Here I am, working in a Palo Alto cafe again. There are no business meetings interrupting my workflow this morning, but the new crop of Bay Area Michelin stars were announced today and I'm distracted by the reality that this city of such wealth and creativity features such a dearth of great eating alternatives.
Where's the food innovation?
Well, it all starts with ideas. So here, for all you wannabe food entrepreneurs with money but no inspiration, are five guaranteed winners that I'm giving away for free. If well executed, each would do hugely well and at the same time improve our collective qualities of life:
1) A genuinely local-friendly, locavore bistro -- this would be both cosy and expansive; a place for romantic nights out and an affordable lunch and long meals with big groups of friends and family on a weekend. It's a place where the menu is small but changes all the time. It's where the chef will gladly cook off-menu for kids. The food is emphatically not the kind of butter-heavy richness you find at otherwise great local places like Bistro Elan. This place cooks what you'd cook at home every night -- if you only had the time, skill and ingredients. It tries stuff out. If a neighbor brings in a box of quince, a new cheese or a special kind of local honey, they're that night's news.
We live in one of the best growing regions in the world. Most of our produce tastes great right out of the ground. So no themes. No pretension. Just whatever is seasonal, cheap and plentiful served in creative ways to all comers.
The nearest we have is Calafia, but it's more of a pit-stop than a hang out and it's a prototype for future expansion more than anything sui generis. I'm imagining Chez Panisse without the prices, Osteria Stellina without the Italian veneer. The nearest I can think of is Firefly in San Francisco's Noe Valley, perhaps, which I've always seen as the perfect neighborhood restaurant. Or a classic, old-fashioned Parisian neighborhood bistro. Sometimes the oldest ideas are the newest, too.
2) Truly innovative ice cream. I've written about this before, so no need to rehash the argument. And yes, we can do better than Ricks. Why, for example, didn't we get a nitro ice cream parlour before London?
3) A really decent vegan place like Cafe Gratitude, but without the attitude. Enough said.
4) Robot sushi -- this is a dream that I've had for about ten years. It takes the sushi boat or conveyor idea and ramps it up by a factor of ten. If features conveyor belts of sushi going past every single table, and above your head and through tunnels, across bridges.
It's sushi meets toy train nerds, meets the Bay Area LEGO Users Group. Heck, the whole restaurant could be made of LEGO. The 'boats' would feature plates being ridden by little robots (or LEGO people, perhaps) that you could buy along with the food.
5) Lastly, I'm still looking for a truly great local cafe. Yes, we have Printer's Inc, Coupa Cafe, and The Prolific Oven -- they're all fine places. But we have room for more, and better: especially places with real personality and that are staffed by real personalities. It's what Bucks in Woodside is to the Sand Hill Road set. It's like bars of legend where they know your drink and your name. I want a place with a ton of different seating arrangements, that's welcoming to loners and meetings, where you can write a novel, make a pitch, play chess; where you can nurse a single cup or buy champagne. The reality is that more and more people are using these 'third spaces' to work, meet, and relax. And they've become an integral part of the entrepreneurial meat space of Silicon Valley -- indeed, deliberately plan a space that really nurtures the many facets of the start up world (outlets, wifi, incredible coffee, as welcoming to the penurious as to the loaded success, space for hiding and space in which to be conspicuously seen) and you'll have created what I'm looking for.
So there's a start -- please, someone get going on this! And locals, visitors, do add your own Palo Alto food dreams in the comments below.