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By Elena Kadvany

French Laundry alums to open Palo Alto restaurant

Uploaded: Aug 24, 2016

A former head sommelier and sous chef from three Michelin-starred The French Laundry in Yountville are opening a restaurant together on California Avenue in Palo Alto.

Dennis Kelly, a master sommelier who worked at the renowned restaurant for a decade, and Anthony Secviar, who cooked there for six years, are opening Protégé Restaurant at 260 California Ave., Kelly and the building owner confirmed.

Kelly declined to share any details about the restaurant concept, writing in an email that it "would be premature for us to comment without having received building and health permits."

Earlier this month, they submitted an application to the Palo Alto Planning Department for a conditional-use permit to sell alcohol at the full-service restaurant, as well as for architectural review of proposed outdoor seating in the public right-of-way, according to plans posted on the City of Palo Alto’s website. The Protégé team hopes to install outdoor gas heaters and moveable planter box barriers as well as relocate existing doors, according to the plans.

Studio KDA, a Berkeley-based architecture firm, will design the project, according to the plans.

Kelly and Secviar are opening Protégé in the ground-floor space of one of the California Avenue corridor's newer developments. 260 California Ave., a 26,000-square-feet, three-story building with office space on the second and third floors, was first approved in 2012.

The future home of Protégé Restaurant on California Avenue in Palo Alto. Photo by Veronica Weber.

Tableau Software moved into the office space after the building was completed in January 2015, and property owner Mark Conroe has been searching for the right restaurant to occupy the bottom floor ever since, he said in an interview Tuesday.

"260 (California Ave.) really was meant to be high-end, exciting, kind of cutting edge, one of the best buildings in Palo Alto," said Conroe, president and CEO of Presidio Development Partners. "Therefore, I wanted a restaurant to fit that image."

Conroe said he first sought out San Francisco Italian restaurant A16 — one of his favorite restaurants in the city — and actually signed a deal to bring them to Palo Alto, but it fell through after A16 opened a second outpost in Oakland and decided against any further expansion.

A deal with another possible tenant, an Italian restaurant in Mill Valley, also fell through, Conroe said. After, he reached out to about 100 San Francisco restaurants as well as several on the Peninsula before Kelly and Secviar came along. He’s been working with them now for about a year, he said.

Conroe described the Protégé Restaurant concept as "approachable fine dining"— not too expensive, and not as high-end as Kelly and Secviar’s former employer, nor anything like the Michelin-starred restaurant that happens to sit across the street.

"It's really kind of like you can go in there for a hamburger, but it's done at a very nice level," Conroe said.

Conroe also owns a recently revamped building at 341 California Ave., which was first home to Le Boulanger's unsuccessful spinoff concept Fire, Oak & Barley. iTalico, an Italian restaurant from the owners of Terún down the street, just opened in the space in July.

Palo Alto will be getting a pair of seasoned fine-dining professionals with Protégé. Kelly served as The French Laundry's head sommelier from 2005 to 2015, according to his LinkedIn profile. He was one of only four people to be granted a master sommelier diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers in 2012. Today, there are only 147 professionals who have earned this title in the United States, according to the Court of Master Sommeliers.

Secviar worked as sous chef at The French Laundry from 2005 to 2011, when he left to become chef de cuisine at Addison, a San Diego fine-dining restaurant. Secviar is a graduate of the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, and went on to work at several well-regarded restaurants in Spain, according to a biography posted on Addison's website. He staged at the Michelin three-starred Akelarre and Michelin one-starred Kokotxa (both in San Sebastian), and also cooked at El Bulli, a restaurant in Spain with three Michelin stars.

While the opening timeline for Protégé is subject to Palo Alto’s infamous permitting process, Conroe said the restaurant should be open in early 2017. (The restaurant's website, however, advertises a late 2016 opening.)

"The knock against the Peninsula," Conroe said, "is you have to go to the city to do something that's kind of cutting edge. I think a lot of restaurants have proven that wrong in Palo Alto and Woodside and Menlo Park."

Here's hoping Protégé does as well.