Restaurant Review: Fabulously alfresco

Publication Date: Friday Apr 7, 2000

Restaurant Review: Fabulously alfresco

Fambrini's brings dining with a view to Palo Alto's El Camino Real

by Laura Reiley

Name one restaurant in Palo Alto with a view. Stumped you, eh? Fambrini's Terrace Cafe is about as close as it gets. Located on the second floor of an office building on El Camino Real, it has a view that just won't quit. OK, so it's a view of Page Mill Road and El Camino, but somehow a little distance makes the bustle and traffic seem quaint and relaxing. The patio has tables spread between beds of flowers and mature trees, and cafe umbrellas adjust the amount of sun that streams down.

The down side? The food's only so-so. Fambrini's functions as a cafeteria and catering business for the whole office building--that means much of the clientele is a captive audience. In so many such situations, this signals a call to mediocrity and high prices. While that's not the case at Fambrini's, the soups, salads and sandwiches are merely pleasant, made more so by eating them on the aforementioned patio.

Service is counter-style, with a few (sometimes surly) kitchen workers putting together the orders. A display case showing all the prepared salads and a handful of hot dishes is topped by a long row of cookies, cookie bars and cakes. A chalkboard behind the counter enumerates the choices, and a white board lists a handful of daily specials. These are slightly more ambitious than the regular offerings, but everything is very reasonably priced.

The indoor dining room is strictly a rain-date choice, with a handful of glass-topped tables and a couple of tired prints on the wall. Order inside and go stake out a table outside (if you go before the office lunch rush you'll get your pick of the bunch).

Straightforward sandwiches are the core of things here, with lots of bread options (sourdough, French roll, sweet roll, croissant, rye, Dutch crunch or baguette) and wholesome ingredients. The club sandwich ($4.95) is king, with lots of layers of jack, ham, bacon, turkey and other fixings. Sandwiches come in a little rattan basket with a wedge of watermelon on the side; we sampled a solid Italian meatball version ($5.95) with melted provolone. The meatballs weren't particularly genius, but as a whole the sandwich hung together nicely. Just enough sauce, just enough give to the roll. Virginia baked ham ($4.25), hot or cold pastrami ($4.25) and shrimp salad sandwiches (a steal at $3.50) won't win any prizes, but they are all solid efforts at fair prices.

A more sophisticated aesthetic goes into preparing the salads in the case. Most of them hover between $2.29 and $3.29 for a half pint, but if you decide you want to try a whole bunch of things don't be surprised if the woman behind the counter seems peevish. (Hey, I'm a critic, I order a lot of stuff. Deal with it.) A very appealing cherry tomato salad with hunks of fresh mozzarella was lifted up by crunchy focaccia croutons and shreds of basil; a red potato salad gets a shot of fresh dill, a little chopped egg and a suave Dijonaise dressing. The Asian-inspired dishes seem the most wan. We tried two of these--the day's special chicken fried rice and a sesame noodle concoction. Both were extremely bland, calling out for a splash of soy sauce, a bit of fresh ginger, a squirt of chili oil-- anything to give them a little zing.

Coffee drinks at Fambrini's are extremely affordable (single cappuccino $1.50, latte $1.60) and very competent. They are a great excuse to sample a range of cookies and desserts (hey, you need something to accompany that coffee). Prices on the desserts are not listed anywhere, so you have to ask. Fat chocolate chip cookies, peanut butter cookies half- dipped in bittersweet chocolate, one of those gooey chocolate chip and coconut nut bars, squares of carrot cake with a thick hat of cream cheese icing, chocolate Bundt cake with a drizzle of fudge. It's a greatest-hits list of quintessential American dessert innovations. A sip of latte, a bite of cookie and a panoramic view--it's just what Palo Alto was calling out for.

Fambrini's Terrace Cafe, 2600 El Camino Real, Palo Alto, (650) 858-1268

Hours: 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday

Atmosphere: The outdoor patio is glorious, with umbrella-topped tables, flower beds and flowering trees to add to the perfection of a spring day.

Highlights: The prepared salads are pretty and familiar, but sandwiches may be a better way to go. Reservations - not accepted Credit cards - no Parking - lot Full liquor - none Takeout - yes Banquet - no Wheelchair access - yes Highchairs - no Outdoor seating - yes 

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