The most intriguing restaurants are often those hidden-away spots that feel like a discovery. Or they can be the opposite: the community mainstays, with their history, lore and devoted regulars. Paradoxically, and delightfully, Dinah's Poolside Restaurant in Palo Alto manages to feel like both.
Dinah's -- tucked inside Dinah's Garden Hotel and previously known as Dinah's Poolside Grill -- was operated for decades by the Magnuson family, becoming a local favorite for poolside brunches and fried chicken lunches. In 2012, however, lawsuits ensued when the Magnusons were evicted.
Julie Handley, who had inherited the mid-century-Polynesian-style motel from her father Raymond Handley, took over the restaurant. Some regulars vowed to never again partake of a poolside mimosa, while others defended the management changeover as a difficult but necessary move critical to the future of the family-run motel.
Six years post-shake-up, Dinah's pays homage to its past while also cultivating a confident, modern vibe. I find that executive chef Gerardo Naranjo is a bit too enamored with the deep fryer and there are some areas where one could nitpick (lackluster happy hour food). But for a poolside Sunday brunch, cocktails by the fireplace or a locally sourced dinner with wine pairings, this little motel restaurant continues to surprise and delight.
And what a delight is a Sunday brunch next to the shimmering pool, surrounded by tropical plants and strategically placed heat lamps. Hotel guests mingle with locals, many of whom are accompanied by their leashed dogs. A steaming mug of Peet's coffee ($4) and a glass of Dinah's fresh-squeezed orange juice ($5/$8) kick things off, while thirsty canine guests get a ceramic bowl of water from the attentive wait staff. It is all very mid-century Palm Springs or Honolulu. For an hour or two, you're in stay-cation fantasy land.
The morning menu offers a standard but well-executed selection of American breakfast fare: bacon and eggs, omelets, pancakes, biscuits and gravy. The "Dinah-Mite Benedict" ($15) is two perfectly poached eggs layered with avocado, onion and every breakfast meat known to man, then topped with a creamy, lemony hollandaise. The breakfast burrito ($13) is stuffed with bacon, eggs, cheddar, black beans, avocado cream sauce and pico de gallo. The "Boss" omelet ($14) bursts with ultra-fresh spinach, mushrooms and Swiss cheese. The eggs are free range and organic. Most breakfast entrees are accompanied by a rectangle of very crispy hash browns or a small bowl of high-quality fruit.
Things tilt more upscale at dinner, with craft cocktails and a locally sourced, farm-to-table ethos. Vegetarians, vegans and gluten-free diners will appreciate the thoughtful notations next to each entree. Thanks to the low-key, atrium atmosphere and friendly service, the up-market evening experience still feels family-friendly and unpretentious. Continue the stay-cation fantasy with a Trader Vic's mai tai ($12), a delicious nod to another of the motel's past restaurants, which occupied the space now inhabited by The Sea by Alexander's Steakhouse.
The cedar-planked California black cod ($29) is a nice example of chef Naranjo's focus on California cuisine with occasional Asian undertones. Grilled and served atop a wedge of cedar, the soy-and-sherry-glazed fish was deeply smoky and flakey. Unfortunately, it was plated with not one but two deep-fried sides: tempura vegetables and crispy rice cakes, injecting far too much oily crunch into the meal. Naranjo might consider nixing the bland rice cakes, which also accompanied the excellent cedar planked-salmon ($28), in favor of, say, some fluffy coconut rice.
We tried the Dinah's salad ($11) with tangy goat cheese, roasted grapes, hazelnuts and sherry vinaigrette, as well as the beets and berries salad ($14) with ripe strawberries, goat cheese and perfectly roasted beets. Both crunched with freshness and were large enough to share.
The too-crispy truffle fries ($9) should have been extracted a minute or two earlier from the fryer, but the grilled octopus ($15), served on a bed of pickled vegetables and drizzled with a black olive tapenade, was tender perfection. My vegan dining companion and I both enjoyed the charred cauliflower entree ($16), plated with quinoa pilaf, an earthy romesco sauce and tomato confit. The juicy, meat-like Impossible Burger ($18), made from wheat, coconut oil, potatoes and other plant-based proteins, is a recent addition to the menu. Carnivores, give it a try.
We did have to venture back to the deep fryer for another tribute to Dinah's past: the famous, and fabulous, boneless fried chicken ($19), made from a recipe originally conceived by Dinah's Shack (where it's said John F. Kennedy used to hang out when he was at Stanford Business School) and served with a side of honey for dipping. The chicken, with its crispy, well-seasoned shell, was accompanied by deep-fried Brentwood corn fritters, which were tasty enough, but fried chicken with fried fritters? I left feeling like I'd taken a bath in the deep-fryer myself.
For dessert, the bread pudding with maple-candied bacon and vanilla ice cream ($8) was practically a meal in itself, albeit a cloyingly sweet one. The brownie sundae ($8), drizzled with Ghiradelli chocolate and topped with candied walnuts, was similarly over-sugared.
Pedestrian desserts and other small missteps can be easily forgiven at Dinah's because the restaurant so delightfully navigates its many identities and mandates. It isn't easy to pay homage to a storied past while also forging a fresh, 21st-century identity. Serving both hotel guests and sophisticated locals can be a bit of a high-wire act. Dinah's delivers and remains one of Palo Alto's hidden gems.
Dinah's Poolside Restaurant
4261 El Camino Real, Palo Alto
Daily, 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; happy hour 4-6 p.m.
Credit cards: Yes
Outdoor seating: Yes
Alcohol: Full bar
Happy hour: yes
Wheelchair access: Yes