Do you remember when you first started hearing about Krispy Kreme donuts? Eating one of these things sounded better than being made love to by God. There were lines around blocks at 5 in the morning; people were going nuts for them. And my big expectations only swelled with the years I had to wait to get one, as they took their sweet time going west. When I finally got my teeth into one, though, I could only assume that the people who were so into them had never had a donut before they had a Krispy Kreme. I’m sorry if I’m offending anyone when I say this, but a Krispy Kreme donut is a pretty average donut. And they’re kind of small.
Fast forward to the present moment in food. The uber-trendy hipsters are all doing something that a friend of mine calls “fetishizing whiteness”. Hence in San Francisco’s Mission District you can get $5 donuts with rosemary and lavender and a lot of other ingredients normally found in soap. I recently had, in LA, a non-fried, vegan donut. Well, vegan except for the bacon on top. These fancy things taste good if you can forget what a donut is and let them exist in some new category all their own. But, come on, a donut is meant to be cheap and easy.
Of course, I wouldn’t be writing all of this to you if I didn’t have the perfect solution in mind. Stan’s donuts, just right around the corner from this little hotel, is making fresh donuts that are just exactly the delicate pillows of decadence you have always thought were possible. And, at less than a dollar apiece, hey, if you’re gonna go for it, you may as well go all the way and get a few!
Sometimes eating in restaurants is really tiresome. This is the space that normally gets used to recommend one or another Silicon Valley dining spot, of which there are many, but this month I would like to proclaim that eating out can be terrible. You don’t actually know what it is you’re eating, your stomach is always a bit of a mess and you have to kind of detach yourself from the emotion of watching your money just leave. Are any of you travelers out there relating to me? Having just spent a week in New York, living off of the delis, the street gyros, the crazy expensive restaurants and the goddamn late night pizza, I find myself with absolutely no enthusiasm for restaurant recommending this month. But what’s a traveler to do? What are you, my readers, to do when business takes you away from your kitchens?
No, we are not now offering a portable, fully supplied kitchen set at check-in, and, actually, I don’t really even have a full answer for you. But I have a nice little idea for a fun way to get fresh food when you’re here with us. Stop by the farmer’s market! There are quite a few in the area nowadays, as this is an unquestionably trendy idea I’m sharing with you, and the ones in Sunnyvale and Santa Clara are pretty close to this here little hotel. Even if all you do is get some fruit to keep in your room, it’s guaranteed to make you feel better than anything you’re gonna find in our mini-bar. And, who knows, with just a little more effort, you could be making salads for lunch. Not a full revolution, maybe, but the possibility of a little more control.
This month, I’d like to give you all a little assignment. I know it seems weird, like how did I suddenly go from odd little insect crawling around the floor of your life to some kind of authority figure. Well, I’ve just decided to assert myself, to become more of a mosquito than a ladybug for a moment. The thing is, I need an objective opinion. I love Tony ‘n Albas. I love it. I love the smell. I love the pizza. I love the bread they give you for free. And what I really, really love are the chicken salads. In high school I would eat them three or four times a week. I go less often now, but every time I go back, I feel that old love and promise myself to take the habit up again.
And yet it is these very chicken salads that are causing me to seek out your help. The thing is, they’re really very plain. Chicken, feta, kalamata olives, roasted red peppers, lettuce and tomatoes. You’ve had that salad a million times in a million different restaurants, I know. I have too. Tony ‘n Albas feels special to me, particular. But I don’t know whether it is or not. Maybe this is only nostalgia. Perhaps this is just some little Proust thing my brain is doing and all I’m actually doing to you is sending you off to a random strip mall to eat a banal little nothing of a salad. Unfortunately, I don’t know. So, will you go and try it and report back? Anyone? You can send an email to Barbara@svgrandhotel.com, which isn’t me, but I think our general manager will also be super happy to hear how you feel about Tony ‘n Albas. Anyway, she’ll know to expect you because she reads these before they go ut. I will be so very happy if even one of you does this!
If you’re in our neighborhood, poking around for nice experiences, eventually someone will tell you to go to the Rutherford Grill. It’s one of the great and glorious wine country establishment restaurants that everyone is told they “must” go to. Not that it isn’t a great place, but it’s all the way up in the Napa Valley, it’s crazily expensive, getting a table isn’t just a simple little task and in the end you’ll eat a piece of meat and drink a bottle of wine that are merely comparable to the other good meat and wine you’ve had before it. Of course, we’ve all been to places that could be described like that and have felt that they were worth it, but what if you could get the Rutherford experience without all the travel, expense and time? Aha! Suddenly it’s a different story!
The Los Altos Grill, sister to the mighty Rutherford, is just around the corner from our little hotel. Well, around a couple of corners maybe, but in the neighborhood anyway, and close enough that our limo will take you to it. How closely related are they? Well, they’re a part of the same chain. That’s right! The mighty Rutherford belongs to a chain, high end though it may be. Knowing that, I think we can all agree that a trip to the Los Altos Grill can suffice for sampling what this particular chain has to offer, and then maybe when you make the oh-so-worth-it trek to the Napa Valley, you can seek out something a little more specifically local. Well, that’s my advice anyway.
A long long time ago, as maybe one or two of you might, possibly, maybe remember, I told you about a favorite little place of my called Yummi Yogurt. Frozen yogurt was out of favor way back then. Those were the days when Dr. Atkins was our overlord and we were all getting skinny by eating double cheeseburgers with butter melted on top, hold the bun. Somehow, though, in the last year or so, frozen yogurt has wheedled its way back into our collective conscious. Now there are Pinkberries and Red Mangos and Tutti Fruttis in every strip mall worth its salt and people are lining up out their doors.
Not me, though. I’m sticking with Yummi Yogurt. Not that I’m close-minded. I made a little tour of the others. Maybe frozen yogurt got popular again because there was some huge technological improvement and all these newer, trendier places actually were serving the best dessert known to man. It was possible. But, no! Yummi Yogurt is still creamier. Its flavors are still richer. Plus they change the flavors everyday and the variety is, for lack of a better word, eccentric.
Not convinced yet? Then let me give you another small twist. I’ve been going to Yummi Yogurt for a little bit more than 20 years. I feel awfully old writing that, but it’s true anyway. The owner still remembers me from when I was in middle school and coming in there everyday. Pinkberry is run by a board of directors, I can’t figure out where, and brags on its website, about having become and “iconic brand”. If you’re reading this, then you perhaps know the difference between our hotel and the Marriot, and have chosen us. Yummi Yogurt over Pinkberry is kind of like that.
Everybody likes a bit of truth in advertising, no? Well, here’s a moment of it from me to you. Normally I get to choose the things I write about here. I go out and about in the world and when I go someplace I like, I write about it. Yes, sometimes I get suggestions from the boss lady, things that she’s liked and would like for me to write about, but I’ve never been asked to write about a place I didn’t like. Until now.
El Pollo Loco is a fast food chain. Worse, it’s a fast food chain that purports to be healthy. And while, ok, it may be healthiER, going there everyday for lunch does not give you all the benefits of eating well, without the hassle of going to the grocery store and preparing your own food. But, unfortunately, I think this is how at least one person, who happens to be in a position of power over me, treats it.
You, our guests, are not our general manager, though. When you are home, I’m sure that all of you do your best to eat nutritious, balanced meals, preferably organic and local, and always home cooked. When you’re with us, you’re in an inconvenient position. No kitchen, no easy way to go shopping. You need a way to try to maintain your good, healthy standards, but realistically. It’s ok with me if El Pollo Loco gets on your list of possible solutions. It’s even ok if you go there everyday while you’re here, since there are so many more days when you’re not here. But, please, if you’re talking to my boss and it happens to come up, please just remind her that things that seem to be too good to be true, mostly are.
If you travel a lot for business, and chances are if you’re reading this you do, then it’s also pretty likely that you eat out way more than you want to. And if all this is true then maybe you feel a bit like I do about mealtimes: Bored.
When I was growing up, eating in a restaurant was exciting. We barely ever got to do it, so it was always a treat. Plus it was generally linked with some kind of event, like a birthday or a guest, which made even another layer of special around it. Now, though, it’s just something I do because my life is too instable for cooking and, as a result, restaurants can kind of lose their charm. Is anyone relating to this?
A couple of weeks ago, though, I went with my sister to a place called The Basin for her birthday, and, suddenly, there was that feeling of being in a special place that I hadn’t had for kind of a while. At first glance The Basin is a pretty average “nice” restaurant. It’s on the main drag in Saratoga, serves pretty food on pretty plates and is priced just a bit higher than actually seems fair. But watch out for the details! There is, for example, a pretty huge tree that got built around and so sits in the middle of a dining room. The wait staff is not just generically friendly, but even eccentrically charming. Plus they had my favorite French wine, which may not excite you, but what if they have yours too? All in all, the night felt surprisingly exceptional. I don’t want to go every week and ruin it, but my own birthday is coming soon enough and The Basin might just be the place. What occasion will you save it for?
And finally, after what seems like years and years of resistance, I’ve capitulated. I’m watching Mad Men. It’s pretty entertaining, for sure, but, seriously, how much of that is an exaggeration? Sexual harassment and gender politics aside, can we talk about the drinking? Not that I hadn’t heard of martini lunches before, my own father says they used to be a regular part of his life, but somehow I always assumed that that maybe happened once a year or something. What I’m learning from Mad Men is that it’s possible that not only was my father not overstating anything, but that it’s maybe even also possible that his version of business practice was of the small town variety.
It’s different now. Being intoxicated at work is not nearly so acceptable these days. We eat sandwiches for lunch and wash it down with a bottle of water, or a nice, fresh carrot beet juice. We feel clear when we go back to the office, ready for many more hours of work. But what if we long for a little midday indulgence? Well, not so long ago my brother took me to a little place that is maybe what we need. It’s called Rose International Market and what it basically is, is a Middle Eastern grocery store. I know that doesn’t sound so good, but hear me out. This little grocery store, tucked away on a quiet Sunnyvale street, is grilling meat to order. You can get it on a plate or in a sandwich. All versions come with a variety of fresh herbs, and all the seating is outdoors. Maybe this is it, maybe this is modern decadence. This is clean, fresh, delicious food, not bogged down by the guilt of oil, fat or sugar, eaten under the clear California sky. You can come here and feel removed, you can relax completely in your lunch hour. It may even be more fun than drinking three martinis and spending the rest of the day trying not to fall asleep or embarrass yourself.
Have you ever been to a Thai restaurant that, for some reason, has a sushi menu? How about a Vietnamese place where you can get a hamburger? I once went to a Chinese restaurant where you could also order a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I am always suspicious of these places. I just don’t believe that a place can authentically represent two different cultures at the same time, and that opinion is generally supported by the generically greasy fare I am served in them. Normally I forgive places like this for two reasons: They are typically very cheap, first. And, second, I will mostly find myself in one only when there is no real other option.
A couple of years ago a bizarre little restaurant showed up in the neighborhood. Its name was Arya and it purported to serve Persian, Italian and American food. As we are surrounded by good food here and as nothing about this place suggested that it would be inexpensive, I assumed that the only relationship I would ever have to it would be to laugh at it when I passed, and for a long time this was true.
Then, a few months ago, they changed their sign. It now refers to itself as a “bar and grill”. They can’t fool me, I thought, it’s still the same culturally uncertain place it always was. It worked on our general manager, though, and she went even though we laughed at her for it. But she came back with stories of delicately balanced sweet and savory rice dishes and a very talented Persian chef with an unstoppable love for Italian cuisine, and demanded that it be written about here.
I went with my heels dragging, but I’m writing to you as a convert. I am sorry for being a judgemental ass. I’m sorry for all the other ways that I am judgemental in my life. I feel a little bit better because I know that they changed their sign because it was putting everyone, not just me, off, but, still. So, go, please, and help atone for my sins.
If someone told you that, starting today, you had to pick one restaurant and this would be the only place you could eat at for the rest of your life, what would you choose? Careful, though, this should not necessarily be your favorite restaurant, at least in my opinion. My most beloved place to eat out, for example, is The Citrus Club, a little pan-Asian spot in San Francisco. But the last time I was there my noodles were overcooked and mushy and every now and then the tofu tastes like they fry up a huge pile one day out of the week and it’s too bad for you if you’re there the day before that day. Plus the spices give me a stomachache that, because I only go once in a while, seems really worth it, but if I were forced to eat there everyday might get tiresome. I still love it, it’s still my favorite, but it needs to stay special. Do you get what I’m saying?
Of course, the reason I’m asking this question is that I have my own answer prepared. I recently went to a place called Café Torre that was ideal. Not exciting, not wondrous, but pristine. I’ve never had everything on my plate cooked so perfectly before, ever, not in any other restaurant, not in anyone’s home including my own, never. Ditto the dishes of everyone else at my table. Each of our plates carried the textbook definition of the food we had ordered. Not only did I enjoy it immensely, but I believe that, if I only get to eat from one source for the rest of my days, it’s going to be just this lack of idiosyncrasy that’s going to get me through it. Go check it out for yourself and see if you agree.