BIRD DOG IS BORN ... A conversation with Chef Robbie Wilson about his new downtown Palo Alto restaurant leaves the listener exhilarated. Wilson's enthusiasm is palpable for Bird Dog at 420 Ramona St. Taking over the former site of Mandarin Gourmet, which closed a year ago, Wilson and his crew have transformed the old Chinese restaurant into a work of art. From the white marble podium that greets diners at the front entrance to the clean lines of the cork and white oak floors, the feeling is one of simple elegance, a look that fits the restaurant's focus on fresh, contemporary American cuisine. "We practically gutted the whole place. All we kept was the east wall and the west wall," Wilson said. Keeping an ear out for acoustics, they "chose specific materials to control the noise factor," he added. "We want people to be able to talk to each other comfortably. And we made sure there is plenty of room between the tables." Wilson noted there is nothing pretentious about the restaurant. "We're not using fancy stemware, there will be no linen on the tables just good, delicious food that is locally-sourced." The chef was quick to point out a few whimsical aspects to Bird Dog. For example, the audio from Julia Childs' old black-and-white TV show, "The French Chef," will be playing in the restrooms. "Julia Childs was an inspiration to me," Wilson said, adding, "We're not taking ourselves too seriously." For example, in the lounge, a large ceramic squirrel emerges from white bowls of bar mix containing marcona almonds and pistachios. And colorful, wooden, life-sized birds in various stages of flight are positioned throughout the restaurant. A Dallas, Texas native and now a Menlo Park resident, Wilson said he has lived in every major city. So why Palo Alto for his newest venture? "I'm inspired by all the innovation around here," he said. "I love to feel and watch the buzz. It's a good catalyst." Wilson is partnering with his wife, Emily, along with a couple of investors, and expects that he or Emily will be at Bird Dog almost daily. "But I do need a break. We've got a 15-month-old son," he said. Scheduled to go live next month, the restaurant will be open seven days a week for dinner only. "We have a small staff and we don't want to be doing too much too soon," he said. Wilson wouldn't reveal the exact dollar amount spent on the massive redo, but acknowledged, "It's more than a million and less than five million." That's quite a range.
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