Eat, play, dance: Restaurateur offers space for community to gather

Customers fill Bistro Vida’s outdoor tables for lunch in downtown Menlo Park on June 9, 2020. (Photo by Magali Gauthier)

Bistro Vida in Menlo Park has been recognized as the 13th Senate District’s Small Business of the Year. The bistro has been much more than a place to eat. Especially during the pandemic, it’s become a place for people to gather outdoors.

“We’re different, very homey. You feel like this is your neighborhood place, where you would like to come hang out. When you come in, everyone knows each other. It’s like (the TV show) ‘Cheers’ — the homey place for everybody,” owner Ali El Safy says.

“I think people were having a hard time mentally and emotionally,” El Safy says. “Everyone was drained…You need something to distract you from what was going on.”

Customers eating outside Bistro Vida in downtown Menlo Park on Saturday June 6, the first day San Mateo County restaurants were allowed to reopen for outdoor dining. (Photo by Elena Kadvany)

Creating a space for community connection provided that. Since then, El Safy and his team have offered picnic tables and live music, and cleaned the space for the public. “There’s room for everybody, I look at the restaurant like my living room, my home … I go out of my way to take care of you.”

Bistro Vida is one of the countless local businesses that changed operations in light of COVID-19. The team sought to develop amenities for the community, protective equipment for the staff and permitting to develop a parklet. The parklet reflects the detail that El Safy envisioned for the interior of the restaurant, incorporating chandeliers, black and white images of bridges and the Sacré-Coeur Basilica in Paris, and tables from the south of France, inspired by the country he lived in after emigrating from Alexandria, Egypt. Then El Safy invited a friend to play music, and things took off from there.

Ali El Safy’s Bistro Vida has been recognized as the small business of the year by State Senator Josh Becker and the California Small Business Association. Photo courtesy of Christie Perego.

“Community spirit is part of Bistro Vida’s DNA. That’s been clear since Ali opened its doors in 1998. Thanks to that unflagging spirit and Ali’s leadership, Bistro Vida not only met the challenges of the pandemic, the restaurant and its owner also helped keep the vibrancy of Menlo Park’s downtown alive,” Senator Josh Becker wrote in a prepared statement.

El Safy says Bistro Vida retained all 22 employees on staff throughout the pandemic. Demand for food service slowed, but the team continued to work.

“I couldn’t have done it without my staff and the people I work with. Hats off to them. They all stayed with me and we did what we had to do,” El Safy says. “We painted the restaurant, we cleaned the restaurant. We did a little bit of landscaping, just to keep the mind stimulated.”

Now, El Safy is hopeful for the future. “The more people we get vaccinated, the more clients we get to see coming out,” he says.

Aiming for an autumn launch, El Safy’s focus is now on developing another way to engage the Menlo Park community: He’s helping coordinate a French-style outdoor market, which could dedicate up to two city blocks to vendors, each specializing in their own fare.

“We’ll bring the best gelato, the best saucisson. There will be the mushroom guy, and the cheese guy,” El Safy says. “We’re all foreigners here, and we bring something different.”

Until then, the Bistro Vida team will continue to offer “warm, homey comfort,” welcoming families the team has seen grow up over the years and newcomers alike.

“We have become what we have always wanted to be — the neighborhood bistro,” El Safy says.

Bistro Vida // 641 Santa Cruz Avenue; 650.462.1686

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