So long, Silicon Valley. In my 42 years here, our food choices have gone from dismal to delightful, with some notably worrisome exceptions.
Let me explain. For many years, I was the San Jose Mercury News' restaurant critic, and then one of the freelance restaurant reviewers for the newspaper you are reading now. Lots of great meals under my expanding belt. Now, it's time to move my foraging to Berkeley, where I hear there is some pretty good food.
Here are a few parting thoughts about the local food scene.
Despite phenomenal population growth and new construction, we Peninsula-dwellers still enjoy the personal touch in food stores and restaurants. When I moved here in 1973, the owner of Golden Crescent Bakery in downtown Palo Alto cheerfully greeted everyone, knew what kind of bread you liked and always offered kids a cookie. We can still experience personal interaction in cafes and family-owned food purveyors such as Charley Noodle & Grill and Dittmer's Gourmet Meats & Wurst-Haus, both in Los Altos. At Palo Alto Cafe on Middlefield Road the other day, as I was enjoying my veggie bagel sandwich, the owner was chatting with a customer about a family wedding.
In the same way, our thriving farmers markets pulse with the energy of neighbors brushing elbows, stopping to chat with each other and with the vendors who have grown the produce they're selling. Farmers care about giving us a good product. They want return customers -- and we may return for years, long enough to greet the farmers' kids.
However, the creep of cookie-cutter chains is troubling. They smell more like market research than true enjoyment of food. If you've eaten at Google, Facebook or a Bay Area airport, you know this food. Some of it is good. There is a place for The Counter and Chipotle and Asian Box; just don't let them muscle out places like Kirk's Steakburgers, Los Altos Taqueria and Dohatsuten.
Regrets? I've had a few. I regret that only recently did I dare to enter Antonio's Nut House on California Avenue. The very non-Palo Alto parking lot crowd scared me away. The place is totally fun with friendly bartenders, decent Mexican food at the taqueria inside and a colorful, non-threatening clientele.
I regret that while diners complained for years about poor service in restaurants, their No. 1 complaint today is noise. Can you hear us? Restaurants are too loud.
And I regret a downtown Palo Alto that lost a French bistro like L'Amie Donia and gained a Cheesecake Factory.
On the other hand, Town & Country Village's rise from the dead comes in large part thanks to a tidal wave of eateries at a range of price points. Also, of course, there's Trader Joe's. Be still my heart.
Downtown Los Altos, too, is now full of pedestrians, sometimes even at night. From the reborn Cho's Mandarin Dim Sum to the new Safeway, change has been good.
Downtown Mountain View was a singular beacon of gastronomic light back in the 1970s -- the place to go for Chinese, Mexican and the early wave of Vietnamese restaurants. We can also thank Mountain View for introducing regional Chinese food. More recently, Mountain View has been a good source of high-quality nouveau Vietnamese and Indian cuisine.
Then there's coffee. When I moved here, Peet's in Menlo Park was the only purveyor of fresh coffee beans. That may be the biggest change of all.
I leave you with this final note:
Goodnight, Silicon Valley
Goodnight, potato chips at Fry's
Goodnight, downtown streets full of hungry guys (and the occasional woman)
Goodnight, inescapable salads of kale
Goodnight, beloved Milk Pail
Goodnight, restaurant investors enriched by tech rally
Goodnight, Silicon Valley.
A look back at Sheila's reviewing career:
First review: Chef Chu's, Mountain View
Last review: Charley Noodle & Grill, Los Altos
Worst meal: Olive Garden, Palo Alto
Second worst meal: American Girl Bistro, Palo Alto
Most expensive meal: Baume, Palo Alto
Least expensive meal: Cho's Mandarin Dim Sum, Los Altos
Best re-imagining of a restaurant: St. Michael's Alley, Palo Alto
Best resurrection after a fire: Dittmer's Gourmet Meats & Wurst-Haus, Los Altos
Best new restaurant: Zola, Palo Alto