It was classic MacNiven. The longtime owner of Buck's in Woodside has a reputation for outlandish stories that make you question his footing in reality, and then, more often than not, turn out to be true. (As it turns out, MacNiven had been in Kurdistan and had played goat polo. There's readily available photo and video evidence on the Buck's Instagram.)
MacNiven opened Buck's in 1990, creating a one-of-a-kind restaurant that draws children and families as well as titans of the tech industry, heads of state and famous actors. The dining room is a museum of the weird, every available inch of wall and ceiling given over to artwork and collectibles, from an enormous Shaquille O'Neal shoe won at an auction to a statue of Lenin to the orange car that set the record as the fastest gravity-powered car in the world at the first-ever Sand Hill Challenge soap box derby in 1997.
The menu is down-home and cheeky, with pancakes, burgers, soups, Hetch Hetchy water (no charge), a Dueling Louis Armstrong salad and "savagely popular" tacos. The dessert menu advises: "Combat global warning, eat ice cream." So much about Buck's feels frozen in time, in a good way — though it's not totally immune to food trends of the moment. The kitchen now serves the plant-based Impossible Meats and Beyond Meat burgers.
When MacNiven's not working the room at Buck's wearing one of his trademark colorful, wacky shirts, he's writing. The restaurant's menu is updated quarterly with columns he writes about his travels and musings. He's the author of three books, including his autobiography, "Breakfast at Buck's: Tales from the Pancake Guy," and "California From 500 Feet: A Story of the Coastline," a history from California as seen from a 247-foot-long Zeppelin named Eureka. He's currently working on an illustrated children's book for his 9-year-old granddaughter.
I recently had lunch with MacNiven for the next installment of At the Table, a series of my interviews with local chefs and restaurant owners over a meal at a restaurant of their choosing.
Over a tomato burrata salad at his choice, Oak + Violet in Menlo Park, in between plenty of tall tales that all checked out when I went home and Googled them, we talked about the heyday of Silicon Valley, the secret to running a successful restaurant for three decades, a new book he's working on and why he's so fascinated by, as he put it, the "whimsical human stuff." Oh, and psychedelics.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Were you actually in Kurdistan earlier? What were you doing there?
We went to Kurdistan to just see what the country's like. I've been to the Middle East a lot. We hunted with golden eagles. It turns out these eagles — we didn't see this, but you can see it online — an eagle can actually kill a wolf. (MacNiven pulls up a photo on his phone to illustrate.) They do it by going right into the shoulders with their talons and when the wolf looks around, they rip its throat out. They're fierce. Then we tried playing goat polo. I had a picture of that, where we're mounted trying to reach down to the ground and pick up a dead goat off the ground and throw it whole. I could never reach the ground. I could barely stay on course. These young guys were much better at it. There's a big ring at either end and they dragged this goat. You try and take it away from the other guy. When you get a certain score then the winner gets to keep the goat and eat it. Kurdistan's a little dull.
We did some exciting things, but I'm really into the uranium processing, strip mine and factory where they poisoned the whole town. It's one of those places you're not supposed to go but we go to all the places you're not supposed to go.
What did you do before you opened Buck's?
My wife and I had a construction company. We used to build restaurants. ... We had a chain called Croutons. We built the Hard Rock Cafe in San Francisco back in the '80s. All the trendy places I built are all gone, except for the ones that I built that the family owns. We own five places in the city (San Francisco). We have the Woodhouse Fish Company, West of Pecos in the Mission, we have a brand-new one called the Wooden Spoon at Cafe du Nord, which is an old nightclub.
Why did you open Buck's?
We'd built a lot of restaurants and I was really tired of construction. It's so hard to get paid ... I hated that part of it. But in the restaurant business people pay to leave the room. Plus, construction is not a real people business. It's all about ass kicking and phone calls. The restaurant business is all about talking to people and being convivial. It's a much more human business. I've been at Buck's for 29 years and I'm addicted to the crowd. I can't get anything done. So I try to stay home, but then I find myself going to work. The people are so amazing.
What is it about that connection and community that draws you in and keeps you going?
It's like living in a really exciting, well-written movie. It's like all around are these magical people — not just the people you would expect me to mention, like the famous Silicon Valley people, we see Elon (Musk) — but it's the little kids, old people, people you've known for 20 or 30 years. It's kids that come in and end up being hosts and hostesses and then go on to college. All my kids worked there.
How have you seen tech change this area over the last 10 years?
I think we can no longer claim we're innocent. I think that's the biggest thing — we're out of the garden now and the blinders are off. I actually think artificial intelligence combined with bad actors and access to pathogens is a serious existential threat. But here in Silicon Valley, we really held up people — even Zuckerberg a few years ago, and certainly the Google guys — as being international and American heroes. I'm not so sure now. It's not about the money because they're all so fabulously rich ... But they're not working hard enough on our behalf. And certainly Amazon isn't. Between Amazon and Walmart, they're crushing America and they're also teaching people — you know what Walmart's slogan is? It's 'always low prices.' In Germany, that kind of statement embarrasses them. Theirs would be 'always best quality.' We're about trying to do it cheaper and crappier — the fast food and the proliferation of plastic and consumerism is a concern. And it turns out Silicon Valley's fueling this big time. Amazon started selling books. Now they're selling pool toys — a lot of them, and I know because I just bought a bunch. I'm not innocent at all. But I helped end the Vietnam War so I've done my part.
What's the secret to running a restaurant for three decades? So many restaurants are struggling right now just to survive in Silicon Valley.
It's no real secret. You have to have good food and convivial atmosphere. You have to really see the customer for who they are and if they have a complaint, you have to just say, 'I'm sorry; I'll do better.' ... With all those hundreds of thousands, millions of moving parts, stuff doesn't always go perfectly. But it generally does. I want every complaint to come to my desk, and weeks go by — I get nothing. So I think we do OK.
We've been able to retain our staff incredibly. I have people who've been there 29 years (and) a lot of people over 20 years. The average tenure of the front of the house people is about 16 years. Nobody's got that. ... It's challenging to get people for the kitchen, but we always seem to stay open.
I have to ask you about all of the decorations in the restaurant. Where do they all come from?
People give me things, but I take very little, although recently a guy (Andy Rubin, former Google senior vice president and creator of Android software) loaned me his Apple 1, which is the No. 1 collectible in all of Silicon Valley history. (Editor's note: The Apple 1 is a 1976 desktop Apple computer designed and hand-built by Steve Wozniak.) It's probably worth a million dollars. He said, 'Well, it was just kicking around my house. I thought you should display it at Buck's.' I take it with me when I give talks about Silicon Valley.
Have you changed the Buck's menu? It seems pretty similar to when I went there as a kid.
The basic menu stays almost the same, although we have the Impossible burger now and Beyond Meat, but it looks pretty much like it did 10 years ago. That's the basic menu: breakfast, lunch and dinner. We have our specials that change every two weeks. We have the dessert menu, the kids' menu and the wine list. ... if I went in there and I really worked on super innovative stuff I know I would appeal to a broader audience. It's really hard to do that because I've got so much other stuff going on.
Last night, I made a pasta primavera at home, which was really great and I'd like to introduce it at Buck's but it's one more ...thing to do. This was fresh fettuccine, summer squash, mushrooms, onions, avocado and garden tomatoes that are all put in the pan sequentially so they all come out without the tomatoes falling apart and the onions being done. Then Parmesan, a little blue cheese, sour cream. That is really a good dish.
How have restaurants on the Peninsula changed since you opened Buck's?
They have attempted, from Wolfgang Puck on out, to bring super sophisticated dining to the Bay Area — and it hasn't happened. Is it Nobu that's over in the hotel over there? People don't rave about that place. ... it's a little forgettable. I hear Tim Cook lives on the top floor.
You're clearly a storyteller with a penchant for the fantastical, odd, bizarre. Where does that, your taking pleasure in all the stories and the zaniness, come from? Have you always been like that?
Pretty much. My wife doesn't like me very much, but that's OK. Everybody else does.
Where does that come from?
Psychedelics. Honestly, I think that I was largely formed by one single psychedelic experience in college (with) ibogaine. Across the whole panoply, from mushrooms, LSD, psilocybin, MDMA ... ibogaine is way up there. It's extremely rare. I'm working with it professionally now, ibogaine and the drug (that) comes from this animal (he points to a large gold ring in the shape of a toad on his finger), 5-MeO-DMT. This is a model of a Sonoran desert toad, and in this gland contains all the truth you'll ever need to know.
Next year will mark Buck's 30th anniversary. Do you have any plans to retire? Where will Buck's be in 10 years? Or are you not thinking about that?
I don't even think about six o'clock. One of my kids is moving to Skyline, so probably (he'll) take it over. .... We don't make plans.