The origin of the term "dishcrawl" — subbing out the drinks for food — is decidedly less established, but it might actually have local roots. In 2010, founder Tracy Lee started running walking-friendly foodie events in San Jose to promote a gaming application called Battledish, soon realizing the crawls were far more popular than the app itself. She transitioned into organizing dishcrawls full time, growing from the Bay Area to 250 cities across the country and Canada.
Dishcrawl's Bay Area presence can be found from San Francisco micro-hoods to downtown Mountain View and University Avenue in Palo Alto. The crawl usually stops at three restaurants, all within walking distance of each other, and for around $40, diners get to sample a significant amount of fare at each. They don't know where they will be eating until they get there.
Last month, for the very first time, Dishcrawl descended upon Palo Alto's sleepy second downtown, California Avenue.
"California Avenue, Palo Alto, is way more than a Caltrain stop," an event description read. "The area is now one of the hidden gems for local businesses and foodies alike in the central Peninsula."
So on a warm May evening, a group of about 20 people — some old, some young, some couples, some singles, some veteran crawlers, some newbies — met at Asian street food spot Spice Kit to kick off the evening.
The food element didn't disappoint, and at first glance, the food is what outsiders would think is the best part about such an event. But surprisingly, the camaraderie of an evening spent with a group of people, getting to know them over food, was almost better.
At Spice Kit, we munched on steamed pork buns with grilled kurobata pork belly, pickled cucumbers, scallion and hoisin sauce; 24-hour braised beef short ribs banh mi (sandwiches) and lotus chips. If you wanted a Thai iced tea or Hitachino Nest white ale to wash it down, that was on your dollar. Drinks are not included with Dishcrawl, unless it's a booze-specific event.
The best part about Spice Kit was that chef-owner Will Pacio came out with the first buns and told the restaurant's genesis story as we ate.
"I grew up in Ohio," he said. "I grew up with a lot of bad Asian food."
One crawler gleefully chimed in, "I'm from Ohio!"
He talked about his path from Stanford's School of Medicine to the kitchen and his experience cooking under renowned chef Thomas Keller at his landmark restaurant The French Laundry in Yountville.
One diner, a veteran of five previous Bay Area dishcrawls, stopped eating to ask Pacio if the marinade used for the banh mi short rib filling is "Thomas Keller-inspired."
"Everything is kind of Thomas Keller-inspired," he laughed.
Led by a Dishcrawl organizer, the crowd headed across the street to Lotus Thai Bistro, where it became clear that an eating strategy is necessary. We were first served a plate with a sample-sized bowl of the chicken tom yum soup with lemongrass, mushroom, chili paste, kefir leaf — a highlight of the evening — and on the side, fresh cucumber salad and a Thai samosa. Next came out plates of veggie spring rolls, pad see-ew (flat rice noodles) with chicken and broccoli, and sticky rice with mango for dessert. (The organizer later said the spring rolls and dessert were a surprise to her and that restaurants will often serve more than they promise to the organizers beforehand.)
The owner came out to say hello, but given his limited English, didn't give the same amount of history as Pacio.
While at Lotus Thai, one crawler was still talking about Spice Kit. Rosema Hermano, who lives and works in Santa Clara, said she "loves to eat" but had never been to the area.
"I'm definitely going to come back," she said.
Almost at stomach capacity, we left Lotus Thai and walked down the street toward Caltrain, wondering where our last stop would be.
The group came to a halt outside The Counter. One guy tapped out, mumbling something about being too full to eat burgers. The rest of us went in.
As at Spice Kit, a Counter employee talked about the restaurant's concept and the food we would be served: mini burgers, sweet potato fries and — drum roll, please — churro milkshakes, with real churros mixed in.
The food was good — the milkshakes surprisingly so — but the chain restaurant seemed a strange choice for foodies hoping to try out new, unique dishes as part of what's billed as a "food adventure."
Dishcrawl's Bay Area community manager, Evan Morris, said The Counter was an exception to Dishcrawl's usual suspects.
"Most of the places we work with are locally owned," he said. But, "the Counter is popular and people love the hamburgers there, so we try to work those (types of places) into our Dishcrawls as well."
Also, not every restaurant jumps at the chance to participate. For a very small restaurant that's packed every night, bringing a group of 20 diners in might not make sense. For a struggling restaurant, the price point might not be affordable. Others don't want to alienate regular customers for a one-off event. And some are too expensive for Dishcrawl's own price point.
"The model doesn't really work for everyone and that's OK," Morris said.
And for those who do participate, it's more about exposure than profit, though Dishcrawl does divvy out a portion of ticket sales to each restaurant.
"I thought it sounded like a no-brainer," Spice Kit owner Will Pacio said.
"On the business owner's side, we're just trying to get the word out, right? It's a really easy way to do that. They did all the leg work."
Morris said future California Avenue Dishcrawls have not been scheduled, and they like to move around a bit before repeats. He hinted they haven't done crawls in Mountain View, Los Altos and University Avenue in awhile.
For information on future Dishcrawl events, go to dishcrawl.com/peninsula/.