2018’s noteworthy newcomers, lamentable closures, popular pop-ups, a Michelin star surprise and more
By Elena Kadvany & Charles Russo
You could say that 2018 was a banner year for the local restaurant scene, particularly in Palo Alto, which saw the awarding of a new Michelin star, the arrival of a major name in the burger world and the first U.S. outpost of a popular Japanese ramen chain, among other noteworthy additions.
Typically quiet Menlo Park got a slew of new eateries this year, while the already vibrant downtown Redwood City dining scene continues to grow at a rapid pace as development increases in the area.
The Mountain View restaurant scene was relatively quiet this year but there was a wave of smaller ethnic restaurants that opened throughout the city, spanning Mediterranean, Vietnamese and Japanese cuisines.
Read on for our take on some of the notable comings and goings in the Midpeninsula dining world in 2018.
MOST ANTICIPATED … As evidenced by the three-hour wait for Shake Shack’s burgers and crinkle-cut fries on opening day (including one mother who lined up for her son and his friend at 6 a.m.), the East Coast burger chain was easily the Peninsula’s most anticipated opening of 2018. Shake Shack made its Northern California debut at Stanford Shopping Center earlier this month, serving up the classics that the eatery is known for — straightforward Angus beef cheeseburgers served on squishy-soft Martin’s potato rolls, a fried chicken sandwich, crinkle-cut fries and the dessert concretes — plus new menu items exclusive to Palo Alto. Palo Alto marks Shake Shack’s 130th location in the United States and 202nd location worldwide. Shake Shack, born in New York City in 2001, took its time planning this location, said its culinary director, Mark Rosati. “We know the bar is high” in the Bay Area, he said. “We want to make sure we exceed that bar.” (Want to skip the line? Check Shake Shack’s mobile app, which for now is offering a limited number of orders for Palo Alto.)
MICHELIN-STARRED IN ITS FIRST YEAR … Just nine months after opening in Palo Alto, Protégé won a much sought-after Michelin star. Protégé opened on California Avenue in March with high hopes and expectations to match, with co-owners and a pastry chef who hailed from three-Michelin-star The French Laundry in Yountville. In a November announcement, the Michelin guide said that Protégé “displays a level of finesse to prepare consistently excellent meals, while the dining experience remains casual and approachable.” The guide defines one star as high-quality cooking that’s worth a stop. “We are floored,” chef and co-owner Anthony Secviar said the day the stars were announced.
WHERE THERE’S ALWAYS A LINE … No matter the time of day, there seems to be a line at Ramen Nagi in downtown Palo Alto. The Japanese ramen chain opened its first-ever U.S. outpost at 541 Bryant St. this summer — a smart move, given the near-absence of quality ramen in the Palo Alto area. At Ramen Nagi, customers can choose from four kinds of broth — original (tonkotsu), black (squid ink), red (red miso and red chili paste) and green (with basil, Parmesan and olive oil) — and then customize flavor, noodle firmness and toppings. Special to the Palo Alto Ramen Nagi is a vegetarian ramen with broth made from cauliflower, onions, milk and garlic.
VEGANS FIND THEIR PLACE AT THE TABLE … With the opening of Wursthall, San Mateo gained a classic German beer hall, though one with contemporary culinary sensibilities. Sure, you can get bratwurst, chicken schnitzel and many of Bavaria’s best beers, but you can also get vegan versions of Döner Kebap, sausages and hot dogs.
In fact, co-owner J. Kenji López-Alt made it a front-burner priority to feature vegan options in a real way on the menu: “I wanted to make sure that vegans know that we have vegan offerings that aren’t merely an afterthought to the meat.”
For the marquee Döner Kebap, Wursthall uses Impossible Foods meat, which is made with ingredients like wheat, coconut oil, potato protein, heme protein and Japanese yam. It’s paired with a vegan garlic sauce, sumac, Urfa biber (a dried Turkish chili pepper) and house pickles on Turkish bread for the döner.
Wursthall, which is opening a second location in San Jose, offers more example of the Peninsula keeping to the forefront of the culinary world this year.
GEORGIA RISES … The Midpeninsula gained not one, but two Georgian eateries in 2018. Pavel Sirotin, who is from Russia, opened Bevri in downtown Palo Alto in February after moving to the Bay Area and noticing the absence of Georgian restaurants. And in Mountain View, couple Teresa Kasoyan and Georgy Khatoev launched a Georgian food truck called Kolkhida — named for an ancient Georgian kingdom known for its wine, food and farming — in late September.
Both restaurant and truck serve traditional Georgian dishes such as pkhali (a mixture made from spinach, beets, walnuts and other ingredients), khinkali (dumplings filled with meat and/or vegetables) and khachapuri (a large boat-shaped piece of bread filled with cheese and an egg).
AT LONG LAST … It only took three and a half years. After much delay, Bay Area sandwich favorite Ike’s Place opened on Lytton Avenue in Palo Alto in November. Owner Ike Shehadeh took over the lease in 2015; he declined to comment on what took so long to open.
The Lytton Avenue location is serving the classic, massive Ike’s menu, plus three new sandwiches only available in Palo Alto. There’s the Jim Harbaugh (the shop was set to open when he was still the San Francisco 49ers’ coach) with chicken, pepper jack cheese and a sweet chili glaze; the Mayfield with salmon, avocado and sweet chili glaze; and Kermit the Frog, a vegetarian sandwich with cucumber, avocado, cream cheese and sweet chili glaze.
As of Jan. 2, 2019, Ike’s Palo Alto is open from 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. The sandwich shop will test these hours through February and then either maintain or retract them based on demand, Shehadeh said.
KOREAN GOES UPSCALE … After a year of operating quietly as a private dining space in downtown Palo Alto, Korean restaurant Maum opened to the public this summer, bringing a new concept to the Midpeninsula. The high-end restaurant at 322 University Ave. serves a tasting-only menu carefully curated by husband-and-wife co-chefs Michael and Meichih Kim, who both have fine-dining experience. Their food is at once modern and nostalgic, marrying the flavors of Korean and Northern California culinary traditions. The Maum kitchen is fueled by a small, private farm in Los Altos Hills that exclusively supplies the restaurant, including with hard-to-find Korean produce.
POP-UPS GET POPULAR … No, none of them were exactly brand new this year, but several pop-ups increasingly staked their claim to local culinary legitimacy. Operating out of farmers markets and connecting to customers via social media, numerous Peninsula pop-ups were among the most sought after eats in the local food scene.
On the Midpeninsula, pop-up baking outfits Love for Butter and Little Sky Bakery frequently sold out of their wares in steady fashion, while dinner seatings at Daly City’s ramen pop-up Noodle In a Haystack filled up within minutes of release.
Who might pop-up in 2019?
CHAINS EXPAND … The Peninsula saw some other notable chains (beyond Shake Shack) touch down this year to make their mark on the local food scene.
Portland’s Salt + Straw ice cream shop set up in Burlingame in October and Palo Alto in November to showcase their inventive flavors (roasted peach and cornbread was our favorite) with a heavy emphasis on top-notch local ingredients, like Cowgirl Creamery’s funky Mt. Tam cheese blended into an ice cream base with crunchy bits of toasted Acme fruit and walnut bread.
That same month, legendary Hawaiian chef Sam Choy brought his Poke to the Max restaurant to California for the first time by way of his new outpost in San Bruno. Often called “The Godfather of Poke,” Choy’s menu skewed toward traditional island classics with loco moco and musubi, plus a wide range of poke options including a tofu poke with shoyu and sesame oil for vegetarians.
Welcome to the Peninsula.
A FRENCH-CREATED PATISSERIE … Three French pastry chefs with illustrious resumes left careers in Paris to make croissants, canelé and quiche at Maison Alyzee in downtown Mountain View this year. Owner Laurent Pellet, a native of Lyon, France, convinced the three chefs to move here to start the bakery, which opened on Castro Street in July.
The team is baking levain bread, baguettes, croissants, brioche and other traditional viennoiserie as well as sweets and savory dishes. Maison Alyzee is now serving full breakfast, brunch and lunch, Tuesday through Sunday. Before opening, Pellet envisioned customers sitting outside to share food over glasses of wine “like you would be in the south of France in the terrace of a cafe.”
A ‘NEW CULINARY ORDER’ FOR MENLO PARK … In 2019, will we have to stop calling the Menlo Park restaurant scene “sleepy”?
This year saw the opening of several new projects, including Camper restaurant on Santa Cruz Avenue, with a pedigreed chef from San Francisco; Coffeebar, an ever-busy cafe blocks away on Chestnut Street; and two hotel restaurants, Oak + Violet inside the Park James on El Camino Real and Porta Blu at the Hotel Nia near Highway 101. All have generated their own buzz in a town where there has been little movement in the dining scene for years.
When asked why he opened Camper in Menlo Park, chef Greg Kuzia-Carmel said, “Why not?” “The beauty of this is,” he said, “I think there’s a readiness for a new world order of what can become an institution down here.”
WE SAID GOODBYE TO … several longtime restaurants this year. In Palo Alto, farm-to-table Calafia Cafe closed suddenly after nine years at Town & Country Village. (Owner Charlie Ayers, Google’s first-ever chef, said that “The costs were greater than the take. I couldn’t operate that way anymore.”) The first location of health-conscious restaurant chain LYFE Kitchen, which opened in downtown Palo Alto in 2011, closed in August. Max’s Opera Cafe shuttered after three decades at Stanford Shopping Center, with owner Dennis Berkowitz citing financial challenges and declining revenue. Longtime family-run Indian restaurant Janta in downtown Palo Alto closed on Christmas Eve due to an unaffordable rent increase, and Palo Alto Baking Co. announced that Dec. 31, 2018, would be its last day of business on California Avenue.
Of course, the biggest news may have been the closing of longtime Peninsula institution The Oasis in Menlo Park. Of course, let’s not forget Fabbro’s in Redwood City.
Over in Mountain View, the owner of Hangen Szechuan on Castro Street decided to retire in September after 25 years in the restaurant business.
EAT THERE ASAP … Two local institutions have announced plans to close in 2019, so use what time is left to have your last suppers. Cho’s Mandarin Dim Sum, which relocated from Palo Alto to Los Altos in 2014, will close for good on Jan. 25. “After 39 long years of serving the community his beloved food, Cho is finally moving on with his retirement,” the restaurant announced on Facebook in December. Until then, Cho’s will be serving its locally famous potstickers and pork buns at 209 1st St. daily from 11:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
The owner of Su Hong Palo Alto also plans to retire next year, bringing an end to a restaurant legacy that served generations of local families and Chinese immigrants who have moved to Palo Alto. The first Su Hong opened in Menlo Park in 1977. Then came the first Palo Alto location at 4101 El Camino Way in 1987 and a takeout restaurant in Menlo Park in 1991. About 10 years ago, David King purchased the 4256 El Camino Real site, which was then a Denny’s, remodeled it and opened the new Su Hong in 2010. A proposal to replace the restaurant with a five-story hotel is currently making its way through the city’s approval process.
For more local restaurant news, view Elena Kadvany’s Peninsula Foodist blog at paloaltoonline.com/blogs.
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