If it ain't broke, don't fix it
Grilling up a hefty helping of the 'good old days'
In a town as plugged-in as Mountain View, the long-standing burger joint Clarke's is a monument to a simpler time — harking back to an age when gas was cheap and El Camino Real wasn't so congested, and before engineers and chip manufacturers put the "silicon" in Silicon Valley.
That's how owner Jim Blach sees it. A Mountain View resident since 1954, the octogenarian says buying Clarke's from its previous owner in 1970 was an easy decision.
"We've become a standard for excellent hamburgers in this area," Blach says, noting that the longevity of Clarke's, along with the very American food it serves — burgers, hot dogs, shakes and fries — means that the experience of coming to his restaurant has been passed down from one generation to the next and holds a special place in the collective memories of entire families.
Founded in 1945, Clarke's conjures a powerful nostalgia in people, Blach says. "It reminds them of what they call 'the good old days.'" Taking an if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it approach to running the restaurant, Blach says that while he has added more items to the menu, he hasn't deviated one iota from the Clarke's original recipe. If it was good then, it's good now, he figures.
"That's what people want — good food," he says of the charcoal-broiled "Clarkesburgers" ($5.95) his restaurant serves. "It's just like grilling a burger in your backyard. I've hade so many customers who have said, 'Don't ever change a thing!'"
Lee Phoenix, who hails from the Midwest and fondly recalls many afternoons spent munching on backyard barbecued burgers, applauds Blach's approach, and is especially pleased he has maintained the condiment bar — a somewhat curious feature, stocked with lettuce, onion, ketchup, various mustards, hot sauces and relish, and even peperoncini.
"I love that you can dress your own burger," says Phoenix, who works nearby and has been coming to Clarke's about once a month for more than a year. She always gets the same thing: a blue-cheese burger ($7.45), a side of sweet potato fries ($1.50 for a single serving, $3.25 for a basket) and a vanilla shake ($3.85).
Though Clarke's has been voted the best burger in town many times in the Mountain View Voice's "Readers' Choice" poll — including this year — it won't be winning a prize for interior design any time soon.
And yet one might make the case — as Phoenix does — that a burger joint should not be preoccupied with aesthetics.
"That's what I like about it!" she says, noting that she doesn't come to Clarke's for the ambiance. "It's about the food."
Phoenix says she is also drawn to Clarke's because of its most decided lack of ambiance. The restaurant's seating areas are all open to outside air and on a recent fall afternoon flies buzzed freely in and out of the place. Yet she didn't seem to pay them any mind as she sipped her milkshake between bites of fries and voiced her plans to return soon and try one of the many breakfast items at Clarke's.
Phoenix's friend Jude Bartlett, who was at the restaurant for the first time, agreed. "My shake was great," she said, noting that it is made with real ice cream and so thick she had to eat the first half with a spoon.
In addition to its classic staples, Clarke's offers a turkey burger ($5.95), various sandwiches including fish ($6.25), chicken ($7.50), steak ($10.95) and rib ($6.95), and a vegetarian "garden burger" ($6.45). The restaurant also cooks breakfast (from $4.95 to $10.95) and serves wine (from $4 for a glass to $14.75 for a liter), along with a variety of beers (from $2.75 for bottled domestic to $12 for a large pitcher of microbrew).
Clarke's is open daily from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. On Fridays the restaurant stays open an extra hour, closing at 10 p.m.