Empire Grill and Tap Room, a chic and polished fixture of downtown Palo Alto for more than 20 years, is preparing to close its doors later this month.
The Emerson Street restaurant, well-known for its beer selection, patio seating and formal, old-school aesthetic, is planning to shut down just as the city is making an effort to protect retail along the block between Hamilton and Forest avenues. Over the past year, several businesses on the downtown's periphery -- including Blue Chalk Cafe and Jungle Copy -- have closed down or relocated, typically because of high rents.
The recent trend prompted the City Council to pass earlier this week a special ordinance requiring retail use on this block of Emerson Street. The change was made upon request of Mayor Greg Scharff, Councilwoman Karen Holman and Greg Schmid, who wrote a memo last November warning that the restaurants on this block are "now vulnerable to office conversions."
Planning Director Curtis Williams also said this week that he has heard from at least two property owners on the block about plans to convert to office space, which typically draws higher rates.
Scharff told the Weekly that the council's action came at an opportune time, given Empire's pending closure.
"I think we were lucky with our timing," Scharff said. "With the Empire Tap Room going out, we will have to have a new retail or restaurant establishment there. They won't be able to put offices here."
He praised the restaurant, saying it was one of his favorites in the city because of its outdoor patio and wide beer selection.
"It's just really unfortunate that they're going out of business," Scharff said. "They're a Palo Alto institution."
Holman expressed a similar sentiment and said she was concerned about the closure of the restaurant, which she said occupies a "key property" on the Emerson block. Though there have been rumors for some time that the restaurant was struggling, Holman said she was surprised to learn Thursday about its pending closure.
"It's a unique venue in Palo Alto, especially with its outdoor garden," Holman said. "It's a real loss to the community."