Dining: The rebirth of Town & Country

Embarcadero Road shopping center has become epicenter for new dining experience

Some descriptions of Town & Country Village of the past might seem unimaginable to anyone who frequents the boutique Palo Alto shopping center today.

"It looked like a tombstone," said Howie Bulka, owner of Howie's Artisan Pizza, which opened at the shopping center in 2009.

Tim Stannard -- founding partner of Bacchus Management Group, which operates Mayfield Bakery & Café -- said he had to work to convince potential business partners that the "sleepy" shopping center was an investment worth making.

"They said, 'I don't know what you see here, Stannard.'" he recalled.

He saw a prime piece of real estate -- a property with ample parking on the corner of two major arteries in Palo Alto (El Camino Real and Embarcadero Road), across from a high school and a major university -- where business owners like himself could sow the seeds for a higher-quality dining-and-retail destination.

"I believed there was a pent-up demand and a sophisticated, knowledgeable consumer that was looking for offerings," Stannard said. "The supply wasn't meeting the demand. Even though the shopping center was sleepy, we had a sense that if we build it, they will come."

And they did. Town & Country -- now home to Mayfield, Howie's, Calafia Cafe, Asian Box, Gott's Roadside, Lulu's, Kara's Cupcakes, Tin Pot Creamery and more -- has become an epicenter of dining in Palo Alto.

Each of Town & Country's food tenants offers something unique to the shopping center, and in their own ways, epitomize the growing trends that define the Bay Area dining scene today.

Howie's Artisan Pizza opened before the phenomenon of artisan pizza had fully infiltrated the Peninsula.

Former Google chef Charlie Ayers brought Calafia Café with the slogan "slow food served fast." (The slow food movement began in the 1980s and is founded upon the ideal of always using locally sourced, sustainable ingredients.)

Asian Box, a small chain run by restaurant consultant Frank Klein, has a similar tag line: "Real food. Fast." Diners can customize boxes of made-to-order combinations of meat, rice, vegetables, sauces and the like (all with an Asian influence).

At Mayfield, each menu states at the bottom: "The following farmers made this meal possible." Before the restaurant even opened, Stannard had already built his own 5-acre organic farm in Woodside to directly supply his restaurants with local produce. The restaurant, serving California cuisine, bakes its own bread and roasts its own coffee. Mayfield also recognized a hole in the Palo Alto dining scene by adding an artisan cocktail menu this winter.

There's also Tava's Indian Kitchen and Mexican eatery Lulu's, which is owned by a local family.

Perhaps the biggest newcomer is Gott's Roadside, the St. Helena-born gourmet burger spot that opened last fall.

Beyond restaurants, there's also Tin Pot Creamery, a Palo Alto homegrown small-batch ice cream shop run by a former Facebook pastry chef, and Kara's Cupcakes, a Bay Area chain.

Though all the new blood is exciting for many, the evolution of Town & Country highlights a divide between old and new Palo Alto.

Many Town & Country tenants who were years-, some even decades-long local favorites, have not outlasted the evolution.

There was the Cook Book, a homey breakfast-and-lunch restaurant so beloved by the community that when it was suddenly evicted in 2005 after 25 years of operation, community members created the website www.savethecookbook.com, promised thousands of dollars to help owner James Kim relocate and wrote letters to owner Ellis Partners saying they planned to boycott the entire shopping center.

Lindsey Hiken, owner of Village Cheese House, said that the community uproar over losing the Cook Book helped the Cheese House, another old-fashioned community staple that's been at the shopping center since 1959, ride the wave of change after Town & Country was sold to Ellis Partners in 2004.

"It kind of set off this 'Oh, whoops,'" said Hiken, who bought the deli from the original owners in 2007. Ellis Partners offered to foot the bill for a remodel of the space that Hiken said she knew was necessary, along with a revamped business plan, to compete and survive.

"We used to just not really have competition because you'd want lunch and (if) you were near here, you could go to Douce France or us or Kirk's. There weren't that many options. ... Now there's Mexican food, there's Asian food, there's everything. The downside of that is that I have competition and it's hard. You can't just be a funky old deli with grouchy people working in it and survive in this climate."

Some restaurants that weathered the initial storm of change after Ellis Partners took over eventually didn't make it. In August 2012, popular lunch spot Korean BBQ shuttered after operating on a month-to-month lease for years. The small, family-owned restaurant with older style open-top glass counter with trays of food couldn't be more different from trendy Asian Box, which opened directly across the street five months before Korean BBQ closed.

Hobee's California Restaurants, a local chain, also moved out in January of this year, making room for Gott's Roadside.

Kirk's Steakburgers, a Palo Alto mainstay for more than 60 years, and Scott's Seafood, operating in the city since the 1990s, have persisted amidst the change around them.

Some existing tenants said they don't mind today's newcomers.

For the first 50 years at the Cheese House -- tucked in the back corner of the shopping center -- there were few people passing by and generating business, Hiken said.

"We're probably in the least visible location in the mall, so I do appreciate the foot traffic."

But rent continues to increase every year and competition gets more fierce as new tenants move in. Belcampo Meat Co., a farm-to-table meat market and restaurant whose offerings include meats and sandwiches, will be opening up one door down from the Cheese House sometime this spring.

"Our rent does go up every year and they're putting in competition, like direct competition. It's definitely not a shoe-in that we're just going to be able to make it," Hiken said. "Some days it feels like the foot traffic outweighs the competition, and some days, it doesn't."


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