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Feb 26, 2009 03:26 PM

French bistro rec in Palo Alto/Mt View/Menlo Park?

Hi - I'm looking for a nice French bistro to take my wife for dinner. Ideally the restaurant would have steak frites and mussels but it's not required. As a comparison, our favorite French bistros in SF are Plouf and Cafe De La Presse.

Searching the boards and Yelp and I came up with:

Bistro Elan
Bistro Basia
Left Bank

Any thoughts on these? Left Bank seemed like the closet fit but the reviews were terrible.

Thanks for your help in advance.

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  1. Some of the best mussels I've tasted on the peninsula were at Le Petit Bistro, a longtime, extremely unpretentious, extremely genuine family-run business (2nd gen., still French-born, runs it now) with fiercely loyal local regulars, to the northern part of Mountain View not far from Palo Alto, details below. While some US "concept" bistros emphasize other things, this place serves true down-home French cooking like Coq au Vin (made in big pots and always available). Very moderately priced, a place with heart.

    There's another small, neighborhood favorite in Palo Alto on ECR, a couple of miles north, but I forget the name and haven't tried it for a long time.

    Left Bank's Menlo Park location is the original for peninsula and south bay and I recently read that it got a makeover and brightened up the food. The several locations of this local chain have a French owner-chef and many French trappings, I've had exquisite shellfish (prawns and mussels at different times) cooked with Pernod and citrus zest at a couple of locations. Execution at these restaurants has varied though. It is weird to encounter a place where the menu is pointedly in French but servers not only don't understand the language but aren't trained to pronounce the menu items.

    Bistro Elan has been good, a little pricier than above but still fairly moderate, last visit couple of years ago. It has an off-and-on problem with an owner-host sometimes on duty, who has been abrasive to newcomers, I can testify, but seems to welcome regulars, giving Elan some ogf the feel of a private club (of which you are not a member) at those times. The stories of this among peninsula diners are legion.

    Had several excellent meals at Marché in Menlo Park but always more of a high-end, fine-dining experience -- more expensive and more formal than places above. Also, most people's experience with Marché was under chef Howard Bulka, who left some months ago. It's probably time to try this restaurant again ...

    Bistro Elan
    448 S California Ave, Palo Alto, CA 94306

    Left Bank Brasserie
    635 Santa Cruz Ave., Menlo Park, CA 94025

    Le Petit Bistro
    1405 W El Camino Real, Mountain View, CA 94040

    1 Reply
    1. re: eatzalot

      I second the recommendation for Le Petit Bistro - they are one of the few places that serves sweetbreads - with mushrooms - very good.

    2. Bistro Elan and Bistro Basia are both fine Cal/French places, and I think they are better choices than Left Bank. Left Bank is OK, but it's a local mini-chain with a standardized feel to it. Bistro Elan and Bistro Basia have more personality and overall better food. Steak frites is one of Bistro Elan's specialties and I believe it's on Bistro Basia's menu too.

      I haven't been to the other places mentioned here. If you go to Bistro Basia, try to save room for the wonderful apricot souffle dessert.


      Bistro Basia
      201 South California Avenue, Palo Alto, CA

      1. Bistro Vida, in Menlo Park, has a very charming feel. In addition to the dishes you mentioned, they offer seafood platters, fruits de mer, on a wide menu.

        Please share your opinions on your choice of bistro.

        Bistro Vida
        641 Santa Cruz Avenue, Menlo Park, CA 94025

        1. I love mussles and my girlfriend loves mussels, and we're feeling a little bereft in the mussel department.

          A detour about mussels. I always want to like Plouf, but after about 3 visits, I just couldn't go back. The sauces just aren't there. Watery, weak, and the joint is too loud. I spent a week eating mussels every day in Belgium, from local cafes to higher end places, and Plouf just doesn't do it for me. Cafe de la Press, never had the food.

          Our favorite mussels were at 3 seasons in PA, but they've been taken off the menu. We're very excited about the new place in Town & Country which claims to have wood roasted mussels.

          On to the cafes:

          I don't think Marche can be considered a bistro- it's a fine dining experience.

          I don't mind Left Bank in MP. Sure, it's a chain, but it's easy in / easy out. I recently had the steak frites and it's quite passable - the french bavette cut is kind of like a skirt/flank which is very timely, fairly cheap in america where the NY and Filet go for boucup bucks. The fries are somewhat underwhelming though, a bit on the dry and mealy side. I like the fact that they've installed Absinthe fountains at that branch and the San Mateo one, even though I've never sampled. The place is *not* terrible. Simply lower your expectations and see it for what it is - it's a slightly cookie-cutter french place with pretty decent food, not the be-all-end-all french experience. I have a friend who likes it as a lunch spot, so I eat there maybe once a month.

          Atmostphere at CDLP and Left Bank aren't that different, except that subtle patina of chain-ness that infects LB.

          Bistro Basia always looks good. The location seems somewhat cursed - there's been some turnover there. Got to try it someday. Ditto Elan, Petit Bistro.

          I don't like the food at Cafe Vida. Went there once, and never again. Undercooked, overcooked, mushy, underseasoned, overseasoned, it was a mess. I can't give you a blow-by-blow because it was just substandard. Everything france is against. Which is too bad, because the place does have an excellent feel. I wanted to like it, but it didn't get a second chance, which is rare for me.

          Our go-to is Cafe Brioche. It's not as "standard french" as Plouf or Left Bank, but in some ways, reminds me more of france instead of cal-france. I don't think I've ever had the steak frites there. The mussels are passable but not high-end (better than plouf, not as good as anywhere in belgium). The cassoulet leaves much to be desired, the lamb's pretty good, the savory benigts are awesome, and feeling is warm and friendly, the by-the-glass list is pretty good. And I've never had to wait to get in, one of the perfect attributes of the go-to neighborhood joint.

          2 Replies
          1. re: bbulkow

            Add my endorsement of Café Brioche. Longtime local institution, popular with personnel of nearby French school, so sometimes that's the only language you hear in the Café. Also, it was where we bailed out to and found a pleasant welcome one night after unprofessional cold shoulder from Madame (above) in the first course or two at Bistro Elan across the street.

            Brioche is one of the steady venues on its block that have been consistently good in occasional visits for 15 years or so. Its competitor with the same good history, nearby, equally genuine, and very impressive on a recent lunch, does not exactly fit OP's request but is well worth while if you're in the neighborhood: the Bodeguita del Medio. Nominally Cuban cuisine I think. Unique lively café dishes, also elaborately stocked stylish looking bar.

            If you like real French brasserie or casual bistro food it is essential that you try Le Petit Bistro in Mountain View a few times and get to know it. I know no other place in the region closer to the experience of neighborhood French restaurants where many people eat often in that country.

            La Bodeguita Del Medio
            463 S California Ave, Palo Alto, CA 94306

            Cafe Brioche
            445 S California Ave, Palo Alto, CA

            1. re: bbulkow

              We have had very different experiences at Bistro Vida. We have been patrons for about 10 years, going for lunch, dinner and weekend brunch. It is a favorite meeting place with our French friends. I cannot recall any turn-offs in any course at any meal, and that's at least 250 servings over time. So, I think Bistro Vida is a highly reliable place.

              I feel the same about Le Petit Bistro where, by managing a short menu, they deliver high quality with a small staff.