New eateries opening constantly, multiple farmers markets, mushrooming specialty shops dishing up things like artisan ice cream, chocolates and exotic baked goods, out-of-town eaters flocking in to munch -- this must be San Francisco, right? Well, yes, but it also describes Palo Alto circa 2015.
Happily for those living in what was once considered the vast culinary desert south of the city, good grub can be found without a drive into San Francisco. And today's most prosperous foodie town in this area is decidedly posh Palo Alto. While social media comments and person-on-the-street opinions put Palo Alto on top, one can see harder evidence by just walking through the city's downtown.
By category, restaurants rule when it comes to local businesses. Those eateries that don't fully attract the swarm of locals, office workers and visitors are quickly transformed into the next concept, with vacant storefronts a rarity. One short block alone boasts two French bistros and two artisan chocolate shops.
But the successful incoming food businesses arriving on Palo Alto's tree-lined streets (the town is named for a particularly tall redwood) also hail from other locales. Already in town and drumming up business is a location of Los Angeles' Umami Burger chain. Bankrolled by Silicon Valley venture capitalists, the husband-and-wife team running popular Mattei's Tavern in the Santa Barbara wine country is currently revamping the space of a former Mandarin restaurant into what will likely be a seasonal, up-to-the-minute new endeavor.
Launched last summer was a slim storefront location of David's Tea, a Canada-based chain that already has five Bay Area shops. Meanwhile, after establishing stores in other thriving California cities, the Belcampo Meat Company opened locally in 2014, selling its super-sustainable, stratospherically priced meat and some alluring lunch fare to a welcoming audience. Upscale, iconic burger joint Gott's Roadside of the Napa Valley also came to town in 2013.
Another of the city's perpetually packed new hits is Lure + Till, featuring the modern fare of former Gitane chef Patrick Kelly and craft cocktails spearheaded by former San Francisco mixologist Carlos Yturria. It's symbolic of the changes in Palo Alto that this sexy operation with its open-air deck in front is located on the ground floor of what used to be a grungy residential hotel that has been utterly remodeled to attract the high-tech movers and shakers who frequent the town.
Yturria says he spent more than 10 years telling anyone who would listen about the promise of Palo Alto but by no means all the success stories are by outsiders. Wander a couple of short blocks from the glitzy spot where he now mixes heady concoctions and you'll find Oren's Hummus Shop offering Israeli street food at modest prices. Just look for the crowds of people waiting to get into this little eatery.
Launched by serial tech entrepreneur Oren Dobronsky -- who is still busily starting new companies in town -- Oren's Hummus has done such enormous business that it has opened a second location in Mountain View, a catering company and is soon to introduce a packaged food line. Also thriving is a budding Burmese restaurant empire that started about three years ago in Palo Alto with Rangoon Ruby that now runs another location in San Carlos and a third called Burma Ruby that is just blocks away from the original. Now, that's confidence.
Similarly, the extroverted owner of Turkish/Kurdish restaurant Anatolian Kitchen was so successful that he opened a cafe and wine bar in Union Square and recently expanded his original eatery. He is following a formula long seen in other hyper-popular Palo Alto restaurants opened years ago such as perennially crowded Greek taverna Evvia and sophisticated purveyor of modern Vietnamese fare Tamarine. Both get high marks in rankings like those from Zagat and you're likely to bump into notables like Apple CEO Tim Cook while waiting for a table.
Evvia spun off sister restaurant Kokkari in San Francisco -- also a longtime success -- while Tamarine's owners launched a handsome second restaurant in the city named Bong Su that unfortunately closed during the last economic downturn. The mother ship still sails on, however, with full reservation books and pleased patrons.
Besides its population of well-heeled, often food-conscious consumers, Palo Alto has other factors favorable to would-be restaurateurs and shop owners. For a city of just 67,000, this college town -- it was established by Leland Stanford as a tee-totaling burg when he built his famous university -- has several commercial areas hosting upscale food businesses. Besides the cute downtown, there's a second shopping district to the south along California Avenue that contains many food places and is the expanding locale of one of the city's at-least three farmers markets.
Sprawling Stanford Shopping Center has long had dining and retail food offerings while the newest home to a slew of food options is revamped Town & Country Village near the university. There are 20 food businesses in this rustic center that include Mayfield Bakery & Cafe -- a popular farm-to-table eatery run by the group that also operates Spruce in San Francisco -- Calafia Cafe, launched by former Google first chef Charlie Ayers, Gott's, Kara's Cupcakes, Howie's Artisan Pizza from longtime white-tablecloth chef Howard Bulka, and more. One notable tenant is the first location of Asian Box, a fast-casual place featuring pan-Asian street food overseen by a protégé of the Slanted Door's Charles Phan. It now has four other locations and expects to open several more this year.
Although Palo Alto's population, historically, was primarily white, a recent influx of Asian immigrants has influenced the food businesses in town. The Asian community here -- according to some estimates, now climbing toward a third of residents -- is as prosperous as one would expect in this wealthy city where median housing prices are now $2.1 million. Chinese immigrants with lots of cash in their pockets, in particular, are rushing to town due to the excellent schools, great climate and amenities, helping push residential prices ever upward.
Increasingly, eating spots are catering to newly arrived Asians. Some of the Hong Kong dim sum specialties at Tai Pan restaurant are now also available at Steam nearby, a handsome new wood-bedecked boîte on the main drag that particularly draws Chinese patrons. This smallish city now has two new milk tea shops downtown -- T4 and Gong Cha -- where folks can get their fix of sweetened boba tea. And another newish place with a large Asian clientele is Paris Baguette, part of a huge Korea-based chain selling so-so French pastries and sandwich fixings in a cafeteria environment.
There are other food concepts that have been multiplying. No less than four high-end ice cream stores have arrived in town, adding to a supply that already included several popular shops. Tin Pot Creamery, launched by a former Facebook chef, is a thriving artisan producer that has now expanded to a second shop in Los Altos. Two other small-batch producers in Palo Alto are microcreamery Scoop, using liquid nitrogen to freeze their luscious product, and Gelataio, offering made-from-scratch gelato. And then there's new CREAM, always with long lines, serving the cold stuff packed between homemade cookies. Ice cream crawl, anyone?
But the risky restaurant business never guarantees success, even in a robust foodie mecca like Palo Alto. Too many burger joints, too many Indian spots, an excess of Thai places, an extra, unneeded Caribbean eatery and, particularly, a huge overabundance of Italian and pizza joints all competing in a somewhat small downtown led to fallout and turnover in recent years. Despite the success of Anatolian Kitchen, an "Istanbul street food" cafe in town is usually empty while a Korean eatery -- not the only one in town, interestingly -- didn't last very long on the main drag.
"You see a lot of turnover because people think, 'I want to be in Palo Alto' and they sign a lease and know nothing about the restaurant business," explains Guillaume Bienaimé, the young proprietor/chef of Zola, a five-month-old modern French bistro that quickly hopped to the forefront for the food obsessed in town.
Having graduated from culinary school and made his bones at other successful restaurants, Bienaimé knew all about balancing the city's scandalously high lease costs against other factors to end up in the black. With its fresh but satisfyingly French menu, convivial atmosphere and entrees at around $26, Zola has been a great canvas upon which Bienaimé creates food honoring his bilingual French-American background.
Choosing to plant his own first restaurant in the place where he once lived as a kid was a no-brainer. "It's a lively town. People go out at night. They drink wine," he says. "I've always felt there was an energy here." Nevertheless, employing the high standards of an ambitious professional chef, Bienaimé also believes that "there are a lot of bad restaurants. There's still a huge disparity of what should be here and what is here."
He's thinking of the massive, gaudy Cheesecake Factory planted on a restaurant row mainly inhabited by smaller, proprietor-owned spots. Other, more-upscale chains running Palo Alto branches include businesses like P.F. Chang's, Max's Opera Cafe and Il Fornaio, while -- blessedly -- the fast-food outlets in town are largely found along uncharming El Camino Real.
While quite a few Palo Alto restaurants get solid rankings from patrons and regional critics, only one has been honored by the tire guys. Ethereal French restaurant Baumé in South Palo Alto has two Michelin stars while 21 San Francisco restaurants were awarded between one and three stars in the 2015 guide.
But Bienaimé doesn't think what Palo Alto needs is more "elitist food" but rather "regular restaurants that serve American farm-to-table food." He wouldn't mind seeing more fun, high-quality Japanese spots, either.
But local tastes might need to broaden a bit first. Palo Altans might have a lot of money -- 10 billionaires reside there, says Forbes magazine -- and its citizens are well-educated and well-traveled. But that doesn't mean most of them are ready for sea urchin or beef tendon, which San Francisco chefs don't hesitate to offer.
"Can you imagine if I did a calves liver entree?" sighs Bienaimé. "Even the squab I put on was my least-selling special of all time." Now, that's a pity because his juicy, big-flavored bird was actually quite divine.
But the people colonizing Palo Alto's many restaurants these days aren't trying to compete with San Francisco eaters. Thank you very much, they're happy to stroll along the clean sidewalks, enjoy the lit-up trees along the main street and pick from among one of the biggest, most generally appealing selection of restaurants on the Peninsula and in the South Bay.