Downtown Palo Alto offers two experiences that are easy on the wallet, yet give those seeking a creative and romantic ambience plenty of bang for their buck. Think of the honeymoon scene from "It's a Wonderful Life," — without the leaking roof and Victrola-improvised rotisserie chicken. These places offer exotic food, ambience and entertainment suitable for a first date, anniversary or a leave-the-kids-with-the-babysitter night out.
With centuries-old influences, the belly dancing fits the fanciful "once upon a time" theme at Kan Zeman. The restaurant at 274 University Ave. offers a full menu of the flavors of the Middle East and exotic dance, which takes place on most Friday and Saturday evenings.
With her long brown hair flowing down her back, Azura, a regular dancer at Kan Zeman, sways and shimmies round the room, keeping time to the music with golden castanets while encouraging guests to join in the dance.
"She always gets people to dance with her. It's fun," patron Teesta Kaur said.
Azura, who also goes by her daytime, high-tech-job name of Cathy George, has gone to great lengths to bring authentic Middle-Eastern-dancing styles to Kan Zeman. A lifelong dancer, Azura began belly dancing 12 years ago after sustaining a knee injury that prevented her from practicing ballet and jazz dance. Her study of belly dancing eventually took her to Egypt, where she sharpened her skills performing a belly dancing style called "raqs sharqi," or Egyptian cabaret.
"The music brings people out of their shell," customer Habir Bhatia said, approvingly.
The dancing exposes guests to romantic, creative aspects of Middle Eastern culture, but it also serves another purpose, said owner Abraham Khalil. The dance incorporates exuberance into the evening meal, something he enjoys providing to Silicon Valley professionals and students who work too hard, according to Khalil.
"We try to give [guests] a chance to have fun," he said.
Khalil promotes a relaxed atmosphere in his restaurant in the hope of encouraging casual, open social interaction. In his opinion, modern society is becoming more and more secluded, considering the time we spend alone or in front of the computer screen. There remains something special about in-person communication and by providing a low-key, stress-free environment, Khalil said he hopes locals will spend more time together.
"A face-to-face meeting eliminates all ambiguity. It's the reason why [we created] ... a neutral place for people to come down and relax," Khalil said.
For decades, romance seekers have vacationed, honeymooned, and cavorted in the Hawaiian islands. Hukilau, at 642 Ramona Street, brings the island romance straight to downtown Palo Alto.
"It's a great place for a meal. It's a great place to listen to music. It's a great place for a date," says Steve Frank, general manager of the Palo Alto location. "It's very mellow. There are a lot of icebreakers here. If you're on a date, you can look around and talk about the pictures hanging [on the walls], pictures of Hawaii. You can talk about vacations. It's a good escape from the cold weather," he said.
Beginning in February, live music will be yet another reason to visit Hukilau. On Friday nights from 8-11 p.m., Hukilau patrons will groove to the sounds of Hawaiian reggae fusion and traditional Hawaiian music
"We're from Hawaii. We do a bunch of originals, and covers of contemporary Hawaiian music, reggae, rock and blues, Eric Clapton, and the Doobie Brothers," said Elliot Hirai of the local duo Elliot & Kapena. "When we play with the Mango Kingz [another local group], people dance and sing. If we're doing an acoustic set, it's more chill. The crowd really likes it."
The bright colors, rhythmic island music, and cheerful warmth radiating from the staff all add up to one pleasant meal, customers said. And unlike a trip to Hawaii, the price is down-to-earth: between $12.95 and $21.95 for dinner entrees, with a wide range of specials, appetizers, and a full bar to complement a meal.
According to Frank, Hukilau is popular with professionals and students for double dates, group dates, or a private evening out. Whether you wear high-heels or flip-flops, you'll fit right in.
"We're popular with Google people. ... We serve a lot of young professionals, a lot of group dates," Frank said. "We also tend to get a lot of Stanford students and Menlo College students."
Recent Stanford grad, Xing Chen, appreciated the laid-back ambiance at Hukilau.
"The Hawaiian feel makes it very easy to talk to new people," he said after spending the evening dining with several other couples and friends.
"It's a casual place, not too stuffy," said Charlotte Helvestine, another recent Stanford graduate, who found Hukilau's reggae music relaxing after a busy week.
When asked why he would bring a date to Hukilau, Juan Bravo, a regular customer, said "It's a nice place, there's good food, and the staff is great."
"There aren't a lot of Hawaiian restaurants in the area. Hukilau is something different," he said.