In design, Oxbow Public Market is a hip, gastronomical temple for tasting. In location, it’s a recreational playground, with giant outdoor decks overlooking a bend in the Napa River. Whether you call it a shopping center, a food court or a farmers’ market, it’s 40,000 square feet of stores and restaurants devoted to all things culinary.Food and wine are both education and entertainment, where tables fill the center of the giant complex, most vendors offer tastes of their wares, and shopping feels like a treasure hunt.Steve Carlin, founder and CEO of Oxbow, sees it as “The evolution of the farmers’ market. It’s not a grocery store but it has a lot of amenities that a grocery store has. You can use credit cards. There’s adequate parking. It’s kind of a hybrid.”
Half the fun is how the place feels. Designed by San Francisco architects Baldauf, Catton and Von Eckartsberg, who also remodeled the Ferry Plaza building, it’s all about light and space. Windows have views out to the river, sunlight streams in from a 30-foot-high ceiling, and color is everywhere, from the vintage pottery at Heritage Culinary Artifacts to the vibrant hand-woven table linens from Kitchen Library. People watching, depending on when you go, is some of the best in the Napa Valley.It’s also the perfect place to indulge the senses. There’s a world’s worth of scents from the spices at Whole Spice, the piquancy of grilled corn-based foods at Pica Pica Maize Kitchen, meaty notes from the bronzed, juicy chickens roasting over fire at Rotisario, and more delicate fragrances from 30 types of tea at Tillerman Tea. The aromas are so wonderful it’s impossible not to want to buy something at every booth.
Yet Oxbow has had its share of challenges. Built on what wasonce Copia land, it was meant to be a key player in Napa’s bid for recognition as a world-class destination for gastronomy. But the food and wine museum Copia, plagued since its opening in 2001 by budget problems and insufficient
visitors, went bankrupt and closed for good in November 2008. That seriously diminished Oxbow’s initial potential for foot traffic. Then, construction on Napa’s First Street Bridge turned downtown Napa into a dizzying series of detours.(The bridge is now expected to reopen on August 1.) Now,the downturn in the economy has, at least up until recently,kept people at home. Carlin, however, is optimistic. “We now have 24 tenants, all owner-operated. That’s our strong suit,” he said. “We think that this year, the tourist industry should be quite busy as people decide to do things closer to home and not take trips outside the area.” Tuesday night is one of the best times to go. The market is open from 5 to 8 PM and every store has a promotion. Hog Island Oyster Company sells oysters on the half shell for a buck apiece, while Taylor’s Refresher has $1 servings of French fries. Live music plays from 6 to 8 PM All this bringsout locals and tourists alike.Oxbow has become more than a testament to the saying, “If you build it, they will come.” Just visit Oxbow once, and you'll become a regular.