Founded in 1852 as a roadhouse for gambling and drinking, Alpine Inn is known for its beer garden and Stanford ties.

Alpine Inn is the second-longest continuously run tavern in California. Courtesy Alpine Inn.

This story is part of an ongoing series about longtime eateries on the Peninsula. Read previous stories about the Loma Mar Store & Kitchen and Millbrae Pancake House.

When I was assigned a story on Portola Valley’s historic Alpine Inn, I knew to leave my Cal sweatshirt at home. Stanford’s roots run very deep at this transformed roadhouse and beer garden, especially now that the five new owners either attended the university or have some affiliation with it.

“I used to come here every Friday night when I went to school at Stanford,” Lori Hunter said. She and her husband, Deke, are the owners of Alpine Inn, along with Fred and Stephanie Harman and Jim Kohlberg. Hunter brought in Greg St. Claire, managing partner and president of Avenir Restaurant Group, to lead the now-171-year-old roadhouse’s transformation. They purchased the property and business in 2018 and reopened it in August 2019 following an extensive renovation.

A lot of the vintage memorabilia like bottles, license plates and photos inside the tavern were either removed or spiffed up during the remodel. More Stanford items managed to make their way onto the property, too.

Stanford memorabilia can be found throughout the Alpine Inn in Portola Valley. Photo by Sadie Stinson.

St. Claire’s father attended the university; some of his college belongings can be found displayed on the property. “My dad passed away recently, and I was going through a trunk of his Stanford stuff,” he said. Lightheartedly, he quickly followed up about what he uncovered: “I also found his academic probation letter from freshman year, so I know he spent a lot of time here.” 

When Stanford’s lead historian got word that the restaurant had changed hands, he contacted St. Claire and offered him access to the school’s archives. “He opened the vault of historic photographs, and the walls inside the tavern are now filled with items on loan,” he said. “These images are just a great representation of the community and people that supported this place throughout the years.” Alpine Inn was and continues to be a big draw for all Stanford sports fans, especially football.

The restaurant’s menu ranges from elevated bar bites like garlic herb and parmigiano reggiano fries served with tarragon aioli to entrees including salads, burgers, sandwiches and wood-fired pizzas, plus tavern specialties like ribs and tacos. Cocktails and wine join a selection of bottled beer and beer on tap, available by the pint or pitcher. There’s limited seating in the tavern and a 250-seat beer garden with covered seating, heat lamps and TVs for sports fans.

Hors d’oeurves at the Alpine Inn in Portola Valley. Photo by Sadie Stinson.

Through the years, the tavern has been kept alive by more than just Stanford alumni and fans. Dating back to 1852 and being the second-oldest continually run tavern in California, the place and its lore have attracted a wide cast of characters and fans, from patrons arriving on horseback to tech workers in Teslas and local families looking for a bite to eat after a game at nearby Rossotti Field. Alpine Inn has served generations of families from Portola Valley and nearby communities who treat the establishment as a home away from home. (Before the 2018 ownership change and renovations, it was known as a place where patrons would carve their names into the restaurant’s booths.) 

After several ownership changes, some by way of a bad hand or a tragic accident, the place became best known as Zotts, short for Rossotti’s. Even with more recent transfers, the name Zotts stuck. 

“We love the nickname and see it as part of its legacy,” Hunter said. “This place is a piece of Portola Valley history. Rain or shine, people come to be a part of it, from the folks in walkers waiting to get in at 11:30 a.m. to the college kids that occupy the place after 8 p.m.”

Alpine Inn photographed in 1967 by Joe Melena. Courtesy San Mateo County History Museum Archives.

From Casa De Tableta to Alpine Inn

Former San Jose mayor Felix Buelna opened his roadhouse, Casa De Tableta, so that he and his countrymen could play cards, drink and dance following San Jose’s passage of an ordinance banning Sunday gambling, according to the Alpine Inn’s website. Casa De Tableta was strategically located on the earliest trail used by rancheros and American settlers crossing the Peninsula to the coast. 

By 1868, Buelna sold the property to William Stanton. (Buelna’s grandson reportedly believes that his grandfather lost all of his property in a rigged poker game at the Searsville Saloon, according to the Alpine Inn.) Following numerous ownership changes, Charles Schenkel became the property’s primary owner around 1904 and renamed the roadhouse “The Wunder.”

In 1907, Portola Valley farmer Walter Jelich bought Schenkel’s lease. The San Mateo County Board of Supervisors granted him a liquor license despite opposition from Stanford President David Starr Jordan, who claimed the saloon had the “reputation of being vile, even for a roadhouse,” according to a 2019 InMenlo article.

The Wunder Bar sign out front was painted over during Prohibition. Courtesy Alpine Inn.

From 1919-33, the Wunder Bar sign out front was painted over due to Prohibition, and liquor had to be smuggled into the county. The outdoor area became referred to as Schenkel’s Picnic Park and was advertised to San Franciscans as a place where non-alcoholic drinks were sold, but those in the know could find illicit beverages, according to the Alpine Inn.

When Prohibition ended in 1933, Enrico Rossotti took over the lease from Schenkel and Jelich, purchasing the land from the Stantons 20 years later. The addition of burgers and grilled food during his tenure drew Stanford fans year-round, and he ran the restaurant, now called Rossotti’s Beer Garden, until 1956. Dan Horther and John Alexander took over in the ‘50s.

In 1969 the location of the roadhouse, which had been renamed Alpine Inn, was registered as a historic landmark under its original name Casa De Tableta. It made history again in 1976, when scientists from SRI International successfully sent an electronic message from a computer set up at a picnic table in the beer garden. 

Alpine Inn remained in the Alexander family until Alexander’s wife, Molly, died in 2017, and the following year it was sold to the current ownership group.

Customers fill every outdoor table at Alpine Inn during the restaurant’s 170th anniversary celebration in Portola Valley on Feb. 28, 2022. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

What’s old is new again

Prior to the ownership change, the place was, as St. Claire described, “a loveable dump.” Once the transfer was complete, the team removed a large office/storage unit that sat at the edge of the property and blocked views of Los Trancos Creek below. 

“Besides being used as housing, that thing had several refrigerators that had all kinds of weird things stored in them,” Hunter said.

The tavern was leaning and needed extensive structural work. “There wasn’t a direct family member to take the place over after Molly passed away and a trustee was in charge. By the time we got it, it was really on its last legs,” St. Claire added. Other than updating the bathrooms and kitchen to bring them up to code and adding a ramp for accessibility, the footprint of the tavern and beer garden didn’t change.

“By the time we got to it, it was really on its last legs.” Alpine Inn was extensively renovated between 2018 and 2019. Photo by Sadie Stinson.

Though Hunter and the rest of the team did field concerns from customers about drastic changes to the space, those concerns were quickly squelched when the place reopened and people returned. They found an array of seasonal food, improved infrastructure and a welcoming outdoor space. Opening numbers exceeded expectations, and they rode the wave. Soon after, though, they would have to close as COVID hit them like every other restaurant in the state.

As difficult as it was to shut down so quickly after opening, the team took the opportunity to redo the beer garden and really make it an elevated place to dine, drink and just hang out. Cornhole games and a kids’ play area were swapped out for more space between tables.

“We realized that the beer garden wasn’t always enjoyable for everyone, but we still get kids that climb the trees or try to scale the embankment and swim in the creek,” Hunter said about the changes. “The shutdown allowed us to really refine our vision and define ourselves.”

Cooks at the Alpine Inn utilize an outdoor kitchen to help make up for the small indoor kitchen space. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

They also took the opportunity to update the guest-server interaction. “We were the beta launch for Toast’s new contactless ordering system,” St. Claire said. The timing couldn’t have been better, as the launch coincided with the return to outdoor dining. It’s interesting how 47 years ago, a group of scientists from SRI International sent the first internet transmission at one of Alpine Inn’s picnic tables and in 2021, the restaurant was instrumental in launching an app that was a savior for social distancing and dining outdoors.

St. Claire and his regional operations partner, Michelle Qadri, make frequent visits to the restaurant. There’s a team of six managers, three in the front and three in the kitchen, that keep the place humming. In all, 120 employees keep the beer and burgers flowing in a space that can seat 250 people at a time.

While St. Claire and the team are hoping to expand the kitchen in the near future, for now, they’ve learned to serve about 100,000 tacos and burgers annually with a kitchen smaller than you’d find in any Portola Valley home. To meet demands, the restaurant takes much of the cooking outside and has two wood-fired pizza ovens, a grill and a large commercial smoker they found in Georgia. Tri-tip, bacon, brisket, chicken and ribs all get cooked in the smoker. Even fresh tomatoes and jalapenos get smoked before they are ground as part of the bar’s bloody Mary base.

Alpine Inn has two wood-fired pizza ovens to meet demand. Photo by Sammy Dallal.

The owners seem to want to hold on to the past more than ever, but admit that some of the quirkiness had to go. “When we first took over we fished out all kinds of things from the creek. There was a crib and several Christmas trees down there,” Hunter laughed. 

She also talked about her favorite tree in the beer garden — a stately redwood.

“I love that tree, and at some point, someone had attached lights to the trunk and installed a TV antenna on top,” she said. The redwood, along with buckeyes, were tended to. With the addition of sycamores and vegetable beds that define outdoor dining spaces, the beer garden is an enchanting place that is thriving with life.

“Restaurants are like public parks: They are essential gathering spots,” St. Claire said. “And Alpine Inn, with its year-round dining, well it’s just magical.”

Alpine Inn, 3915 Alpine Road, Portola Valley; 650-854-4004, Instagram: @alpineinnpv. Open 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday, 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday and 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday. Closed Mondays. Alpine Inn does not accept reservations or private party requests.

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