Palo Alto's dining renaissance

City's eating scene reveals a new guard of restaurant concepts

There's a generally held perception that the Peninsula dining scene is dead.

But a walk through downtown Palo Alto on any given day at dining hours will tell you otherwise. On hot summer nights, hordes of people stand in a blocks-long line for close to an hour to eat ice cream sandwiches. Throughout the year, hungry diners put their name on a waitlist at an Israeli hummus shop owned by a local tech entrepreneur. It's nearly impossible to get a reservation at 18-year-old Greek classic Evvia, unless it's made plenty in advance or diners are willing to eat after 9 p.m. Parking is notoriously difficult.

Palo Alto is undergoing a dining renaissance of sorts, with a host of niche, casual restaurants leading the way.

"There's an evolution," local restaurant consultant Frank Klein said. "A base has been built, and now people are understanding that other (restaurants) can be successful."

That base remains, with some longstanding restaurants like Evvia still holding their own amidst all the change. But newcomers to the scene indicate a move away from the city's higher-end roots and toward casual eateries that fill a specific dining need in Palo Alto.

Take Oren's Hummus Shop, an Israeli restaurant that opened at 261 University Ave. about three years ago. The small, 45-seat eatery is consistently full, with people waiting in line outside on almost any given night — not just weekends — to rip homemade pita and dip pieces of it in hummus made with garbanzo beans imported straight from Israel. Oren's also does enormous take-out business, so much so that the ownership is plotting a new location in Mountain View with a dedicated register and area for take-out customers.

Oren Debronsky, an Israeli-born technology entrepreneur, opened the restaurant in 2011 with his wife and another couple, David and Mistie Cohen.

"The short of it is there was really no good hummus, falafel, Israeli food," said David Cohen, the restaurant's executive chef. "And being the entrepreneur and outgoing guy who solves problems, Oren basically said, 'Well, if it doesn't exist, I'm going to make it.'"

So he did. Oren's concept isn't rocket science — it's basically Israeli street food done well, at reasonable prices and with good service — but it hit a hard-to-find sweet spot in the current Palo Alto dining scene.

"We have what people are wanting in the overall dining experience: a fun, light, airy environment; a communal experience; really good food, healthy food; quality service — all at a pretty reasonable price," Cohen said.

Oren's is part of what Cohen sees as an overall trend in the dining world away from the high-end, white tablecloths of Palo Alto's past.

"I remember when Spago was here and Zibibbo was three times as big and there was that whole trend going on," Cohen said, referencing celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck's American restaurant, Spago, and Zibibbo, an upscale Mediterranean restaurant still operating on Kipling Street. "There was that higher level of dining ... and that's kind of tapered off, following a general trend of dining."

Though Cohen himself comes from the fine-dining world — he got his start in Philadelphia, went on to receive a culinary degree from renowned European cooking school Le Cordon Bleu and spent years chefing in Napa, San Francisco and the South Bay — that's not the future, he said.

"You look at niche places like CREAM — in the summertime there's 80 people standing in line for an ice cream sandwich. If you told a kid from Philadelphia that's how it was going to be, he would have never believed you.

"I think it really epitomizes, I'll boldly say, the direction of American dining."

Mario Ortega, who has been Evvia's chef for more than seven years and before that worked at San Francisco sister restaurant Kokkari, agrees.

"I think there's a big opportunity for that middle-ground type place to do well here," he said. "It doesn't necessarily have to be an Evvia or Tamarine or Reposado."

But, he added, just any restaurant won't make it.

"You can't just do what's already here. ... It's still (about) putting together a package for people to draw (them) in."

Cohen sees other Palo Alto restaurants as heading in the same direction of the quick, casual, health-driven concept that are successfully luring in today's diners. He referenced LYFE Kitchen, the informal, health-centric restaurant on Hamilton Avenue, and Umami Burger, the outpost of a very popular, upscale Los Angeles-based burger chain that couldn't contrast more with local burger establishments like Kirk's Steakburgers.

"You're going to see these concepts get bigger and bigger," Cohen said. "It's going to — we hope, LYFE hopes, Umami Burger hopes — reshape some of American dining. And bring that quick, casual, healthy idea for the first time into the mainstream."

Though it seems simple, not everyone can make it work.

Blocks away from Oren's is 185 University Ave., which is now home to Sam's Chowder House, the second location of a Half Moon Bay seafood restaurant. Sam's opened in November of last year under the same ownership as the space's previous tenant: Campo Pizzeria, a sort of farm-to-table Italian restaurant with pizza, pasta, small plates and the like cooked by well-established San Francisco chef Sean O'Brien.

Campo closed after less than nine months in business.

"As much as we love Campo, there are eight Italian restaurants and 10 pizzerias in contiguous downtown Palo Alto, and there aren't any seafood restaurants like Sam's," a goodbye note on Campo's website read when it closed last September. "So we thought it was time, and we think this is the perfect spot."

Owner Julie Shenkman said it was the pressure to open another Sam's that drove the decision to close Campo but acknowledged that the restaurant concept might not have been different enough to make it.

"We knew there were other Italian restaurants in the neighborhood, but in a year, from when we first opened Campo to when we opened Sam's, the dining scene did change," she said. "A lot of new restaurants (were) opening and in a similar vein, to the point where it did get to be a crowded market for that type of concept."

185 University also reportedly has the highest restaurant rent in downtown Palo Alto at $32,000 per month. Rents are an increasingly significant force within the Palo Alto dining scene, many within the industry say.

"It was rumored that Campo was paying between $30,000 to $35,000 (per month)," said local restaurant consultant Klein, who also owns Asian Box in Town & Country Village. "That was what the space was offered to me at. That's just astronomical. That's astronomical. You need to do $5 million a year to make that economically viable."

"He's the most challenged guy on the street," said longtime Silicon Valley restaurateur Bruce Schmidt of lessee Paul Shenkman.

Schmidt knows what it's like to be that guy. He opened Lavanda, an upscale Mediterranean-Croatian restaurant, at 185 University in 2002. He, too, entered the market with the goal of filling a gap in the downtown dining scene, and did so for 10 years until his lease came up and he couldn't re-negotiate, he said. This is a common, cyclical pattern in Palo Alto. As years-long leases expire, waves of restaurants come and go.

High rents can make or break a restaurant concept in Palo Alto, said Klein, who has consulted on restaurants from MacArthur Park and Junnoon in Palo Alto to Cliff House and Original Joe's in San Francisco.

"You just can't say, 'OK, I'm opening up now and I feel good about now.' You have to say, 'What are the economics?' Not just your business, but what are the costs of your operation in years one, two and three? I imagine it's going to be a hell of a lot more than people are expecting. And so if you're paying rents — high rents — and you're paying more to operate, that can be a death note, even for a good concept in Palo Alto."

Klein used Mantra, an upscale California-Indian restaurant on Emerson Street he consulted for, as an example.

"Mantra was successful. It was good food, and they were doing good economics. I won't disclose what they were doing here but they were doing good, good money. It's just the economics didn't make sense for what Ashwani (the owner) wanted to put into it."

"We were very successful as a restaurant, but it was tough as a business," said Mantra owner Ashwani Dhawan, citing not only rent but also labor and the cost of food as challenging. (Tellingly, Dhawan decided to forego the risk of running a niche, fine dining establishment for a mainstream concept, opening SliderBar Cafe on University as his next venture.)

Signing on to pay high rents, on top of all the other costs of sustaining a business in an already challenging industry, is a significant financial investment — and a risk, especially for independent operators making their first go at a restaurant.

Evvia's Ortega said he'd love to open a restaurant of his own, but high rents and other costs deter him.

"You really have to play it safe," Schmidt said. "You can't be as experimental as maybe they are in Oakland."

(In recent years, many Bay Area chefs have migrated to Oakland as a place to develop and expand without brutally high rents.)

But for well-established restaurant groups with the capital, infrastructure and manpower to do it, opening a restaurant in Palo Alto is a no-brainer.

And many are doing it. There's Tacolicious, the small, upscale taqueria empire based in San Francisco. The Tacolicious restaurant group, owned by Joe Hargrave, made its first jump outside of San Francisco to Emerson Street last year, spending $500,000 for construction alone, plus new furniture, supplies and all the trimmings a new restaurant needs.

Across the street from Tacolicious is the space that housed Palo Alto icon Empire Tap Room for two decades but is now being transformed into San Francisco favorite Delfina Pizzeria. When the restaurant closed earlier this year, the space was quickly snatched up by Craig Stoll, a James Beard award-winning chef who owns four Italian restaurants in San Francisco.

Many hail the impending arrival of Stoll's Delfina Pizzeria — a standout even in the much more competitive San Francisco food scene — as a major sign that increasingly, Palo Alto is a place to be — and eat.

"When we decided to expand, Palo Alto was our first choice of places," Stoll said. "Outside of San Francisco, it's one of the more densely populated areas with a really great, well-traveled, sophisticated dining public who is really diverse as well, from tech to professors and families. ... It's the public most similar to people in San Francisco who already appreciate the food we cook."

In the shadow of the City

The expansion of San Francisco restaurants like Tacolicious and Delfina to Palo Alto inevitably invites comparison between the two cities' dining scenes.

"From my point of view, there's still a lot lacking in terms of restaurants (in Palo Alto)," said Howie Bulka, who owns Howie's Artisan Pizza in Town & Country Village and previously ran upscale French-American restaurant Marche in Menlo Park. "When we really want to go on a food safari or we really want to entertain people or do an upscale dinner, we still eat in the City. And our best eating experiences are still in San Francisco."

Why is that? Simply put, San Francisco has many things that Palo Alto doesn't: a longstanding tradition of fine dining and cutting-edge chefs, urban (versus suburban) demographics, a wider labor pool, a booming bar and cocktail scene and a strong tourism industry. All those elements make for a steady stream of eaters and drinkers all over the City, Bulka said.

"When I go to San Francisco, we walk out the door of a restaurant at 10 o'clock and there's a whole 'nother crowd walking in," Bulka said. "The bars are just getting started. In restaurant vernacular, that's a third seating. That's a $3,000 Friday night bar tab.

"I don't think that exists here. Even downtown Palo Alto pretty much rolls up the carpets at 8:30, 9 o'clock. And with us, Friday and Saturday night we have a long wait list, but by 9 o'clock, it's all over."

Palo Alto restaurants draw business from the many families in the area as well as the university, which means they're dependent on those demographics' schedules, Bulka said.

"Whether it's a homogenous demographic or not, it's a fairly homogenous eating pattern (in Palo Alto). So they go on vacation at the same time. They don't eat out after 9 o'clock. They generally have kids in the car when they're going out mid-week. ... There's down months and up months because of school schedules, things like that. It's hard to run a tight-margin cash business on that basis."

The influx of San Francisco restaurateurs trying to bring a piece of the City to Palo Alto diners, though on the rise right now, is not a completely new trend.

In the 1990s, many notable San Francisco chefs and restaurateurs expanded south. Renowned chef Jeremiah Tower opened an outpost of his San Francisco restaurant, Stars, on Lytton Avenue in 1995. When Stars didn't make it, investors brought in Puck to run a new restaurant, Spago, in the same space. Zibibbo also opened in the late 1990s as a sister restaurant to San Francisco's Restaurant LuLu.

"We went to open Zibibbo because Palo Alto was like the next fashion — the next fruitful territory where we could open a similar restaurant," said Tacolicious owner Hargrave, who worked at Restaurant LuLu at the time.

Though many have tried, both then and now, it seems that no restaurateur can fully replicate the San Francisco dining experience in Palo Alto.

"What they're trying to do is they're trying to save you the trip," said restaurateur Schmidt, referencing Delfina Pizzeria as well as Sam's Chowder House, which is in Half Moon Bay. "But it's not the same, and I'll tell you why. When you go up to the City, you get the whole package. When you go to Sam's on the coast, you've got otters frolicking in the kelp. You're not going to get that in Palo Alto."

However, for restaurateurs, there are some downsides to doing business in San Francisco, and Palo Alto can become an attractive alternative.

"San Francisco has become the single most expensive city in the United States to own a restaurant," said Tim Stannard, founding partner of Bacchus Management, which operates Mayfield Bakery and Café in Town & Country Village, The Village Pub in Woodside and Spruce in San Francisco, among others. "It's prohibitively expensive now."

San Francisco has the highest minimum wage in the nation — $10.44 per hour — as well as increasingly expensive real estate, on top of costs such as payroll taxes and expenses mandated by the city's Board of Supervisors, Stannard said.

"I think that you will see more and more and more flight of restaurateurs away from San Francisco as long as San Francisco continues to make the city more and more expensive," he added. "People like me will continue to look to communities like the Peninsula that have everything we need."

But does the Palo Alto dining scene itself have everything it needs? Many in the industry say there are still holes to be filled and much room for culinary innovation.

"I still think there's a couple things that are needed in Palo Alto that aren't being served, and those are small, chef-driven restaurants," Klein said. "Where are the smaller Evvias? Where are the other Mayfields that are off University?"

Bulka said he's fond of the saying, "There's a whole lot of restaurants and nowhere to eat."

"It still strikes me as bizarre how little proprietorship there is and how little really cutting-edge things and quality and most contemporary trends (there are)," he said.

But perhaps it's this current dining renaissance, more than any previous time, during which those kind of restaurants will finally emerge — and succeed — in Palo Alto.

Related article:

The rebirth of Town & Country


2 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 17, 2014 at 10:23 am

Thank you, Howie Bulka, for your comments about closing time. Palo Alto shuts down way too early - and the focus on closing begins long before the actual close. It would be great if this article resulted in improvement on that front.

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Posted by Member
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 17, 2014 at 10:53 am

So now we have a new taco place, a new pizza place, a new burger place and a new ice cream sandwich place--dress them up however you will. It feels like University Ave is being transformed into restaurant row for college kids' tastes.

There are still plenty of us who want more upscale, more interesting dining experiences. And a great cocktail bar would help, too. The more interesting restaurants seem to be locating in and around California & Castro Avenues.

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Posted by Jeanie Smith
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jan 17, 2014 at 11:02 am

"I still think there's a couple things that are needed in Palo Alto that aren't being served, and those are small, chef-driven restaurants," Klein said. "Where are the smaller Evvias? Where are the other Mayfields that are off University?"

HEEEYYYYYYYY Come to California Avenue, Klein! Joanie's, Pastis, Bistro Elan, Anatolian's, Cafe Pro Bono, Cafe Del Sol, La Bodequita-- all fantastic smaller restaurants with superb menus. Also award-winning Mediterranean Cafe for amazing falafel, gyros, hummous. Also Counter Burger, Thai Kitchen, Shanghai Chinese, Palo Alto Pizza, Subway, Sushi, Indian, Starbucks-- we got all the more casual eateries, too. And of course the ONLY Michelin-starred restaurant in town, Baume...

I absolutely love Calif. Ave, and almost never go downtown anymore... why would I? :-)

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Posted by John
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 17, 2014 at 11:21 am

The reasons many restaurants and cafes close early is that there is generally not enough customer base to stay open beyond those times.

HOWEVER, with the influx of much better restaurants, the downtown can begin to attract more serious diners to eat in Palo Alto as opposed to going to SF. With more diners, other restaurants can then afford to stay open later. It is a vicious cycle one way or another; but given the Palo Alto demographics, there is definitely a need for better more sophisticated and experience restauranteurs. This is all good news for everyone.

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Posted by Vero Fan
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 17, 2014 at 11:32 am

If you haven't tried Vero, on Bryant, between University and Hamilton, it's highly recommended -- wonderful Italian food, prepared and served by knowledgeable professional staff -- the real thing. Delicious, well-priced, wonderful ambiance for business, romance, friends… These are the kinds of independent local restaurants we need to help keep going…

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Posted by Customer
a resident of South of Midtown
on Jan 17, 2014 at 11:41 am

There has been a lot of turnover in Palo Alto restaurants because, once a place becomes successful, the landlords inevitably raise the rent by some absurd amount. What follows is cost cutting measures as the management tries to stretch the budget, a drop in quality, customer disappointment and attrition, and closure. Palo Alto rents are too high to sustain good restaurants. This is a great shame for our city. It seems that owning an empty restaurant must be a better tax situation than making good rent on a thriving restaurant.

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Posted by resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 17, 2014 at 11:49 am

It would be nice if Greens Restaurant at Fort Mason in the City came down
to Palo Alto.

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Posted by curious
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 17, 2014 at 11:51 am

Obviously Bruce Schmidt didn't renew his lease because he had no business. The place was empty...Sam's Chowder House is packed at lunch and dinner.

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Posted by Downtowner
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jan 17, 2014 at 12:03 pm

Simple. SF has later restaurant activity because there are plenty of events which bring people out for entertainment. Concerts, movies, ballet, theater, etc get folks out of their houses so adding dinner after extends the evening. In Palo Alto, we go eat dinner, then what? Go home & play computer games or watch the telly? Put the kids to bed so they're ready for school the next day?

Without something entertaining to do ahead of time, most people don't wait until 9 pm to hit the restaurants here, especially weeknights. Aquarius is such a small theater (with broken down seats) that it can't spew potential dinner patrons out into town afterwards. RC & SM are much better for the movie-dinner routine. Remember supper clubs? Maddalena's? By the way, Flemings is packed, nightly, and serves later than downtown.

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Posted by Restauranteur
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 17, 2014 at 12:07 pm

Someone in this article touched on the economics of the restaurant industry. I'm certain experienced restauranteurs understand that rent shouldn't exceed 10% of revenues (the average is more like 6% nationwide); otherwise, it is very difficult to make any profit. It seems to me that there are plenty of unexperienced entrepreneurs entering downtown Palo Alto willing to pay exorbitant rents, dooming them to failure. I sure hope they are reading this.

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 17, 2014 at 12:36 pm

One thing that is lacking is family style restaurants with kids menus and a proper dining experience rather than fast food. Kids will eat healthy when there is a salad bar rather than salads on the menu too.

To take a family out for a dining experience it has become a very expensive affair without kids menus or family specials. Chinese and Bucca di Beppos seems to be the only option and that is not good enough.

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Posted by Laura
a resident of another community
on Jan 17, 2014 at 12:46 pm

I want to second the comments by "Vero Fan". We have loved supporting Vero through the ups and downs of past years because they consistently provide authentic, well-priced Italian food in a fun and comfortable environment. It's like visiting old friends when we show up, and it's where our older children want to dine when they come to visit from out of town. Quality and community go a long way in these types of local neighborhood restaurants.

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Posted by Karen S
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 17, 2014 at 12:55 pm

I'm grateful to finally have a dedicated seafood restaurant in downtown Palo Alto! Sam's fills a real gap in the local dining scene. I love the Half Moon Bay location too, and when I have time to watch the "otters frolicking in the kelp" I will certainly drive there. But I've found myself at Sam's several times a month so far, and I assure you I don't make it to the coast that often. As far as I'm concerned, Sam's Palo Also has brought the coast to me!

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Posted by big mouth
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 17, 2014 at 1:33 pm

wish we had some places with character downtown - a dive bar, a good old bakery - not paris baquette - thats ridiculous, even a grat produce stand/mart on univ

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Posted by Palo Alto Native
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 17, 2014 at 2:59 pm

Fine dining is not easy, as I am sure that Mr. Bulka and Mr. Klein have both come to realize. They both traded in fine
dining for much more casual concepts. It is hard to succeed at fine dining, nevertheless some do.

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Posted by Marie, Vino Locale fan
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 17, 2014 at 3:17 pm

"I still think there's a couple things that are needed in Palo Alto that aren't being served, and those are small, chef-driven restaurants," Klein said. "Where are the smaller Evvias?..."

There are still a precious few small, independently-owned restaurants in downtown Palo Alto, I would love to see a story about those.

I'm happy to put my vote in for one of my favorites: VINO LOCALE!

It's owned by three Palo Alto women who share their love of everything California - their chef puts together inventive, fresh, healthy dishes from local growers and producers, and the wine!!! It's largely small-production local wines, many of which are only available at Vino Locale. I haven't been by since they've changed up the menu a couple of weeks ago, but look forward to getting back to that cozy, Victorian house very soon, at least for a glass of wine and some nibbles at the bar.

A toast to women of Vino Locale, you're keeping the spirit of Palo Alto alive and local!

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Posted by Stravinsky
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 17, 2014 at 3:33 pm

A lot of sub-par, overpriced restaurants on University, mingled with a lot of false advertising (Paris Baguette, for example).

The real deals are on the cross-streets downtown! Avoid University per se at all cost, leave it for the Stanford kids.

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Posted by coooper
a resident of another community
on Jan 17, 2014 at 4:12 pm

Restaurants shot themselves in the foot during the dot-com bust when they went from closing at 10:00 to closing at 9:00. Prior, there were enough techies working late to fill up that last hour. Since then, restaurants have stuck with the 9:00 close and diners have gotten used to it.

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Posted by Chris Zaharias
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 17, 2014 at 4:15 pm

IMHO, the alpha and omega of Peninsula dining is Evvia.

- Best food, hands down.
- Most friendly, professional management and staff
- Impecabbly reliable, short order->served times
- Inviting, Greek Country Posh ambiance

[Disclosure: I'm Greek]

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Posted by Mimi
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 17, 2014 at 4:22 pm

We had a divine experience at Evvia's the other night. We don't care for meat, and had wonderful choices for chicken, and fish. There's absolutely no need to travel to S.F...tough parking....and stumbling up unwanted folks on the way to a restaurant.

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Posted by Mimi
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 17, 2014 at 4:28 pm

Please read: stumbling upon..

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Posted by where is the diversity?
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 17, 2014 at 6:43 pm

There have been articles in this newspaper about how the Chinese are buying up Palo Alto. But these restaurants all sound awfully Caucasian. Even the "California-Indian" restaurant sounds like Asian food dumbed down for Caucasians. Isn't anyone in Palo Alto interested in trying traditional dishes from other parts of the world? I was born and raised in California, but I find myself driving to out of town restaurants more and more because of the lack of diversity in Palo Alto.

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Posted by Nora Charles
a resident of Stanford
on Jan 17, 2014 at 7:00 pm

Posted by Member, a resident of Midtown
7 hours ago
So now we have a new taco place, a new pizza place, a new burger place and a new ice cream sandwich place--dress them up however you will. It feels like University Ave is being transformed into restaurant row for college kids' tastes.

There are still plenty of us who want more upscale, more interesting dining experiences. And a great cocktail bar would help, too. The more interesting restaurants seem to be locating in and around California & Castro Avenues.
I agree completely, Member. Also with resident, how wonderful it would be to have a Greens in Palo Alto. I still miss Maddalena's and Cafe Fino, also Bravo Fono and Babbo's.

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Posted by Anne G.
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 17, 2014 at 7:22 pm

I like the trend of more casual places, but don't want to lose the ability to go out for a more upscale meal without having to hoof it all the way to the city. I am so happy to see a place like Sam's Chowder House offering great fresh seafood here- such a nice addition to downtown.

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Posted by foodie
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 17, 2014 at 8:51 pm

I do think the dining scene has improved here since the '80s, but it's still nowhere near even close to the realm of freshness, innovation, variety especially for vegetarians, and price you can find in Oakland/Berkeley.

Having eaten at Greens several times, sorry, I just don't get it. Overpriced and not that good, every time I have eaten there.

I will try Sam's, the seafood and fish scene here is downright pathetic. I have my fingers crossed.

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Posted by emily
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 17, 2014 at 8:58 pm

I love that we are getting a lot of SF (and LA) founded eateries. I just wish that I would see fewer former retail/restaurant locations get turned into office space when stores and restaurants go out of business.

On another note, I'd love to see some authentic pho, better sushi, and a couple of great lounges downtown. We seriously lack a non-clubby spot to go have a quiet drink. We also need more places with outdoor seating! We have great weather 90% of the year! We should have more cafes with outdoor seating.

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Posted by Jay Park
a resident of Mountain View
on Jan 18, 2014 at 8:06 am

The commercial real estate prices on University Avenue likely prohibit authentic pho and sushi places. Palo Alto never has been a sushi town; pho is even tougher since there is no established Vietnamese community as there is in the South Bay.

Even the cheaper real estate on the side streets (Lytton Avenue and Hamilton Avenue) have not been good to a lot of restaurants looking for cheaper land. Kanpai Sushi on Lytton occupies the same space where another sushi restaurant (Jidaiya) failed. Higashi West is now Tacolicious (after at least one or two other rests).

On the "non-clubby spot" a lot of them have failed, presumably because people didn't go to those spots: Empire Tap Room, Maddalena's, Perry's, 42nd Street. Zibibbo is now a fraction its size during its heyday. There's the Wine Room on Ramona.

Outdoor dining on University Avenue (and most of today's downtown Palo Alto) is pretty much impossible due to the narrow sidewalks. Heck, there are places on University Avenue where a couple with a baby stroller can block all pedestrian traffic simply by stopping.

When the city laid out the streets, what we now know as downtown Palo Alto was not designed to accommodate today's vehicle and foot traffic. This is in stark contrast to a city like Paris, where Haussmann's 19th century urban planning designs called for wide avenues with ample sidewalk space. Palo Alto's city planners did not have the foresight to encourage pedestrian traffic, so now there is little opportunity for sidewalk dining space.

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Posted by outdoor eating
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 18, 2014 at 8:17 am

I don't know why anyone would want to eat outdoors right next to all that smoggy traffic. If the city wanted to encourage more pedestrian traffic and outdoor eating, they should close University Avenue to cars, at least during the dinner hour. There are plenty of other downtown streets that cars can use, and there would be plenty of space for cars if the city removed the street parking spaces.

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Posted by restoration needed
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 18, 2014 at 9:30 am

The most urgent need is to restore the streetscape and design integrity of
the Downtown by moving The Cheesecake Factory to ECR where it can have an outdoor patio which many of the other Cakes have. Give Cake its own space. Then offer the prime Downtown site to La Note Provencal Restaurant in Berkeley. Roxy Rapp are you listening?

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Posted by Sarah
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 18, 2014 at 11:33 pm

"where is the diversity?" - there are at least 4 Chinese restaurants in downtown Palo Alto(Tai Pan, Stream, Garden Fresh and Jin Jin). Please walk & look around downtown before you complained.

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Posted by Michael O
a resident of Stanford
on Jan 19, 2014 at 2:19 pm

Face it: the restaurant scene in a place is only as good as the taste of the diners. This is a place that has mourned the loss of the Hobie's in Town & Country, an example of one of the most insipid and awful restaurant chains in the country. (Read the comments: Web Link A biopsy of insipidness.) When there are more discriminating diners living here, there will be even more new restaurants. And Terun, when they can get more organized, is a decent new place on California -- the second-best restaurant on California after Mr. Cho's dirty little hole-in-the-wall.

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Posted by Bill Rayburn
a resident of Professorville
on Jan 20, 2014 at 12:49 am

I lived just off of California Ave from 1996-2011. Though it went through the ineveitable transitions, the dining scene there and on University Avenue never failed to offer a variety of different cuisines and always offered options for casual and inexpensive dining.

Here's my point, and boy do I have one. I have been reading about the restaurant scene in Palo Alto for years (even wrote about it occasionally), as well as experiencing it first hand. How can there be lengthy treatises like this and the best place in town, the most consistently good food, service and atmosphere, The Sundance Mine Company, never even gets mentioned?????

You may disagree with my assessment of The 'Dance, though the regular crowds would imply otherwise, but could you honestly say this iconic steak house should go unremarked upon?

I cannot come up with a single criticism of the Sundance. The bar, the appetizers; the restaurant and entrees...the service is very good. Whatever your poison, all top notch.

I simply don't get it.


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Posted by Paly Grad
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 20, 2014 at 4:38 am

While still lacking, the dining scene in Palo Alto has been improving steadily in recent years. That said, there are still relatively few eateries worth driving more than 10 minutes to: Evvia, Pampas, Patxi's, Sprinkles Cupcakes, Kara's Cupcakes, Tin Pot Creamery, and soon Delfina. For the most part, Downtown is filled with generic, uninspired, and overpriced Italian, Californian, Mediterranean, and American restaurants. And of the "destination eateries," nearly all of them are outposts of SF or LA eateries. Compare this with San Francisco or Berkeley where unique, delicious, and charmful restaurants number in the hundreds. Where's Palo Alto's Cheese Board, La Note, Frances, Great China, San Tung, The House, Genova Deli, Tartine Bakery, Hog Island, etc.?

Klein puts it best when he says that what is needed in Palo Alto is "small, chef-driven restaurants." Too many of the restaurants on University seem to be owner/investor-driven. They have modern décor, serve decent food, have perfectly worded menus, and sound great on paper. BUT What they lack is passion, signature dishes, and original mixtures of flavors. Eating out is not cheap, so when one does, one expects something you couldn't make yourself at home. You crave Evvia's enormous, juicy lamb chops, San Tung's dry fried chicken wings, Bi-Rite's salted caramel ice cream, Sushi Sam's crab/eel rolls, Grégoire's potato puffs... But a $15 personal size margherita pizza at Campo? Not really. There's a reason why almost all the good eateries in Palo Alto are outposts of established SF restaurants: they're the only chef-driven ones.

I agree with the commentator "where's the diversity?" While Palo Alto has acquired a small collection of decent dessert stores and European restaurants in recent years, the selection of Chinese and Japanese restaurants is especially overpriced and Americanized (and not in a good way). The closest solid Japanese restaurants are Sushi Tomi and Kappo Nami Nami in Mountain View. After that you have to drive to San Mateo and further for a good bite. The same goes with Chinese. Steam is very so-so and overpriced, Ming's even more so, Taipan is quite good but then again very pricey, and the rest are forgettable. I often find myself driving to Chef Chu's in Mountain View, Cooking Papa in Foster City, Koi Palace in Daly City, or the newly reopened Great China in Berkeley.

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Posted by Neighbor
a resident of another community
on Jan 20, 2014 at 12:02 pm

Anyone notice that California Cafe, next to Nordstrom, has closed up?

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Posted by Midtown1
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 20, 2014 at 12:58 pm

@Bill Rayburn regarding Sundance ~

I think that at times they get it just right, but there have been way too many times where they have failed my expectations.

It always seems that a huge party comes in and then our table is ignored, I don't get that, I assume the waitstaff all assist each other, but this happens every single time!

The bar music and crowd is very loud and when we're out celebrating a birthday, or some other event, it always seems the music in the bar gets louder and louder as the night progresses. What do we do, go at the early bird hour? The last time we had a waitress, she came to our table twice, once to take the order, and once to hand the bill over. We had to ask bus persons and other servers for refills on drinks.


I'd really like a nice Jewish deli here, why don't we have a good deli in the Bay Area?

The only option in Palo Alto I see is Max's, and we, (at least I'm sure most readers), would agree, the service is so spotty, and the food and service has gone downhill. The reviews on Yelp reflect my opinion, I had to wonder as I went to that site today, and each bad review is followed-up by the manager with almost the same sentence, "I'm shocked to hear this". How can this manager, (of whom I saw crouched down smoking a cigarette that was blowing into the sidewalk and the restaurant next door a week ago), be shocked when the customer reviews mention the same issues over and over.

Please give us a nice Jewish Deli!

Also, does anyone know of anyone local that goes into the Cheesecake Factory? Eyesore, indeed.

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Posted by Around for Awhile
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 20, 2014 at 5:59 pm

I totally agree with Member and Nora Charles. University Avenue has become Stanford's cafeteria. Except for a few notable places such as Evvia and Vero, restaurants downtown are cold and uninviting if you're looking for more than a quick bite, and forget about trying finding a place for a cup of coffee and desert. They're all study halls where students camp out for hours over a single drained cup and their computers. I use to go downtown regularly for dinner or desert and coffee after a show, but it just isn't fun or inviting anymore.

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Posted by restoration needed
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 20, 2014 at 7:30 pm

The Cheesecake Factory on University Ave is an unfettered mall design
prototype approved by the ARB. As I recall it was initially agendized as a "facade remodel", then changed.It was about number 100 in the chain and I don't think a single one of the next 50 restaurants was free-standing on a street frontage, let alone a University Avenue. Just from a business standpoint, it appears to be a vastly underutilized large prime Downtown site. As suggested in an earlier post, it should be relocated to a site on ECR, give it it's own space, with some outdoor seating like other Cakes. Then convert the prime Downtown site to something like La Note in Berkeley as suggested earlier, or other suggestions made here, which would be an asset to the Downtown. Roxy Rapp owns the site.

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Posted by Michael O
a resident of Stanford
on Jan 20, 2014 at 7:50 pm

To @Around for Awhile: you much really be around for a while, because those aren't students, those are engineers working on their startups. Students look younger than that, and barely any make it across El Camino....

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Posted by Norman Beamer
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 21, 2014 at 9:42 am

I am not a gourmet and am not in any "in-crowd" or Foodie clique. Therefore, it was news to me that "There's a generally held perception that the Peninsula dining scene is dead." In my ignorance, I have been enjoying the very large number of fine restaurants in Palo Alto for years. I have carefully avoided the long lines for the new ice cream sandwich shop, and the humus shop, since I feel that I have to budget my time wisely.

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Posted by Around for Awhile
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 21, 2014 at 10:30 am

To Michael O: I'm not so old, in my mid 50s, but I have lived in PA most of my life and seen lots of changes on University Avenue. I stand corrected on the techies converging on downtown. I'm sure you're right. However, I have to note that last week trying to find a seat at Coupa Cafe at 10pm, almost every table was taken up by young folks who were definitely college age working on papers and surrounded by textbooks and notes. This wasn't the first time I've run into this and I'm sure won't be the last. I don't blame them for finding a great study hall, it's just that they never leave. How that place, and others like it, make their rent by selling one cup of coffee to a table occupied by a computer for several hours is beyond me. I'm not lookiing to pull an all nighter or launch my startup. I work from home. I'd just like to find a nice place downtown to chat with friends for less than an hour over coffee and a pastry.

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Posted by stephen levy
a resident of University South
on Jan 21, 2014 at 10:48 am

stephen levy is a registered user.

I am with Norman Beamer. It feels like my wife and I and the hundreds of diners who fill most downtown restaurants are being put down by the "we know what a good restaurant and you don"t crowd).

I agree that Coupa Cafe is usually full of folks on computers although we can usually find a place and the pastries are good. For a quieter place, how about Prolific Oven?

Nancy and I especially like Rangoon Ruby as do the usually full, need a reservation crowd. But we also like Sprouts and Pluto's and lots of places as we eat out downtown often.

Could posters just stay with what they like or don't and put the put downs aside?

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 21, 2014 at 1:47 pm

Friends wanted to have a late lunch and see a movie on University yesterday afternoon. They drove around town looking for parking, gave up and plan to try again today. They didn't mind paying, didn't mind a reasonable walk, and even didn't mind coming back today. I wonder what will happen if they have no luck parking today, I suspect they won't be back.

Downtown is not inviting because of its parking problems.

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Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 21, 2014 at 3:36 pm

I'm having a hard time believing that they did not find a space in either the Bryant/Lytton garage or the Cowper/Webster garage.

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Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jan 21, 2014 at 9:45 pm

I'm having a hard time believing there was a movie on University yesterday. Maybe the Aquarius on Emerson, off University.

Side note, I counted 20 people at the tables in Happy Donuts at 4am this morning. One of the very few places open. Gets me nostalgic for the old donut place at Middlefield and Loma Verde of my childhood.

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Posted by B Robertson
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Feb 29, 2016 at 5:42 pm

Great article that bring together the current feel, challenges and opportunities in Palo Alto. San Francisco is still the foodie capital, but the cost of operating a restaurant and finding employees to staff it is prohibitively high ... but I think the mid-Peninsula (San Mateo, Burlingame, Redwood City, etc.) area will be more enticing to relocate or start a restaurant in due to unsaturated market and lower cost of business. In a few years, the cost of opening up a restaurant in PA and SF will be identical.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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