Napkins weren't the only issue I had with The Workshop, which opened in February and occupies the space of the late Bella Luna in downtown Palo Alto. First, though, some positive news: The burgers were very good.
In my book, the second most important part of a good burger is quality ingredients, and The Workshop uses both Angus and Kobe beef, as well as tender chicken and turkey, and crisp vegetables for toppings.
Where The Workshop excels, and what makes its burgers truly delicious, are the handcrafted, baked-in-house buns. They are light, soft and wonderfully textured, and complement meats perfectly.
With more than a dozen choices, I couldn't decide on a favorite sandwich during my visits, but favored The Workshop Burger ($10.95), a Kobe beef patty with Parmesan cheese, sauteed onions, roasted tomato and pungent aioli sauce. No ketchup needed on this burger; it was juicy, flavorful and filling, and came with fries.
The equally delectable Southwest burger ($9.95) was Angus beef with pepper jack cheese, guacamole, bacon and ringlets of jalapenos with a chipotle spread. There was no room to fit the lettuce, pickles and tomato slice that accompanied, and they weren't needed. The flavors were irresistible, the meat juicy, the bun yielding and doughy.
The chicken BLT burger ($8.95) with Swiss cheese, lettuce and tomato was not quite juicy enough to encourage me to order again. It isn't a bad option, though, if you're sworn off red meat (hold that bacon) and aren't interested in the miso salmon burger ($10.95) or the veggie burger ($7.95).
All burgers came with fries. Sweet-potato fries ($1.75 additional with burger) were excellent. But the regular fries were never very warm and had little crunch or flavor. The batter for the onion rings ($1.75 extra with burger) wasn't crispy enough, leaving the ringlets raw-tasting. They just needed more time in the fryer.
Backyard sliders, beef or turkey ($2.95 each, $7.95 for three), were delightful and came with a petite pile of fries. Two were enough for the smaller appetite — three would do the trick for others — and the price was right.
The price is also appealing for happy hours, held from 3 to 6 p.m. daily. Beer-and-burger combos are $7.95 with appetizer specials priced at $2 to $6 each. Pretty good deal.
However, more money could have been spent on the restaurant itself, including the decor.
There is a long bar along one wall and several large TVs fill in vacant spaces. I suppose if the intent is to be a college bar hangout, the decor is apt — sturdy and plain.
Bathrooms were not much improved since Bella Luna closed; fixtures looked refurbished rather than new. There were decades worth of leftover unpleasant odors that cleansers simply could not mask.
As for the service, it was friendly and attentive. Food was delivered promptly, but appetizers and entrees were served at the same time. And the quality of the other dishes was mixed.
The chili ($4.95) was mostly about beans. There wasn't much ground beef, and no detectable tomato, no spice, no zip to it. Raw chopped onion and a couple of shreds of cheese topped it off.
The Santa Fe chicken salad ($9.95) was another off-ish offering. The grilled chicken had been cubed and mixed with the greens along with corn, chopped tomato and cheese. Part of the salad was blanketed with guacamole, another part covered with the chili (beans, the menu said), and a side of ranch dressing to top the toppers. This all made the greens dense and heavy, and erased any reason to have ordered a salad at all.
One excellent side dish, though, was the green apple slaw ($5.95) with raisins and walnuts. Plenty to be happy about here: generous portion, crisp julienned green apple, sweet raisins and crunchy walnuts in a perfectly balanced mayo dressing.
Desserts were announced on small "table talker" signs. A waitress told me that the apple pie was made on-site.
It took 20 minutes for the pie to appear. I inquired what the delay was in cutting a piece of pie, since the other courses had always arrived within five to 10 minutes. I was told the kitchen was really backed up. OK, but the place was scarcely half-filled at the time.
The pie wasn't worth the wait. If it was house-made, it wasn't fresh; it seemed to have been microwaved. The crust was mushy and tasteless, and the amount of fruit was miserly and too sweet. The scoop of ice cream was the best part and I know that wasn't house-made.
There are numerous craft and draft beers available by the pint and pitcher ($3.95-$11.95). The wine list is meager.
The Workshop Burgers serves excellent beef burgers and sweet-potato fries. Threading through the rest of the menu can be challenging, though. And I hope they get better napkins.
The Workshop Burgers Bar & Grill
233 University Ave., Palo Alto
Hours: Sun.-Wed. 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Thurs.-Sat. 11 a.m.-11:30 p.m.
Credit cards: yes
Parking: city lots
Alcohol: beer and wine
Outdoor dining: no
Party facilities: no
Noise level: average
Bathroom cleanliness: okay