Generations of an Italian family that once ran the popular Peninsula restaurant, bar and gambling hub convened for one “last supper” to reminisce.
Tucked behind the dim lights, white tablecloths and elegant wood-paneled interior of the restaurant dining room inside 2915 El Camino Real in Redwood City is a hidden door which speaks to the building’s colorful past.
“I think it used to be bigger,” says Joi Ferrando, whose own family history is tied to the bootlegging legacy of the location. Ferrando explains how Maria Fabbro, the Italian matriarch and head chef of the former Fabbro’s restaurant, would use that hidden door to serve day workers who couldn’t afford to patronize the sit-down restaurant.
The story of the door (and the bootlegging) is among the many tales that belong to the vibrant history and many identities of the Redwood City location: speakeasy, gambling hall, thriving hotspot restaurant for high-profile locals.
The two-story location has been a quintessential restaurant and local meeting place on the Peninsula, a witness to the region’s transformation over the better part of the past century, from the Great Depression to the Dotcom Bust. From 1933 to 2002, the restaurant, Fabbro’s, was carefully passed through three generations of the family. In 2002, the Fabbros sold the property to John Bentley, known locally for his fine dining establishment in Woodside.
Now, with the beloved Bay Area location slated to close at the end of the month and looming plans to redevelop the site into a senior living facility, the Fabbro clan gathered to tell tales about their many years working at the family and community institution.
Bootleggers and Bon Vivants
George Fabbro, an Italian immigrant, was a well-known bootlegger and speakeasy proprietor even before opening the restaurant. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, George and his wife Mary had run a speakeasy out of their home before shuttering it and buying the 2915 El Camino Real building.
The restaurant, says Mike Fabbro — who ran the business from 1997 to 2002 — was first formally opened as a restaurant and bar by his grandfather George in 1933 shortly after Prohibition was lifted. The family lived in the apartments upstairs as the restaurant downstairs quickly became a Peninsula hotspot.
George, remembered one relative, was known as a “bon vivant” who went by the nickname “Big Red.” According to the Chronicle, the living room in the upper apartment was home to the first off-track betting machine in the state. Customers could reportedly walk up from the bar to place bets. Eventually the machine was moved to a red shed out back after authorities objected to its living room location.
Deana Fabbro, who spent time working as a waitress at the restaurant, talked about some of her experiences and those she heard from her mother, Helen, who worked as a waitress there for about 40 years. When it started, the restaurant was exclusively open to men, and it probably didn’t allow women “in the front door”—as Deana puts it—until the late 1960s.
The restaurant was well known for its marinated cracked crab and offered the “best cheesecake in town,” she added. Steak was served with both pasta and potatoes. Among its regulars were many of the judges and lawyers of San Mateo County, she said. Fabbro’s also hosted annual fundraisers for the “Catholic Youth Organization” — consisting of a golf tournament that wound up with a steak dinner at Fabbro’s.
The atmosphere of the restaurant was more welcoming and family friendly than loud or crowded, she said. Just for sitting down at a table customers would get served bread, butter, salami and garbanzo beans.
In time, George Fabbro passed the business down to his son Frank, who would turned it over, many years later, to his son Mike.
One Last Soiree
John Fabbro — older brother to Mike and son of Frank — who worked in the kitchen for a few years in the 1980s, recalled his time there as “fast-paced” and “a lot of fun.” He said he started working at the family restaurant around the time he was 13, and helped run the business as an adult.
John Bentley took over the site in November 2002, with a genuine interest in the location. When he took on the site, he made some cosmetic improvements and rebuilt the bar. Mike Fabbro said he sold the business to him partly because Mr. Bentley’s dad was a dedicated restaurant customer.
Recently, after 22 years running John Bentley’s and more decades in the restaurant business, Mr. Bentley announced his plans to retire. He and his wife sold the property two years ago, but leased it back to extend their time with the restaurant. That lease ends April 30. Currently, the site is planned to be redeveloped into a senior living facility by Sunrise Senior Living Corp.
Nostalgic but spirited, the Fabbro family members took their seats after an informal cocktail hour to continue to tell animated stories in Grandpa George’s old apartment (and former illicit gambling hall), which now serves as the private dining room at John Bentley’s.
Photos were passed around, sparking lively tales of passed relatives, acquaintances and still more secrets of the location. And eventually, they dug into their dinners, prepared in honor of their family’s local legacy.
The restaurant closes permanently on Saturday, March 31. As of March 23, the Mercury News reported that the restaurant was about booked solid its last week, but there may be some lunchtime or late-night openings or the occasional spot at the bar.
John Bentley’s. 2915 El Camino Real. (650) 365–7777. johnbentleys.com.
Open Monday through Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 9:00 p.m.; Fridays, until 9:30 p.m,. and Saturday from 5 to 9:30 p.m.