From trendy transplants to the greatest comeback, this year in restaurants

For Palo Alto's restaurant scene, 2014 was a year of dynamic change

In any given year in Palo Alto, restaurants come and restaurants go. But depending on who you ask, this year's turnover was either a disruptive revolution or simply a natural evolution.

The bottom floor of dilapidated Casa Olga at 180 Hamilton Ave. downtown was transformed into uber-trendy Lure + Till restaurant, armed with a San Francisco chef and bartender. Plans were announced that third-wave Blue Bottle Coffee will operate in the historic Varsity Theatre as part of a remodel planned by tech giant SAP.

San Francisco pizza darling Pizzeria Delfina opened its doors after remodeling the landmark Empire Tap Room, which closed in June of 2013 after more than 20 years at 651 Emerson St.

Palo Alto's first acai bowl shop opened, as well as its second-ever juice shop. (Is the square block bordered by Hamilton, Emerson Street, High Street and University Avenue -- home to LYFE Kitchen, Project Juice and Bare Bowls, with Fraiche Yogurt nearby -- becoming a foodie health haven?)

Longtime dining institutions, from upscale Zibibbo, housed in that iconic, massive yellow Victorian house on Kipling Street for 17 years, to low-brow Cho's Mandarin Dim Sum, which called California Avenue home for 35 years, shut their doors. (Cho's is also the biggest comeback story of the year, though. See below.)

Meanwhile, traditional Chinese restaurant Hunan Garden on El Camino Real changed hands from father to son and was reborn as Mandarin Roots, with a revamped California-Chinese concept. And the last day of Ming's Restaurant as we know it, Palo Alto's oldest and largest Chinese restaurant at 1700 Bayshore Road, is this Sunday, Dec. 28. After months of delays, the 10,000-square-foot restaurant is finally scheduled to be demolished to make way for a hotel, which will house a smaller version of Ming's.

With many open spaces downtown, construction booming on California Avenue and Town & Country Village somehow continuing to find space for new foodie spots, 2015 promises to be just as intriguing for Palo Alto diners.

GREATEST COMEBACK ... Uproar swept through Palo Alto after the announced closure of Cho's Mandarin Dim Sum in January. A Change.org petition gathered thousands of signatures; a Palo Alto Online story on the closure got a record number of views; and a "Save Cho's Restaurant" post on Town Square, the online discussion forum, circulated with ideas like donating money for a Cho's food truck. The owners of the hole-in-the-wall restaurant at 213 California Ave., husband and wife Cho and Daisy Yu, received a 60-day notice from their property manager, Sue Ross, on Jan. 16, and said they were not given a chance to renew the lease or stay. Some months later, Ross, who also owns the two spaces on either side of Cho's -- the Michelin-rated restaurant Baume at California and Park Boulevard and a Farmer's Insurance outpost at 217 California Ave. -- commenced on a remodel of building.

At the time, Daisy said relocating elsewhere would be too much for her and her husband. But lo and behold, a Dec. 12 Facebook post announced their reopening in downtown Los Altos. "Something new is coming to Los Altos," the post reads, with a photograph of the shiny new Cho's at 209 First St.

The reincarnated Cho's is slated to open the first week of January, the restaurant's general contractor said last week. It has a shiny new kitchen and "Cho's" in vivid red signage both inside and out. However, the kitchen takes up the majority of the 650-square-foot space, so there's no indoor seating. The general contractor said there will be seating outside along First Street, where people can nosh on the same dim sum staples that made Cho's so beloved for so many years: dumplings, pork buns, potstickers, egg rolls and the like.

TRENDY TRANSPLANTS ... San Francisco restaurateurs continued in 2014 to hungrily eye Palo Alto. Pizzeria Delfina opened to much fanfare on Emerson (almost directly across from Tacolicious, also a San Francisco-born restaurant group). Lure + Till, the Epiphany Hotel's restaurant, snagged Patrick Kelly, previously executive chef at Gitane in San Francisco and Michelin-starred Angèle in Napa, to lead the kitchen, and Carlos Yturria, whose cocktail career started at age 17 in San Francisco. ("I've been screaming 'Palo Alto' since, like, 2003," Yturria told the Weekly in April. "I think a lot of people are on their way here, for sure.")

Belcampo Meat Co., a hyper-sustainable meat company that prides itself on controlling every step of the meat-production process, from raising to slaughtering to serving customers at the deli counter, snagged a tiny 900-square-foot space at Town & Country. Belcampo opened its first butcher shop and restaurant in Larkspur, then San Francisco, Santa Barbara, downtown Los Angeles, Palo Alto and Santa Monica. (Fun fact: CEO and owner Anya Fernald is a Palo Alto native who once delivered papers for the Weekly and always hoped to open in her hometown.)

There will be plenty more external transplants in 2015, including San Francisco's Sushirrito, a casual hybrid sushi-burrito spot replacing Sabrosa Taqueria at 448 University Ave. downtown; and Tout Sweet Patisserie, also San Francisco-born, slated to open next door to Belcampo.

OUTGROWING PALO ALTO ... Two Palo Alto-born restaurants have found so much success that they were able to open second locations this year. Oren's Hummus Shop, which has enjoyed near-constant lines of people waiting for its authentic hummus, pita and falafel since opening on University Avenue in 2012, laid claim to another busy downtown strip in 2014. The second Oren's Hummus opened on Castro Street in downtown Mountain View this summer, with double the seating and a more streamlined ordering process to cut down on those notorious lines.

Downtown Burmese spot Rangoon Ruby, which also launched in 2012, expanded first to San Carlos and then again in Palo Alto this year. Rangoon Ruby No. 2, dubbed Burma Ruby, opened just blocks away from the first location, down University in the space vacated by Italian restaurant Figo.

BIGGEST MYSTERY ... The biggest restaurant mystery of 2014 has got to be the still-dark Apple Store at the corner of University and Kipling Street. Applications for architectural review for façade renovations and a conditional-use permit for alcohol sales were submitted to the city in 2013 on behalf of Bibigo, a Korean restaurant chain. Renderings showed a rooftop dining area; plan drawings were posted in the window of the old Apple Store. Maureen Hardy, a representative from BCV Architects, the San Francisco-based firm who submitted the applications, said at the time that the owner was not ready to talk about the project. (BCV Architects is also behind multiple notable food marketplaces -- the Ferry Building in San Francisco, Oxbow Market in Napa, Jack London Market in Oakland -- as well as local restaurants such as M.Y. China, Gott's Roadside and Hog Island Oyster Co.) At some point, new drawings were taped over the old in the Apple Store windows with a new restaurant name: Maum. It turned out that Patrick Tsui, former general manager at Frances in San Francisco, was behind Maum. Reached via email a few times this year, he first said things had been delayed and then ceased responding, and 451 University remains dark.

SHORTEST TENURE ... Restaurant turnover is high in Palo Alto, but one opening (and closing) this year took the cake. alkymists, an unusual downtown Palo Alto restaurant that hoped to merge food and philanthropy in one space, with meals and cooking classes for homeless and abused women as well as regular lunch and dinner service for patrons, closed after two months of operations at the corner of University and High. Before alkymists, there was Palo Alto Grill, which lasted for 15 months. alkymists general manager Thierry Fassiotti alluded to bad blood with owner Luka Dvornik, who brought him in to flip the space after Palo Alto Grill closed in July and in November "pulled the rug out from our entire team." Fassiotti alluded to financial trouble, saying that the restaurant struggled to pay investors back. The kitchen crew walked out after Dvornik announced the closure. Dvornik did not return requests for comment on the situation. The 3,926-square-foot space (and its Type 47 liquor license) immediately went on the market, listed for rent for $14,000 Triple Net plus $6,000 Triple Nets or for sale for $300,000. (In the comments section on the listing: "Seller invested over $1.0 million in the past two years. Please do not talk to employees.")

Staff Writer Elena Kadvany, aka the Peninsula Foodist, blogs on the food scene at PaloAltoOnline.com/blogs.

We can't do it without you.
Support local journalism.


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

Be the first to know

Get the latest headlines sent straight to your inbox every day.

If you do nothing else, do These Three Things
By Sherry Listgarten | 42 comments | 2,183 views

Lentil Brownies
By Laura Stec | 5 comments | 569 views

Finding Balance
By Cheryl Bac | 0 comments | 322 views


Vote now!

It's time once again to cast your vote for the best places to eat, drink, shop and spend time in Palo Alto. Voting is open now through May 27. Watch for the results of our 2019 Best Of contest on Friday, July 19.