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Napa restaurant immortalized in new exhibition by artist John Donahue

Napa Valley’s small but solid culinary mecca is about to take center stage with a new art exhibit. It highlights 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 of these were painted by artist John Donahue, who became famous for his All the Restaurants series of more than 600 paintings of restaurants in New York City.

Donahue, a former cartoonist and editor for The New Yorker, began painting New York restaurants in 2017 and has since sold prints of his work to help restaurant employees earn over 30,000 dollars during the pandemic. His enthusiasm for his illustrations has led to thousands of requests from fans, turning his hobby into a full-time gig and publishing three books featuring his illustrations in New York, Paris and London. Published.

Napa Valley is his latest muse.

For the exhibition, which opens Saturday in Yountville and runs through October 2nd, Donahue has painted Napa’s most famous and classic establishments. But beyond fame and long lines, he’s highlighted the region’s diversity with restaurants throughout Napa County, from his Canyon to Calistoga.

A painting of the French Laundry by artist John Donahue on display at the Napa Valley Museum through October 2nd.

Courtesy John Donahue

His collection honors local favorites such as Rutherford’s La Luna Market, St. Helena’s Dive Bar, Anna’s Cantina, and Tacos El Muchacho Alegre (a taco truck parked outside an auto shop in Napa). Osha He’s Ty or Four He’s Seasons He’s also newcomers like Truss in Calistoga, and a few permanently closed spots (Terra, Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen, Gran Electrica), immortalized by his illustrations. It has become a thing.

In addition to exhibiting alongside a gallery dedicated to French Laundry founder Sally Schmidt, Donahue sells signed prints from the Napa Collection on his website.

Chronicle told Donahue about paintings of restaurants, exhibits in Napa, and the best places to eat in wine country. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What is the creative process for drawing a restaurant?

A: I go to the place, stand in front of it and paint. It usually takes about 20 minutes to draw a place. I take the drawing home, scan it, digitize it, and add color later on the computer. It’s almost like Google Street View when you go painting. You never know what you’ll find. There were one or two places along the way where I had to draw trucks and cars.

Q: You said that painting is a form of therapy. Could you elaborate on that?

A: For me, painting is about being in the present moment. Painting takes you out of your head. Most importantly, it is non-verbal. Our thoughts are made up of words, so the reason why we are pounding, worrying, and anxious is because we are thinking about something. I think it looks a lot like someone playing golf. Since you are focused on non-verbal things, painting allows you to enter that space.

I also draw from ink and life, but do not modify. It is very liberating not to be held back by the fear of making mistakes.

Artist John Donahue spends about 20 minutes sketching each restaurant.

Artist John Donahue spends about 20 minutes sketching each restaurant.

Courtesy Bob McLenahan

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

A: I think people respond to work when they see that restaurant where they had a first date, proposed to their spouse, went with their dad, and had a good experience. When they see it, it almost involves time travel. They want to remember that good moment, so they have it on the wall.

Q: How do you choose the restaurants to draw?

A: When I started, I had a lot of options. I intuitively knew where to draw. I have received thousands of requests and now I paint places that people want.When I’ve been to Napa, Paris and London, I used a variety of sources, including journalists and websites, and had many authoritative pictures. I asked people I’ve found that if 3-4 people mention the same place, it matters.

Q: Why did you choose Napa Valley for your next subject? Have you been to Napa before?

A: I didn’t. I was fresh out of college and he was in San Francisco once in the late 1990s. I have never driven past San Francisco. Napa She was contacted by Laura Rafferty, director of the Valley Museum, who wanted to do a show at a restaurant in Napa. I’ve always wanted to paint more places, but Napa is a special place. Home of the French Laundry. There is a lot of culinary excellence there.

I used airline miles to go there.They put me in a place with a local resident and I was there for 10 days in early June.It was a lot of fun. Nothing beats painting all day.

Q: Have you ever eaten at the restaurant you drew? Do you have any favorites?

A: I ate some. California has so much fresh produce that it’s always a great place to visit. I think I ate there almost every day. Not cheap but not expensive and really fresh. That’s what makes it fun. I took a couple of their crustless quiches for my flight home. It was fun to draw it too.

Jess Lander is a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: jess.lander@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @Jesslander