It's spacious, communal, loud, open long hours -- and the food is really good.
Local Union 271 opened in early April in the downtown Palo Alto space formerly occupied by University Cafe at 271 University Ave. The space has been gutted and completely remodeled.
The high ceilings remain, but now there is a full bar, ceiling fans and extended dangling pendant lights, one long communal table and many individual tables spaced close together, bistro-style.
The kitchen philosophy was upgraded as well, both ingredient- and quality-wise. University Cafe chef Bernardino Vargas and the entire kitchen staff was retained. Noted local chef Michael Ellis was brought in to revamp the menu and perfect new dishes. Vargas and staff took it from there.
Farm-to-table is a cliché these days, but new proprietor Steve Sinchek, who also owns nearby sports bar Old Pro, has upped the ante. Produce tastes just picked, sauces just made, pastries and bread oven-fresh and fish, poultry and meat thoughtfully sourced. The menu lists two dozen local growers, butchers and bakers that supply the restaurant.
That's the idea behind the name: a convergence of local food artisans who practice sustainability and responsible farming techniques.
One day at lunch, I ordered the ahi tuna sandwich and tomato soup ($14.95). The success of any sandwich is predicated on the bread surrounding the ingredients -- even kale tastes good when encased in this spongy brioche bun. The line-caught tuna was just seared and had great texture with bright ocean flavor. The fire-engine red tomato soup was thick and nourishing with bits of tomato chunks throughout, topped with cheese curls.
Special one day was a duck BLT sandwich ($13.95) with nitrate-free smoked duck bacon, butter lettuce, tomatoes, avocado and herbed aioli tucked between thick, rustic, toasted bread slices. The sandwich came with a pile of crisp greens tossed in a champagne vinaigrette dressing.
Local Union's happy hour is Monday through Friday, 4 to 6 p.m., and features four beverages and five appetizers at $6 each: significant savings. We tried the meatballs (regularly $12.95), two huge meat globes served in a mini iron skillet, covered with cheese, tomato sauce and chopped basil. Thick toast and a spoon accompanied to scoop up all the cheese and sauce.
Equally successful was the bruschetta (regularly $10.95): four chunks of rustic bread topped with chopped red ripe tomatoes, olive oil, curls of Parmesan, whole basil leaves and a drizzle of aged balsamic vinegar. (The aged balsamic was more syrupy than acidic.)
Of the larger plates, the plump barbecue prawns ($19.95) were served with chunks of bacon in a slightly piquant barbecue sauce over a bed of creamy polenta. The bacon, prawns and barbecue sauce melded into a toothsome combination and the polenta added a cool silky texture.
I am a chicken pot pie aficionado and was pleased with Local's version ($15.95). The pot pie was served in a mini skillet filled with creamy chunks of tender chicken, carrots and peas. Usually, the ingredients are encased inside the pastry. In this case, a large square of flaky puff pastry sat atop the components. Not only was the visual appeal enhanced, but the dish also invited the diner to dig in with knife and fork.
Service during my visits was always prompt and courteous. Tables were quickly bused and water and ice tea glasses kept filled. Pacing from the kitchen was just right.
Desserts offer a worthy conclusion. The warm brownie sundae ($6.95) was served with Straus Family Creamery organic vanilla ice cream with salted caramel sauce drizzled over the top. The ice cream sandwich ($6.95) also featured Straus vanilla ice cream, sandwiched between two warm and gooey chocolate chip cookies.
The croissant bread pudding ($6.95), also served in a mini skillet, had been drizzled with caramel sauce and was served with a side of real whipped cream.
Many wines were available in three- or six-ounce pours as well as by the half and full bottle. Additionally, there were dozens of wines by the bottle only: topnotch California labels such as Calera Wine, Rombauer, DuMOL Wines, Kistler Vineyards, Ridge Vineyards and Turley Wine Cellars. Prices were sane. House cocktails and many draft beers rounded out the beverage menu.
The restaurant also offers a weekend brunch menu, something of a rarity in Palo Alto.
Local Union 271 features big, bold flavors in a spacious, basic setting. The enhanced farm-to-table concept works well; the recognized local farmers, bakers, ranchers and butchers make them partners to what's on the plate. Best of all, the experienced kitchen knows what to do with high-quality ingredients -- keep it simple, cook with restraint and coax the best out of the product.
Local Union 271
271 University Ave., Palo Alto
Sunday-Thursday, 8 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 8 a.m.-11 p.m.