French Laundry alum’s new restaurant looks to fill void left by a beloved Napa Valley dining institution

Four years after beloved Napa Valley restaurant Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen closed, a new restaurant is moving into the historic downtown St. Helena space. Charlie’s, from French Laundry alum Elliot Bell, is set to open this fall with a focus on local ingredients.

Expect dishes like pork chops brined with apples and spent grain from brewery Mad Fritz. Many of the ingredients will be sourced from nearby farms including Wolf Ranch Quail, St. Helena Peach Farm and K&J Orchards. Also on the menu are various family recipes like a caramelized onion dip and chips that’s leveled up with the addition of caviar and a banana bread courtesy of Bell’s mom.

The restaurant has been five years in the making. Bell, who worked at the famed Thomas Keller establishment for more than a decade, most recently as the executive sous-chef, had been scouting locations for his own spot in St. Helena. Keller introduced him to vintner Joel Gott of Gott’s Roadside fame, who’d purchased the Cindy’s space in 2018 and had been using it as a commissary kitchen for his gas station restaurant the Station.

Gott was hopeful that a local resident would take over the space, and called Bell’s decision to open the restaurant “a big win for the town.”

Charlie’s will open in the former St. Helena home of Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen, which closed in 2018.

Courtesy Emma K. Morris

Though the neighborhood vibe will remain largely unchanged, Bell wants to make the space feel more light-filled and open. He plans to raise the ceiling and make room for a large horseshoe bar. The dining room and bar will seat about 60 people on the first floor, with space for more at a casual wine lounge on the second floor. There will also be private dining available on this floor.

Named after his 2-year-old son, Charlie’s is looking to re-create the feeling of community Cindy’s was known for, Bell said. “I wanted something for the community, something that could grow with the generations and something that can really be a piece of St. Helena, which has helped me and my family grow so much.”

During its 15-year run, Cindy’s, from Napa Valley restaurateur Cindy Pawlcyn, was a cozy yet upscale white-tablecloth establishment. It was a favorite of St. Helena residents, who entered the late-1800s building via a back street sandwiched between railroad tracks and the town’s busy main drag. Similar to Pawlcyn’s debut Napa Valley restaurant Mustards, Cindy’s was known for elevated comfort fare, like rabbit tostada, polenta fries and the Chinatown Duck Burger (some of Cindy’s dishes can still be found today at Mustards).

“Cindy’s was always the locals’ hangout,” said Bell, who frequented the restaurant with his wife. “It had a deep spot in everyone’s heart here; (it) created such fond memories, and I’m excited to kind of re-create that.”

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Parklet at Cotogna, 490 Pacific Avenue in San Francisco, Calif., on Thursday, July 30, 2020. in San Francisco, Calif., on Thursday, July 30, 2020. Due to indoor dining being prohibited due to coronavirus pandemic, many San Francisco restaurants have put up "shared spaces platforms" where tables and chairs have been placed on sidewalks and parking spaces.

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In the lead-up to the opening, Charlie’s will partner with local businesses and events for several pop-ups, including at BottleRock Napa Valley over Memorial Day weekend.

Charlie’s. Opening fall 2022. 1327 Railroad Ave., St. Helena.

Jess Lander is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @jesslander