A&E

At the table: Buck's of Woodside is still weird and wonderful after 30 years

Talking psychedelics, faux meat and the 'irrational exuberance' of Silicon Valley with Jamis MacNiven, the Peninsula’s zaniest restaurant owner

Jamis MacNiven, the owner of the longtime Buck's in Woodside, poses with the "real" Statue of Liberty, holding an ice cream sundae. Photo By Sammy Dallal.

"I'm deep in Kurdistan right now," Jamis MacNiven wrote back to my late summer email asking to meet him for a lunch interview. "I have to go play polo now with a dead goat. It's a Kurdistan thing."

It was classic MacNiven. The longtime owner of Buck's in Woodside has a reputation for outlandish stories that make you question his footing in reality, and then, more often than not, turn out to be true. (As it turns out, MacNiven had been in Kurdistan and had indeed played goat polo. There's readily available photo and video evidence on the Buck's Instagram.)

MacNiven opened Buck's in 1990, creating a one-of-a-kind restaurant that draws children and families as well as titans of the tech industry, heads of state and famous actors. The dining room is a museum of the weird, every available inch of wall and ceiling given over to artwork and collectibles, from an enormous Shaquille O'Neal shoe won at an auction to a statue of Lenin to the orange car that set the record as the fastest gravity-powered car in the world at the first-ever Sand Hill Challenge soap box derby in 1997.

The menu is down-home and cheeky, with pancakes, burgers, soups, Hetch Hetchy water (no charge), a Dueling Louis Armstrong salad and "savagely popular" tacos. The dessert menu advises: "Combat global warming, eat ice cream." So much about Buck's feels frozen in time, in a good way — though it's not totally immune to food trends of the moment. The kitchen now serves the plant-based Impossible and Beyond Meat burgers.

When MacNiven's not working the room at Buck's wearing one of his trademark colorful, wacky shirts, he's writing. The restaurant's menu is updated quarterly with columns he writes about his travels and musings. He's the author of three books, including his autobiography, "Breakfast at Buck's: Tales from the Pancake Guy," and "California From 500 Feet: A Story of the Coastline," a history of California as seen from a 247-foot-long Zeppelin named Eureka. His current writing project? An illustrated children's book for his 9-year-old granddaughter.

I recently had lunch with MacNiven for the next installment of At the Table, a series of my interviews with local chefs and restaurant owners over a meal at a restaurant of their choosing.

Over a tomato burrata salad at his choice, Oak + Violet in Menlo Park, in between plenty of tall tales that all checked out when I went home and Googled them, we talked about the heyday of Silicon Valley, the secret to running a successful restaurant for three decades and why he's so fascinated by, as he put it, the "whimsical human stuff." Oh, and psychedelics.

Were you actually in Kurdistan earlier this month? What were you doing there?

We went to Kurdistan to just see what the country's like. I've been to the Middle East a lot. We hunted with golden eagles. It turns out these eagles — we didn't see this, but you can see it online — an eagle can actually kill a wolf. (MacNiven pulls up a photo on his phone to illustrate his point.) They do it by going right into the shoulders with their talons and when the wolf looks around, they rip its throat out. They're fierce. Then we tried playing goat polo. I had a picture of that, where we're mounted trying to reach down to the ground and pick up a dead goat off the ground and throw it whole. I could never reach the ground. I could barely stay on course. These young guys were much better at it. There's a big ring at either end and they dragged this goat. You try and take it away from the other guy. When you get a certain score then the winner gets to keep the goat and eat it. Kurdistan's a little dull.

Where's your next big trip?

I've been traveling so much, I don't really have a plan. ...I have to get some work done. I've got projects backed up. I (have) a book I'm working on. Just trying to get a new menu out is a struggle. So many interesting people come to Buck's all day long. I get so distracted. But ... I have the job I wanted when I was a kid. I wanted to walk around, meet amazing people and get paid for it. That's what I do.

Where did you grow up?

I've been on the hill here for 43 years up on Skyline. I was born in Japan. I lived in Libya one summer. Turns out it's always summer in Libya. I lived in Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, all over California.

My mother married a series of colorful characters and we would move for one reason or another. Mainly, she married a guy who was in military support, so we moved every three months for years. I went to 23 elementary schools, two high schools and five colleges, and I don't have any diplomas. Except for one from Perfect Paws, the dog training school. It turns out diplomas are overrated. I always told my kids, 'Go to school but don't graduate because it shows you were lazy and you're just hanging out at school when you could be out there.' Because we're all entrepreneurs.

What did you do before you opened Buck's?

My wife and I had a construction company. We used to build restaurants. ... We had a chain called Croutons. We built the Hard Rock Cafe in San Francisco back in the '80s. All the trendy places I built are all gone, except for the ones that I built that the family owns. We own five places in the city (San Francisco). We have the Woodhouse Fish Company, West of Pecos in the Mission, we have a brand new one called the Wooden Spoon at Cafe du Nord, which is an old nightclub.

Why did you open Buck's?

We'd built a lot of restaurants and I was really tired of construction. It's so hard to get paid ... I hated that part of it. But in the restaurant business people pay to leave the room. Plus, construction is not a real people business. It's all about ass kicking and phone calls. The restaurant business is all about talking to people and being convivial. It's a much more human business. I've been at Buck's for 29 years and I'm addicted to the crowd. I can't get anything done. I try to stay home, but then I find myself going to work. The people are so amazing.

What is it about that connection and community that draws you in and keeps you going?

It's like living in a really exciting, well-written movie. It's like all around are these magical people — not just the people you would expect me to mention, like the famous Silicon Valley people, we see Elon (Musk) — but it's the little kids, old people, people you've known for 20 or 30 years. It's kids that come in and end up being hosts and hostesses and then go on to college. All my kids worked there.

When you first opened, did you envision Buck's as a family restaurant or as a meeting place for the movers and shakers of Silicon Valley?

Always to be a family restaurant. The whole business spin just happened by accident. The first mention of Buck's (that I remember) in the press was in The Economist, (which) said John Doerr (chairman and venture capitalist at Kleiner Perkins in Menlo Park) was having breakfast at Buck's. I thought, 'Wow, a mention in the press!' That was in '92. In '93 we had a TV crew come in and interview somebody. I thought, 'Whoa, television!' In '94, we had three TV crews. I thought, 'What!' In, '95 we had over 100 (interviews) because everything broke loose in '95. That's when Netscape came out and the internet stock market started the race. For five years, it was insanity. It's still pretty crazy in the tech world, but nothing like the '90s.

What was Silicon Valley like at that time?

There was an ... irrational exuberance where people thought that tomorrow is going to be 10 times better than today — not just incrementally better, but 10 times better. The valuations of companies seemed so insane, but now it's even crazier.

How have you seen tech change this area over the last 10 years?

I think we can no longer claim we're innocent. I think that's the biggest thing — we're out of the garden now and the blinders are off. I actually think artificial intelligence combined with bad actors and access to pathogens is a serious existential threat. But here in Silicon Valley, we really held up people — even Zuckerberg a few years ago, and certainly the Google guys — as being international and American heroes. I'm not so sure now. It's not about the money because they're all so fabulously rich ... But they're not working hard enough on our behalf. And certainly Amazon isn't. Between Amazon and Walmart, they're crushing America and they're also teaching people — you know what Walmart's slogan is? It's 'always low prices.' In Germany, that kind of statement embarrasses them. Theirs would be 'always best quality.' We're about trying to do it cheaper and crappier — the fast food and the proliferation of plastic and consumerism is a concern. And it turns out Silicon Valley's fueling this big time. Amazon started selling books. Now they're selling pool toys — a lot of them, and I know because I just bought a bunch. I'm not innocent at all. But I helped end the Vietnam War so I've done my part.

How has the growth of Silicon Valley affected your business at Buck's?

Our business has always been pretty good, until they opened the restaurant next door (The Village Bakery) and now we compete for the parking. They're great people and I have no objection to that per se but we have so little parking, it's had a negative impact. Until then it was going up every year.

Most people in the restaurant business tell you: It's not a very good business. But I love it. We make less than we used to but we make more than we need. There's more to it than the money. I get access to people. On a busy day we (see) 800 to 900 people through there. I can't even go in on the weekends because the place is too crowded. During the week we get about 400 or 500. It feeds more than the pocket. It feeds the soul.

What's the secret to running a restaurant for three decades? So many restaurants are struggling right now just to survive in Silicon Valley.

It's no real secret. You have to have good food and convivial atmosphere. You have to really see the customer for who they are and if they have a complaint, you have to just say, 'I'm sorry; I'll do better.' ... With all those hundreds of thousands, millions of moving parts, stuff doesn't always go perfectly. But it generally does. I want every complaint to come to my desk, and weeks go by — I get nothing. So I think we do OK.

We've been able to retain our staff incredibly. I have people who've been there 29 years (and) a lot of people over 20 years. The average tenure of the front of the house people is about 16 years. Nobody's got that. ... It's challenging to get people for the kitchen, but we always seem to stay open.

I have to ask you about all of the decorations in the restaurant. Where do they come from?

People give me things, but I take very little, although recently a guy (Andy Rubin, former Google senior vice president and creator of Android software) loaned me his Apple 1, which is the No. 1 collectible in all of Silicon Valley history. It's probably worth a million dollars. He said, 'Well, it was just kicking around my house. I thought you should display it at Buck's.' I take it with me when I give talks about Silicon Valley.

What is your favorite piece of decor at Buck's?

I would say the cash register. The second favorite thing is a sawfish shark's snout. It was decorated in the 1800s by some islanders ... somewhere around the Solomon Islands probably. It depicts a trading trip. It's all been translated. It's in the back room. My grandfather got that from Jack London's estate. It's been in my family since the '50s.

And why the cash register?

Because it's full of money.

What's your favorite menu item at Buck's?

Personally, I just eat cottage cheese when I'm there. But the public seems to like the grilled artichoke stuffed with crab and shrimp. That's our most popular item. It's been there for at least 20 years. It got an award from the California Artichoke Association. That goes with my Perfect Paws (certificate).

I'm curious: Why did you choose Oak + Violet for our lunch? Why do you like to eat here?

My friend built this place, Jeff Pollock. I've known him for 30 years, his father for even longer. I just think this is a really classy place. It's hard to do here. It doesn't mean there aren't billionaires everywhere but people really don't do fancy so much. ... they've done such an incredible job, the attention to detail here .... and done with such panache and such care, that I want to be as supportive as I can. (Pollock) wasn't in the restaurant business before. He's a real estate guy and insurance guy, but he's working so hard on this. I'm not here just to support him, but I think the food is really good.

I was surprised you chose it because it feels like a trendy, new-school spot compared to Buck's.

Oh yeah, definitely. But it's because he's like family and the food's terrific. It's where I take people.

Where else do you like to eat out around here?

We don't eat out much. But I like the Los Altos Grill. It's always very consistent. ... the (Cuban) place on California, La Bodeguita del Medio, I think they do a great job. You know what's really unbelievably good is Vesta in Redwood City. In fact, I wrote an article on my menu once that said, 'Why are you reading this menu when you could be at Vesta? Oh, that's right. You can't get in because it's so busy.' I cook at home at least six nights a week because going out to restaurants — I've been in a restaurant all day long.

Have you changed the Buck's menu over the years? It seems pretty similar to when I went there as a kid.

The basic menu stays almost the same, although we have the Impossible burger now and Beyond Meat, but it looks pretty much like it did 10 years ago. That's the basic menu: breakfast, lunch and dinner. We have our specials that change every two weeks. We have the dessert menu, the kids' menu and the wine list. ... if I went in there and I really worked on super innovative stuff I know I would appeal to a broader audience. It's really hard to do that because I've got so much other stuff going on.

How have restaurants on the Peninsula changed since you opened Buck's?

They have attempted, from Wolfgang Puck on out, to bring super sophisticated dining to the Bay Area — and it hasn't happened. Is it Nobu that's over in the hotel over there? People don't rave about that place. ... it's a little forgettable. I hear Tim Cook lives on the top floor.

What was the most memorable tech deal or meeting that happened at Buck's?

Tesla got their first money there. Tesla was literally founded at Buck's. I like to say the founding is when the money hits the table and that happened at table 40. The founders are still in Woodside. Elon likes to say he was a founder, but he's not. He was not there. ... . He took it to greatness but he didn't found it. I saw him last week (at Buck's). We talked rockets because I had just been to the rocket launch site (in Kurdistan). ... I see him just as a normal guy but he really is a titan of industry. He's a character that will be remembered for a long time.

You've mentioned all the media attention the Buck's has gotten over the years. Did you enjoy that?

At first, I was so thrilled to be part of the action. I'd save all the press clippings, videos ... I thought the first time I was on a magazine cover was a big deal and the 10th time it was kind of boring. I was talking to Tim Koogle once, who was the president of Yahoo in their heyday, and said, 'Do you remember when you stopped saving your press?' He goes, 'Yeah.' I said, 'Do you remember when you stopped reading it?' He goes, 'True liberation.'

By about 2005, I was over it. I love talking to journalists. But as far as saving the articles — if I don't want to look at the old articles, nobody else is ever going to want to look at it. ... unless it's really strange. I've been in some really strange publications. There's a magazine that costs 15 pounds in England and it's just pictures of peaches and weird people and me and other weird people. Or the Hindustan Times. We've been in Der Spiegel and the Moscow Times and all the English papers. ... But I am under no illusion that I'm an important person. I'm a character and I enjoy it. But the people that are really making a difference are like Elon. That's an important guy. I'm amusing, but there's a difference.

You're clearly a storyteller with a penchant for the fantastical. Where does that come from?

Psychedelics. Honestly, I think that I was largely formed by one single psychedelic experience in college (with) ibogaine. Across the whole panoply, from mushrooms, LSD, psilocybin, MDMA ... ibogaine is way up there. It's extremely rare. I'm working with it professionally now, ibogaine and the drug (that) comes from this animal (he points to a large gold ring in the shape of a toad on his finger), 5-MeO-DMT. This is a model of a Sonoran desert toad, and in this gland contains all the truth you'll ever need to know. We're treating, in Mexico at a clinic that I've helped establish, suicidal (veterans). We've taken a very troubled community — these men have been very badly damaged — and we're giving them both these drugs over a weekend. We don't give them their lives back. We help them see lives they've never had.

They're hallucinogens. The ibogaine lasts 12 to 24 hours. It basically allows you to clear your hard drive and start over. You don't forget anything, but you can visit past events in your life like they were real, just like you and I are sitting here. You can call up dead parents, people you've killed. ... We use it to treat drug addicts and alcoholics because it's incredibly effective. If you go to a well-run ibogaine clinic and you go through the treatment, the chances of you returning to heroin use are less than 50% if you don't change anything else. ... It just kills the addictive response. It also seems to kill suicidal ideation. The people we get are largely inclined to suicide.

Why is this something that you're involved in and that you care about?

Because I took ibogaine in 1970. I was 20. I don't know where I would have gone or who I would have been but I completely did a 90-degree turn and went (in) that other direction. I don't know where I didn't go but I know where I did go. It opened a creative vein that just let it flow. Ever since then I felt less tethered than most people.

If you could open any kind of restaurant, with no financial constraints, what kind of restaurant would it be?

I wouldn't but let's say my younger self — I was going to do a big seafood house on the water. We had one of the best locations in the world, literally 2 feet from the water with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge. We were going to make that a Woodhouse (Fish Company) ... I've always liked seafood, but the oceans are dying so that's not good. I'd love to see a restaurant that looked like it had a full menu of fish and chicken and beef, but it was all modern, healthy synthetic (foods), like the Impossible burger.

We have this deep mammalian passion for flesh. It's how we survived efficiently. It satisfies a craving we have to be human and survive. When vegetarians say, 'It's unnatural'—it's not unnatural. It's very natural. Vegetarianism is unnatural. But still, that's not the future of the planet. We're gonna have to change. We're gonna have to be unnatural.

Next year will mark Buck's 30th anniversary. Do you have any plans to retire? Where will Buck's be in 10 years? Or are you not thinking about that?

I don't even think about six o'clock. One of my kids is moving to Skyline, so probably (he'll) take it over. ... We don't make plans.

Editor's Note: This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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