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The final course

Longtime food critic decamping for new adventures in East Bay

So long, Silicon Valley. In my 42 years here, our food choices have gone from dismal to delightful, with some notably worrisome exceptions.

Let me explain. For many years, I was the San Jose Mercury News' restaurant critic, and then one of the freelance restaurant reviewers for the newspaper you are reading now. Lots of great meals under my expanding belt. Now, it's time to move my foraging to Berkeley, where I hear there is some pretty good food.

Here are a few parting thoughts about the local food scene.

Despite phenomenal population growth and new construction, we Peninsula-dwellers still enjoy the personal touch in food stores and restaurants. When I moved here in 1973, the owner of Golden Crescent Bakery in downtown Palo Alto cheerfully greeted everyone, knew what kind of bread you liked and always offered kids a cookie. We can still experience personal interaction in cafes and family-owned food purveyors such as Charley Noodle & Grill and Dittmer's Gourmet Meats & Wurst-Haus, both in Los Altos. At Palo Alto Cafe on Middlefield Road the other day, as I was enjoying my veggie bagel sandwich, the owner was chatting with a customer about a family wedding.

In the same way, our thriving farmers markets pulse with the energy of neighbors brushing elbows, stopping to chat with each other and with the vendors who have grown the produce they're selling. Farmers care about giving us a good product. They want return customers -- and we may return for years, long enough to greet the farmers' kids.

However, the creep of cookie-cutter chains is troubling. They smell more like market research than true enjoyment of food. If you've eaten at Google, Facebook or a Bay Area airport, you know this food. Some of it is good. There is a place for The Counter and Chipotle and Asian Box; just don't let them muscle out places like Kirk's Steakburgers, Los Altos Taqueria and Dohatsuten.

Regrets? I've had a few. I regret that only recently did I dare to enter Antonio's Nut House on California Avenue. The very non-Palo Alto parking lot crowd scared me away. The place is totally fun with friendly bartenders, decent Mexican food at the taqueria inside and a colorful, non-threatening clientele.

I regret that while diners complained for years about poor service in restaurants, their No. 1 complaint today is noise. Can you hear us? Restaurants are too loud.

And I regret a downtown Palo Alto that lost a French bistro like L'Amie Donia and gained a Cheesecake Factory.

On the other hand, Town & Country Village's rise from the dead comes in large part thanks to a tidal wave of eateries at a range of price points. Also, of course, there's Trader Joe's. Be still my heart.

Midtown now has excellent fish tacos at Sancho's Taqueria, and a bit down the road, Philz Coffee is soon to be joined by San Jose's popular Bill's Cafe for family breakfast and lunch.

Downtown Los Altos, too, is now full of pedestrians, sometimes even at night. From the reborn Cho's Mandarin Dim Sum to the new Safeway, change has been good.

Downtown Mountain View was a singular beacon of gastronomic light back in the 1970s -- the place to go for Chinese, Mexican and the early wave of Vietnamese restaurants. We can also thank Mountain View for introducing regional Chinese food. More recently, Mountain View has been a good source of high-quality nouveau Vietnamese and Indian cuisine.

Then there's coffee. When I moved here, Peet's in Menlo Park was the only purveyor of fresh coffee beans. That may be the biggest change of all.

I leave you with this final note:

Goodnight, Silicon Valley

Goodnight, Evvia

Goodnight, Madera

Goodnight, potato chips at Fry's

Goodnight, downtown streets full of hungry guys (and the occasional woman)

Goodnight, inescapable salads of kale

Goodnight, beloved Milk Pail

Goodnight, restaurant investors enriched by tech rally

Goodnight, Silicon Valley.


A look back at Sheila's reviewing career:

First review: Chef Chu's, Mountain View

Last review: Charley Noodle & Grill, Los Altos

Worst meal: Olive Garden, Palo Alto

Second worst meal: American Girl Bistro, Palo Alto

Most expensive meal: Baume, Palo Alto

Least expensive meal: Cho's Mandarin Dim Sum, Los Altos

Best re-imagining of a restaurant: St. Michael's Alley, Palo Alto

Best resurrection after a fire: Dittmer's Gourmet Meats & Wurst-Haus, Los Altos

Best new restaurant: Zola, Palo Alto

Hardy survivors: Homma's Brown Rice Sushi, Palo Alto; Hunan Home's Restaurant, Palo Alto; and Amber India, Mountain View

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4 people like this
Posted by Nayeli
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 4, 2015 at 11:29 am

I will certainly miss reading your reviews, Sheila! Good luck with life, love and other mysteries -- and whatever the future brings in the East Bay!

2 people like this
Posted by Martha
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 4, 2015 at 3:07 pm

I was lucky to be able to accompany Sheila on some of her dining out adventures over the years, including what she describes as her worst meal ever. (I concur and still wonder why there are lines outside that restaurant every weekend night.) I will miss her reviews. I hope she finds an outlet for her wit and wisdom on the other side of the bay.

3 people like this
Posted by Regrettable
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 4, 2015 at 7:46 pm

There is a bonanza Fidel reason the East Bay is a cheaper place to live: it is a food, grocery, and restaurant desert.
There is one heck of a lot of crime. And the only culture over there is in the yogurt.

The police won't answer a call unless you are in the process of being murdered, either! You even have to write and file your own police report.....this is why everyone has security cameras on all sides of their house.

Like this comment
Posted by Regrettable
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 4, 2015 at 7:48 pm

Woops! That s/b a "bona fide" reason!

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