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Monday, October 21, 2013

When Will Palo Alto's Dining Scene Step Out of S.F.'s Shadow?

Posted By on Mon, Oct 21, 2013 at 8:00 AM

Downtown Palo Alto is poised to become a dining destination. - FLICKR/ALLIE_CAULFIELD

Palo Alto's dining landscape these days looks more and more like a mash-up of San Francisco's Marina neighborhood, Valencia Street, and Ferry Building than a place that holds its own in the Bay Area culinary world. Over the past year we've seen local chains like Tacolicious, Gott's Roadside, and Umami Burger moving into town, with Pizzeria Delfina coming this fall and Blue Bottle Coffee following early next year. This is not a complaint about having these excellent establishments open Palo Alto branches, but it is a request for a talented, passionate chef to make his or her culinary mark in Palo Alto.

This migration of big city restaurants opening up in Palo Alto isn't new. Jeremiah Towers' San Francisco classic Stars opened a branch here in the '80s, which Wolfgang Puck turned into a Spago afterwards from 1997 to 2007. San Francisco's Kokkari opened Evvia in 1995 and is still on the top of its game almost two decades later.

The expansion restaurant culture, though, seems to have kept small, passionate, chef-owned concepts away from Palo Alto. There's enough money and culture here for the restaurant foodie culture to be on par with other independent restaurant hubs in the Bay Area -- Oakland, Berkeley, Healdsburg. Palo Alto isn't just another suburb. You have the Stanford faculty, students, and parents; the one percent venture capitalists; and the new money tech workers, all willing to go out at night. Visit the California Avenue Farmers' Market each Sunday morning and you'll see diners and home cooks who are as fanatical about kohlrabi as Michael Pollan. And yet, the Cheesecake Factory remains one of the most popular University Avenue restaurants.

By no means is Palo Alto a dining desert. In fact, it's a city with three separate primary business districts that all have a heavy emphasis on food and drink. California Avenue is growing in dining importance thanks to La Bodeguita del Medio's exciting Latin cuisine, Anatolian Kitchen's doner kebab, and the superb lattes at Zombie Runner, one of the city's best coffee roaster-cafes that also happens to be a tiny stand in the rear of a shoe store. The Michelin two-starred Baumé can be found here, where acclaimed chef Bruno Chemel's molecular gastronomy is on display. Baumé hasn't had the seismic impact on the city's dining scene like David Kinch has with Manresa in fellow suburb Los Gatos, but it's certainly the type of ambitious restaurant that can help lift Palo Alto to the next gastronomic tier.

Town & Country Village the past two years has been transformed from a small shopping center to Palo Alto's Ferry Building courtesy of its restaurants and bakeries, including Mayfield Bakery & Café, Howie's Artisan Pizza, and the newly opened Gott's and Tinpot Creamery. University Avenue and the downtown area has contemporary Vietnamese dishes that rival The Slanted Door at Tamarine, a homey trattoria called Osteria with old waiters and classic housemade pastas that would fit right in across from Florence's Duomo, and big city vibes with consistently enjoyable cooking at St. Michael's Alley and Joya.

Clearly, the dining scene isn't a clunker, and we haven't even mentioned all the small, family-owned ethnic cuisine gems scattered around town. However, something is still missing. We as a town are fanatical about good food, and lack a restaurant that perfectly sums up and elevates what we love about eating and dining out.

Palo Alto needs a personal, clearly chef-driven spot, bringing together all of the hallmarks of an important restaurant that make any visit a special one, even if it's just Tuesday night's dinner -- the kind of meal you find at Rich Table, State Bird Provisions, or Coco500 in the city. Perhaps the chef might want to follow his roots like what Nick Balla is doing with eastern European-meets-California cuisine with hints of Japanese izakaya at Bar Tartine, or do her own version of what Melissa Perello has established with Frances.

The city badly wants and deserves an exciting chef to become the symbol of its dining culture as a truly destination-worthy. That chef might come from San Francisco, but it won't be from another outpost of a San Francisco restaurant.

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Trevor Felch


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