy for special events, and a passageway decorated with an articulated spine mounted on a pedestal leads to the upscale Andaz Hyatt hotel (rooms $338 a night), a separate institution but in the same building.

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