I don't know whether to be appalled or charmed by American Girl, which has bestowed its newest and only Bay Area store on Stanford Shopping Center. On the one hand, American Girl's sweet storytelling serves only one purpose, and it isn't spiritual. It's about moving product. On the other hand, little girls are happy there.
During a recent weeknight visit to the store, which opened in mid-November, we saw a few fathers. But the only boy in the vicinity was having his diaper changed.
American Girl was started by an educator in 1986, with a catalog of 18-inch dolls, each a 9-year-old fictional heroine from a significant era of America's past. Mattel has owned the company since 1998, but American Girls (starting at $110) are no Barbie Dolls.
My daughter was an early adopter. She loved her Samantha doll ("a bright Victorian beauty who makes a difference") and saved up her allowance to buy Samantha's nightstand, a purchase she now questions. But like other American Girl fans, Lisa maintained a complicated emotional connection with her doll. When a real-life friend claimed that prim Samantha was "a snob," Lisa retorted, "She's a doll!"
We had long ago given away Samantha and her furniture and so had no doll to accompany us to dinner, which is the thing to do. We reached the bistro via a Cinderella-like sweeping staircase in the 15,000-square-foot store, near the spa, restroom and display of American Girl dolls with various disabilities. The hostess offered dolls for us to borrow. The bistro provides hook-on highchairs and tea service with real cups and spill-free pretend pouring.
The bistro name is a little misleading. Many barn-size restaurants call themselves bistros. In this case, the size is right, with only 27 seats, including 10 at a U-shaped counter. But to me it felt like an old-time ice cream parlor -- a very pink ice cream parlor with striped awnings, plastic daisies and light fixtures that look like swim caps from the '60s. To Lisa, it should have been called a diner. As she noted, the word "bistro" doesn't mean much to the target clientele, girls from toddler to tween.
Like other theme restaurants, the American Girl Bistro is less about food than experience. When you sit down to study the menu you are given a little box of business-size cards with printed conversation starters such as:
"Describe your dream job."
"Have you ever been the tallest or oldest-looking person in the room? How did that feel?" (In fact, a little strange. At that very moment, I was by far the oldest in the room.)
The menu is very limited, but items change often. When making a reservation online, you are asked if they should know about any special occasions or food allergies. Lisa is gluten-free, so I checked that. A month later, when our date finally came, nobody knew about the gluten thing. When asked, the server said they could make a gluten-free pizza.
Starters run $5 to $7, entrees including meal-size salads $8 to $15, desserts $4 to $7. It adds up.
Lisa's gluten-free baby-spinach salad was a medley of grilled chicken, goat cheese, red onion, apple slices, dried cranberries and a warm bacon-infused dressing on the side.
The Bistro Burger was juicy with melted provolone juice and some kind of special sauce. The bun is a little sweet. Curly fries are plentiful. Ten other main courses included macaroni and cheese, herb-roasted salmon and a turkey club sandwich.
We finished with a very light, very sweet chocolate mousse, served in a tiny flowerpot. Coffee and tea, hot or iced, are $2.25. Child-appropriate beverages feature ice cream.
Girls having birthdays are served a beautiful Princess cake, and employees gather to sing. There's also a room for private parties.
Except for the conversation cards, it was hard to make any connection between the menu and the American Girl ethos of empowering girls, which disappointed my expert companion. I can't resolve my appalled/charmed reaction. However, I am amused by American Girl's website: "Come to Stanford Shopping Center in San Francisco."
American Girl Bistro
660 Stanford Shopping Center, Palo Alto
Bistro hours: Mon.-Thurs. 10 a.m.-6:30 p.m.; Fri. 10 a.m.-7:30 p.m.; Sat. 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m.; Sun. 11 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
Credit cards: yes
Parking: parking lot
Outdoor dining: no
Party and banquet facilities: yes
Noise level: good
Bathroom cleanliness: very good