Napa’s restaurants immortalized by famous sketch artist in new exhibit

Napa Valley’s small yet robust culinary mecca is about to take center stage in a new art exhibit — and it highlights much more than chef Thomas Keller’s empire.

More than 70 illustrations of Napa restaurants will soon be on display at the Napa Valley Museum, all drawn by artist John Donohue, who’s become famous for his All the Restaurants series featuring more than 600 depictions of New York City restaurants.

Donohue, a former cartoonist and editor for the New Yorker, started drawing New York restaurants in 2017 and has since donated more than $30,000 to restaurant workers during the pandemic by selling prints of his work. The frenzy over his illustrations has led to thousands of requests from fans, turned his hobby into a full-time gig and resulted in three books featuring illustrations in New York City, Paris and London

Napa Valley is his latest muse.

For the exhibit, which opens Saturday in Yountville and runs through Oct. 2, Donohue drew Napa’s most famous and classic establishments: the French Laundry, Bouchon, Mustards Grill, Gott’s Roadside and Model Bakery, to name a few. But he also went beyond prestige and long lines, highlighting the region’s diversity with restaurants all over Napa County, from American Canyon to Calistoga.

His collection honors local favorites like La Luna Market in Rutherford, St. Helena dive bar Ana’s Cantina and Tacos el Muchacho Alegre, a taco truck parked outside of a Napa auto shop. There are newcomers, like Osha Thai and Truss at the Four Seasons Calistoga, and even a few spots that are permanently closed — Terra, Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen and Gran Electrica — which have now been immortalized through his illustrations.

In addition to the exhibit, which is running alongside a gallery dedicated to French Laundry founder Sally Schmitt, Donohue is selling signed prints of the Napa collection on his website.

The Chronicle spoke with Donahue about drawing restaurants, his Napa exhibit and where he found himself eating most while in Wine Country. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Q: What is your creative process for drawing restaurants?

A: I go to the place and I stand in front of it and I draw it. It takes me typically about 20 minutes to draw a place. Then I take the drawing home, scan it, digitize it and add color on the computer later. When I go out to draw, it’s almost like Google Street View. I’m not sure what I’ll find. There were one or two places where I had to draw a truck or a car in the way.

Q: You mentioned drawing is a sort of therapy for you. Can you tell me more about that?

A: Drawing, for me, is about being very much in the present moment. Drawing takes me out of my head. The most important thing is that it’s nonverbal. Our thoughts are composed of words, so when our mind is racing, or you’re worried or 8/3/22, 9:32 PM Napa restaurants immortalized by artist John Donahue in new exhibit have anxiety, it’s because you’re thinking about something. It’s a lot like people playing golf, I think. You’re concentrating on a nonverbal thing, so drawing really gets me into that space.

I also draw in ink and from life and I don’t make corrections. It’s very freeing to not be held back by fear of making mistakes

Q: Why do you think your All the Restaurants project has resonated so well with people?

A: I think people respond to the work because they see that restaurant where they had a good experience — they had their first date, they proposed to their spouse, they went there with their dad — and it brings them back to a good memory. When they look at it, it almost involves time travel. They have it on the wall because they want to remember that good moment.

Q: How do you choose which restaurants to draw?

A: When I first started, there were so many to choose from. I intuitively knew what places to draw. I’ve gotten thousands of requests and now I draw places people ask for. When I went to Napa or Paris or London, I would use various sources — journalists, websites and I’d ask a lot of people who were authorities. If three to four people mentioned the same place, I knew it was important.

Q: Why did you select Napa Valley for your next subject? Had you visited Napa before?

A: I had not. I was in San Francisco once in the late 1990s when I was right out of college. I never got past San Francisco. Laura Rafaty, the head of the Napa Valley Museum, reached out to me and said she wanted to do a show with Napa restaurants. I’ve always wanted to draw more places and Napa is a special place. It’s the home of the French Laundry. There’s a lot of culinary excellence there.

I used my airline miles to get out there, they put me up in a place with a local resident and I was out there for 10 days in early June. I had a blast — it was just so much fun. There’s nothing better than spending all day drawing.

Q: Did you eat at any of the restaurants you drew? Any favorites?

A: I ate at a few. California is always a great place to visit because it has so much more fresh produce. I ate a lot of meals from the Station (in St. Helena); I think I ate from there almost every day. It’s not cheap, but not expensive and it’s really fresh. That’s what makes it delightful. I took like two of their crustless quiches for the flight home. That was a fun one to draw, too.

From the SF Chronicle