Did you ever imagine a Napa Valley–based burger-and-fries eatery could become the challenger to California’s iconic In-N-Out Burger? Bets are on that Gott’s Roadside, with its eight locations in and around the San Francisco Bay Area (and growing!) is poised to do so.
Wine lovers will know the name Joel Gott, as it graces his eponymous wine label, established in 1996 with 300 cases of Amador County Zinfandel. Today, Joel Gott Wines are offered in almost every wine shop and grocery store across the U.S. The wines are produced by Joel’s wife, Sarah Gott, whose strength is “definitely the fine-tune blending of our wines,” says Gott, who adds that “blending is absolutely the most important part of what we do,” given that the company sources grapes from 200 different vineyards across the state of California.
The best-known labels in the winery’s portfolio are its juicy, dark-fruited 815 Cabernet Sauvignon — a canny reference to August 15, the birthday of Joel and Sarah’s daughter — and its bright, zippy Sauvignon Blanc.
The flagship restaurant in St. Helena, Calif., opened its doors on Sept. 24, 1999. At the time, Joel and his brother Duncan had taken over a historic burger shack, Taylor’s Refresher, and reopened it as Taylor’s Automatic Refresher. The name was changed to Gott’s Roadside in 2010. The original restaurant’s sign, recently refurbished, still hangs as a memorial. (It was also celebrated in Kourtney Kardashian Barker’s Instagram post from Feb. 17 2022, in which she declared, “I’m moving to Napa.”)
So, what was on the menu on opening day? “French fries and burgers. We looked for the best beef we could get and the best bread for buns,” says Joel. “And then we realized we needed a secret sauce. Like mad scientists, we started playing around with different amounts of mayonnaise and ketchup and relish and salt and pepper and whatever else should go into a secret sauce, and then we had our sauce — the same one we use today.”
A few weeks after opening, Joel realized a slight oversight: Sarah didn’t eat beef. “I asked myself, 'What can we make that Sarah will eat?' And I'd been to Mustards Grill, down the road, a week earlier and had ahi tuna with crackers.” So, Gott, taking to heart the maxim that all the best artists steal, took a page out of the Mustards playbook and engineered an ahi tuna burger soaked in soy and dressed with ginger-wasabi mayonnaise. It’s the same one served today. “It was all very common sense,” he says.
Perhaps the biggest mistake Joel ever made was launching his roadside burger stand right in the middle of harvest time in Napa Valley. “That was the worst time to open a restaurant,” reflects Gott with a wry smile. “That was the year I decided to open Gott’s, redo the kitchen in my own house, and accept an offer to cater all of the meals for Duckhorn Vineyards employees throughout the entire harvest season,” he recalls, adding soberly, “We got through it, and at the end of the ’99 harvest, Duckhorn gave us a three-liter bottle that everyone who worked at the winery signed as a thank you.”
The eight Gott’s Roadside locations fan out from the northern flagship in St. Helena southward to the city of Napa (adjacent to the popular Oxbow Market), the town of Greenbrae in Marin County, Walnut Creek in the East Bay, the San Francisco Ferry Building, the city’s Mission Bay district, a small outpost in San Francisco International Airport, and Palo Alto. And the menus are the exact same at each location, except for SFO, which has a modified menu.
The burgers, made with Niman Ranch beef, are the main attraction — along with the thin, crunchy-crisp fries — and deliver remarkable consistency in flavor, balancing salty, sweet, and savory elements whether prepared in Palo Alto or in St. Helena. The turkey patties, made with Diestel Family Ranch birds, are always firm, nicely charred, amply salted, and utterly filling.
Gott’s cheeseburger deserves a photo on the Wikipedia page for cheeseburger. Served on a toasted egg bun, oozing with melty American cheese, and packed with crisp lettuce, ripe tomatoes, pickles, and secret sauce, it’s an instant classic. Sub the beef for a flavor-packed Diestel turkey patty, and you get turkey burger fireworks. Gott’s specialty is taking the staple burger and layering it with locally sourced, fresh ingredients, as evidenced by its California burger, which is stuffed with a fried egg, local Cowgirl Creamery’s Wagon Wheel cheese, Zoe’s bacon, arugula, balsamic onions, and mayo. It’s a vision of California itself, sandwiched between two toasted sesame brioche buns — and so delicious.
When asked what his current favorites are, Joel is emphatic about the extra-crispy chicken schnitzel sandwich and the Texas burger with Jack cheese, sliced avocado, pico de gallo, mayo, and pickled jalapeño. For seafood lovers, that ahi burger offers a generous portion of nicely seasoned tuna; the same cut is cubed and cured for the ahi poke crispy tacos. And when you’ve had your fill of burgers, the Niman Ranch Fearless Frank is the kind of dog that’ll transport you back to your younger days, careening with friends around the county fairgrounds, bellies filling with festival food. The Fearless Frank is served on an irresistibly soft egg bun, which soaks up the ketchup and any other toppings you’ve layered on top.
Given Gott’s background in wine, you can expect a great wine selection — his top picks are anything made by Charles & Charles winemaker Charles Bieler, who also has a bright, crisp French rosé on the list. Ironically, Gott can’t serve his own Joel Gott Wines at his roadside establishments because California tied-house law prohibits makers of alcoholic beverages from supplying their wares directly to retailers who sell alcoholic beverages. Translation: His restaurant license prevents him from selling his own wines to himself. Time to rewrite the books, California, and let us drink Joel Gott’s wines with Joel Gott’s burgers!
Although California’s arcane wine laws create ample confusion, one thing is crystal clear: Gott’s Roadside is uniquely Northern Californian — a burger-and-fries staple from a fourth-generation California family. And if Joel Gott gets his way, it will become a more widely available experience. “We want to expand, and we continue to look for great opportunities in the Bay Area. Hopefully, we’ll find something in Southern California soon,” says Gott. Most importantly, he hopes that locals and visitors to the Bay Area will relish the hospitality at Gott’s. “I hope we provide a mini-Disneyland experience of hospitality and warmth and that people get the depth of our menu, because there really is something for everyone.”
Jonathan Cristaldi is a Bay Area–based wine writer whose work appears in Food & Wine, Departures, The SOMM Journal, Tasting Panel Magazine, and Marin Magazine. He is also the Napa correspondent for Decanter.