http://mv-voice.com/print/story/print/2007/12/07/desperate-and-diner-less


Mountain View Voice

Eating Out - December 7, 2007

Desperate and diner-less

Closing of Ken's, Denny's has left the city without an all-night eatery

by Daniel DeBolt

If ever a group of people liked to work through the night, craving comfort food in the wee hours, it's engineers. A close second is college students.

With that in mind, how is it that Mountain View, here in the heart of Silicon Valley, lacks a 24-hour diner?

The city has been without one ever since Ken's House of Pancakes closed on El Camino Real near Grant Road a few years ago. That was followed by the April closure of Denny's in Palo Alto, a favorite of Stanford students.

I'm not a regular night owl anymore, but I've always found 24-hour diners comforting. It's nice to know there's good hot food close by whenever you need it, day or night. I guess that's why they call it comfort food.

Ken's House of Pancakes was once a chain, built up by "Pancake Man" Ken Pruitt in Menlo Park, Mountain View, Millbrae, Campbell, Vacaville and Hilo, Hawaii. (Pruitt, who also owned Walker's Wagon Wheel, died in April.) I called the last remaining Ken's — the one in Hawaii — hoping to find out why Mountain View's had closed. A waitress there told me the chain had closed all of its locations on the mainland around the same time, a few years before Pruitt passed away.

But why? More generally, why are no all-night diners left? I called Ellis Berns, Mountain View's economic development director, to see if the city had a theory on it.

"I don't know if I can explain it, but there's probably not a strong enough market to sustain something like that," he said.

Berns did mention one sign of hope: Downtown restaurants are staying open later than they used to. That includes the relatively new Neto Cafe on Castro Street, which stays open till 2 a.m.

Not bad — but what if you're hungry at 3?

My father's generation spent many late nights at Ken's. And it was the obvious choice for the occasional Sunday morning breakfast during my childhood. It may be the Baby Boomer generation brought more young people to Mountain View than subsequent generations, helping places like Ken's and Denny's stay in business. Or maybe rents are too high now, or staying up late has simply lost its appeal.

All night diners seem to dot the landscape in San Jose. But the farther you go up the Peninsula, the less likely you are to find one. The nearest 24-hour diner to Mountain View is the Denny's in Sunnyvale on Mathilda Avenue.

Maybe such places are more strategically located near hotels, freeways and industrial cores. If Mountain View succeeds in building a hotel with Google, perhaps we'll see a new one crop up in the Shoreline neighborhood.

We could also use one downtown — there's no place around there where you can sit down for a nice ham-and-eggs breakfast (the closest I know of is Hobee's). There's also no place to go after the bars and clubs close at 2 a.m.

I love the late-night crowd that diners bring in — travelers, students, insomniacs. In Mountain View's case you can add tech workers to that list. (Silicon Valley engineers used to rub elbows at the aforementioned Wagon Wheel on Middlefield and Whisman. The restaurant's iconic wheel was recently donated to the Computer History Museum.)

Every city seems to have its own take on late night dining — to the point where it reflects that city's culture. Consider L.A.'s Bob's Big Boys, or San Francisco's Doggie Diners. Or check out the Saturn Cafe in Santa Cruz.

What would Mountain View's diner be like? A Moffett theme sounds good to me — how about "The Zeppelin"?

Daniel DeBolt is a Voice staff writer. He can be reached at ddebolt@mv-voice.com.

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