Friday, July 26, 2013

Downtown Palo Alto Restaurant Grand Slam

Most recent update: April 25, 2014...

It's taken 20 years, but I did it. I finally completed the Downtown Palo Alto Restaurant Grand Slam! Ok, I just invented this distinction, but I might be the only person to have ever achieved it. To earn the DPARGS, you need to have eaten at every restaurant in the downtown Palo Alto area. I started getting serious about this quest in 2012, after many years of casually eating at places in downtown PA since I moved to the Bay Area in mid-90s. Last year, I joined a company based in the neighborhood, and since then I've been focused on the DPARGS.

As of right now, there are 89 restaurants in the area. How do I know this? I did a Yelp search for restaurants, and controlled their map function to zero in on only restaurants in the vicinity of University Ave between El Camino and Middlefield Rd. After visiting each one, I was able to eliminate places that had gone out of business and identify new ones that had recently sprung up. The 89 restaurants include the cafeteria in the basement of City Hall, the small food counter at the 3rd Door fitness center, and the Whole Foods Market, which has a variety of options and lots of indoor and outdoor seating. If an establishment serves a full meal, I'm counting it. What's not included? 7-Eleven, Starbucks and a few dessert places that don't serve "full meals" (I know, you 7-Eleven die hards will disagree. Well then call it 90 restaurants. Just don't make me eat there!).

When I tell people I completed this quest, the most common question I get is, "What's the best restaurant?" I usually don't like to answer this question because the true answer is, "It really depends." Do you want the finest dining experience, regardless of price? Do you want the best value for the money? Do you want the place I've eaten at the most because it has the most variety, or is the least expensive for daily consumption or the most healthy? There are lots of factors.

But given that I'm probably uniquely qualified to answer many of these questions, I'm going to share some recommendations. Ready? Let's go!
  • Finest dining experience: Evvia. This is actually a pretty easy call. The food is amazing and the service is easily the best available in the area. If I had one meal left to eat in downtown PA, I'd eat it here. Yelp agrees with me, ranking it #1. Tamarine is a strong runner up in this category.
  • Best Salad / Least Expensive / Healthiest: Whole Foods Market. This is the smallest Whole Foods I've seen, but they have excellent salad and hot food bars. For $9, I can get a small carton of hot food and a small salad, picking the exact ingredients and amounts. Organic produce and lots of healthy food options. They also a great deal of covered, outdoor seating. This combination is hard to beat, which is why it gets three awards. Honorable mention to Sprout, but being able to pick your own salad ingredients, combined with outdoor seating gives Whole Foods the decided edge.
  • Price per pound: Where do you go for lunch when you skipped breakfast and are ready to enhale a groaning platter? I'll give you three options. Cheesecake Factory (do I need to explain this one?), Crepevine (next to Cheesecake Factory, with similarly sized portions of savory crepes, sandwiches and salads) and Darbar (Indian buffet).

  • Best tacos: A controversial category to be sure. I have to give this to Tacolicious. While Sancho's has a better fish taco, Tacolicious has the best carnitas and braised beef tacos around. The fish taco there is also good. And they have a wide variety of rotating taco options to choose from, along with an impressive tequila menu.
  • Best Italian: This is a close call. I'd go with Osteria, and give Il Fornaio an honorable mention. Both have been around for a long time and both are quality dining experiences. Osteria has a neighborhood bistro feel, while Il Fornaio is more of a corporate hangout. Pizzeria Delfina is a newcomer, but only a limited menu beyond pizza keeps it from taking this award.
  • Best Sushi: None. The options are pathetic in downtown PA, especially when you consider that you could head 2 miles south to Jin Sho, a very reasonably priced Mecca for sushi fans in Palo Alto.
  • Best Pizza: Pizzeria Delfina, which opened in April 2014. It is easily my favorite pizza in the Bay Area. The crust has an epic chew and the flavors are original and memorable. The pastas and veggies are amazing as well. Finally, what makes this place a top choice in any category is the outdoor seating. It is the best outdoor dining experience in downtown Palo Alto.
  • Best Happy Hour: The Patio. Honestly, there is nothing special about this place other than the fact that they have a beer garden in the back. But sitting outside with co-workers or friends in late afternoon Palo Alto weather gets my vote over more elaborate food and drink options elsewhere.
  • Best Burger: Umami Burger. The Truffle burger is melt-in-your-mouth delicious. The Ahi Tuna burger is amazing as well. I haven't tried a burger anywhere else in the neighborhood even close.
  • Best Breakfast: Il Fornaio wins hands down. Great breakfast, great freshly baked breads. Just don't forget to try their freshly squeezed green apple juice! 
  • Best Breakfast Sandwich: Peninsula Creamery Dairy Store (this is the store at the obscure location at 900 High St @ Channing, not the better known sister restaurant at Emerson and Hamilton). I know -- should this even be a category? Well, it is with me. There are few things more satisfying than a great breakfast sandwich. This place uses thick, crispy bacon, fried eggs and cheese. I ordered it on an English muffin and it was bliss.
  • Best Desserts: This is another controversial category, with everyone having a personal favorite. Downtown PA has many options, but if you are limiting them to restaurants (eliminating Fraiche, Prolific Oven, Monique's Chocolates, Cream, that French Macaroon shop, and all the other ice cream and yogurt options) then I'd have to give it to Paris Baguette. They offer a wide variety of treats, all served up cafeteria style so you can see the options for yourself. Honorable mention must go to Cheesecake Factory, of course.
  • My Favorite: This is the most common question I get, so I'm going to answer it. But it is extremely subjective. My approach is to combine two criteria: overall dining experience with value for the money. This makes the question a little less subjective. The clear answer is: Oren's Hummus! For a full service restaurant, it's the best value in Palo Alto. For less than $20, you can get a delicious, highly authentic Israeli meal. It is the only place in the Bay Area to get excellent Israeli food on par with what you would experience in Tel Aviv. And it will change your understanding of good hummus. Full disclosure: the founder of the restaurant is Chairman of the company I run, but I'm not alone in this assessment. Yelp has Oren's ranked #2 behind Evvia, which is easily 2X the price for lunch and 4X the price for dinner. If you haven't tried Oren's, give it a whirl. I'll even give you an order for two: one Hummus Mushroom, a side of falafel, chicken skewers and an Israeli salad. Yum!
  • Runner up: Pizzeria Delfina. As noted above, it offers great food and outdoor seating.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Tesla Model S!

Back in January, my number came up and I finally got a Tesla Model S! I put a deposit down in early 2011, and I'm so glad I did. I've now driven the car 2,000 miles, long enough to give a review with some perspective. The car delivers a combination of capabilities that simply don't exist with any other automobile. It also provides a magical riding experience and the sheer joy of being in gadget Heaven. I honestly don't understand why anyone who is in a two-car family and willing to spend $60,000-100,000 on a car would buy anything but a Model S (ok -- that's still a niche, but many car companies target the luxury market, and Tesla's strategy has been to start at the high end and build less expensive models over time). My suspicion is that the wait to get a Model S will quickly become the main barrier to their growth, not market size.

Here is what I am loving about the car so far:
  • Lightening fast. From the instant you step on the accelerator, zoom. No gear shifting, no hesitation, incredible torque. And the handling is ridiculous, as the batteries are spread throughout the bottom of the car, keeping it super stable. I'm not race car driver, but the feel of this car on the road is incredible.
  • Whisper quiet ride. Remember, no engine, just an electric motor. What a feeling to experience rapid acceleration and no noise. It's exhilarating.
  • Two trunks. What? Two trucks, really? Yes. The hatch in back and the "frunk" in front. There's no engine, so the front of the car is available for storage. The electric motor is tucked in between the second row of seats and the hatch. And the second row folds down if you need SUV-like cargo room.
  • 7 seats in a sedan! The hatchback trunk has an optional third row facing the rear that folds down if you don't want to use it. It fits kids up to around 4' 10' or so, and my kids love sitting back there. It's an amazing feature for a luxury sedan.
  • Gadget Heaven. The first thing you notice inside is the iPad-like automobile interface. A massive touch screen panel that is the size of a large computer monitor in portrait mode. The experience of this interface gives you the same feeling you had when you first started using an iPhone -- "this is the future" and "why on earth would I ever go back?" The features are too numerous to mention, but it is not exaggerating to say that it inspires delight. The latest source of delight? Tesla just launched their smartphone app, which syncs with your car. Regardless of whether the car is on or off, you can see the temperature inside the car and change the climate, open/close the vent on the sunroof, and never lose your car again. You can beep the horn, flash the lights, and even locate your car on a map. Amazing!
  • Range. This is the source of the most questions and controversy. I have the medium-sized battery, reported to get 200 miles. With daily, overnight charging from a 240v plug in my garage (same plug you use for a laundry machine), I top it off to about 185 miles each day. Careful driving could get significantly more range, but 185 miles is pretty close to the real world experience I've had so far.
  • No gas. Many will feel that the inability to stop at a gas station in a pinch is their main worry, but after experiencing the car for a couple of months, I think people have got it wrong. In two months and 2000 miles, I've never stopped at a gas station. That's a benefit! And with the electric car rate plan from PG&E, the cost to power my car is something like $9 per month. In spite of the availability of charging stations all across California, this wouldn't be the car I would take on a road trip, but last week I drove from Saratoga to Los Gatos to Palo Alto to San Francisco and back to Saratoga in one day, and still had enough in the batteries to drive another 50-70 miles. This is more than enough range for all use cases other than a road trip or running a taxi service.
What are the problems? I've only got minor complaints, and they are worth mentioning for perspective:
  • Door handles get hot: When parking in direct sunlight, the handles of the doors get very hot. In the Summer, I'm going to be looking for a parking spot in the shade, or at least one where sun shines on the right side of the car.
  • OS is still a work in progress. Yes, the car has an operating system! The OS in the car is amazing, but it is not perfect. I've downloaded two OS upgrades so far (I'm now on v4.3, I think), and had one screen crash. It was handled simply by rebooting the system (you hold down two scroll wheels at the same time for a few seconds -- Tesla's version of CTRL-ALT-DEL). No bugs that interfered with driving, but little UI things have been quirky. A progress bar that tells you how far through a song you are disappeared for a couple of weeks.
Mark Rogowsky, a friend and Forbes contributor, wrote a series on how the Model S's one missing feature, access to gas stations, might actually be much less important to most luxury car drivers over time than its ability to offer an amazing driving experience, cargo room and ability to seat seven. His point: maybe your gas car is the niche automobile, not an electric car with 200+ mile range. People just don't perceive it this way yet. Something like the iPhone circa 2006...