Though some may say Napkins has a bit of an identity crisis, proprietor Ali Yildirim sees it much differently. Napkins offers “something for everyone…we do it all.” Whether you are looking to enjoy brunch al fresco, bellying up to the bar for beer & pub grub, dining with your honey on date night, dancing the night away with your BFFs, or joining a big group of friends to cheer for your favorite team, Napkins really does have it all! And that includes delicious vegan options too! When I sat down to enjoy lunch with Ali, he let our server, Becky, know that he was going to be vegan for the “next 30 minutes.” Thirty minutes turned into an hour and a half of talking, eating and sipping wine. And though Ali grew up in a culture that ate a lot of meat, he not only sees the benefits of following a vegan philosophy but admires us for it! He just kept raving about how good his vegan lunch was and how “you don’t feel heavy, you feel fresh…it’s not a sacrifice to give up something that benefits your body and your mind.” Well, I couldn’t have said it better myself!
Ali grew up in Turkey’s Southeast Anatolian Region in beautiful Gaziantep, famous for olive groves, vineyards, pistachios and baklava. Known as the “Paris of the East”, not only was Gaziantep recognized as one of the 2015 European Destinations of Excellence but it was also included in the UNESCO Creative Cities network in the field of gastronomy! Coming from such a gastronomical city, it is no wonder that Ali eventually began opening restaurants. His entire family works in the hospitality business – primarily hotels and restaurants – so it makes sense that is where he got his start. Even though family hires family, he had to start out at the bottom just like the rest of us. He began washing dishes but knew he was destined for more. While working, he began studying hotel/restaurant management. Upon graduation, Ali got his first General Manager job at Camel Beach and Sunset Restaurant in Bodrum on the Aegean Sea. He loved his job and the mediterranean climate but his love for people, new cultures and cuisines was a huge driving force. Ali never believed that he “belonged to one country, one religion or one border” so when Celebrity Cruise Lines began recruiting, he knew what he had to do. With just one day notice to get to Istanbul for his interview, Ali got a haircut, purchased a new suit and spent all night on the bus! Of the 22 people who interviewed for the position, only 3 were hired…and Ali was one of them. And you’ll never guess what his first job was…yep, he was a bus boy again! He then spent the next 5 years honing his skills and visiting country after country; over 50 to be exact! He would head inland and spend his time with the locals immersing himself in their culture, enjoying their food.
Executive Chef Erasto Jacinto joined Napkins in 2014 and his career started out a bit like Ali’s. Chef arrived in California in 1986 and joined Mustards Grill as the dishwasher. He grew with Mustards Grill, became Chef and helped them become the legend (for non-vegans anyway!) they are today. In 2012, after 26 years with Mustards, he journeyed out on his own before finally making Napkins his new home. Chef grew up on an organic farm in Mexico. He and his family grew many crops that included corn, beans and wheat. He feels it is “so bad that people started using that [pesticides]. It ruins the soil.” Chef Jacinto’s goals for Napkins include working directly with local farmers to create a farm to table experience for his guests. He is also using his love for veggies to add new vegan options to his menu!
In the midst of all of this talking, I started my meal with their beautiful, sweet beet salad. I had to ask Ali what he thought of the salad minus the bacon and goat cheese that is usually on it and his comment was, “way better, I should hang out with you guys more often!” Then Chef made a plate of delicious roasted vegetables – squash, eggplant, mushrooms…how can something so simple be so delicious and satisfying? We finished off the meal with a sweet, light dairy-free orange sorbet. It was really a perfect finish to my meal.
And here is some exciting news. The last time I was in Napkins, Ali and I discussed the possibility of Napkins adding a vegan option or two to their menu. This really got him thinking and he has decided it is time to make some changes. In addition to adding vegan-friendly entrees to the menu, he also wants to label everything that is vegetarian, vegan and that can be made vegan! Hurray! They change their menu seasonally so this is the perfect time to make this all happen. Ali explained it to me like this, “every kitchen has vegetables. Anyone who calls themselves a full restaurant and can’t handle a vegan, maybe they are in the wrong business. You have your burner, you have your Chef, you have your items.” Are you beginning to love this guy as much as I am?
Although Ali is no longer a part of Tarla Mediterranean Grill, he had a vision for downtown Napa when he helped open the restaurant in 2011. His amazing vision of Napa’s growth includes his belief that by 2025, Napa will compete with areas like Tuscany as a destination. The addition of at least three vegan restaurants in downtown Napa is also a part of his vision for Napa’s future. He has even thought about opening a small vegetarian/vegan restaurant that will seat 20-30 diners and offer beer and wine. He feels that a vegan restaurant would do very well in downtown Napa. “I have the courage, I think I have the knowledge and I have the team.” Ali believes that with education people are getting concerned about the food we eat and the treatment of animals. And his thoughts regarding mainstream acceptance, “Being vegetarian is normal now. Vegan will be the same thing in 5 years.”
I had the pleasure of meeting Ali over four years ago when I was brand new to Napa. The vegan options were very limited at the time and my husband and I found ourselves at the newly opened Tarla Mediterranean Grill. He and his partners were there that day and we struck up a conversation. He was friendly and really excited to help us and make sure we had a wonderful vegan meal. Steve and I were both really grateful for the delicious food and good conversation. But it wasn’t until I sat down with Ali recently to interview him for my blog that I realized what an extraordinary person he is. Open, loving, accepting and happy are the first few words that come to mind. So whether you are coming in for a glass (or bottle) of wine, a cocktail, brunch, lunch with friends, a sophisticated but straight forward vegan meal, a Warriors game or a night of dancing, Napkins Bar & Grill truly does have something for everyone The next time you’re in, please let Ali know that you read about him on my blog. I know he will love that! And I truly believe that if anyone can open a vegan restaurant and make it a big success…Ali is our guy!
I hope to see you down at Napkins very soon. I’ll be the red head out on the dance floor sipping a Forbidden Sour! We’ll have a dance and as always…eat, drink and be vegan!