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What's the deal with restaurants in Palo Alto?

My wife and I moved to Palo Alto in January and have yet to find a moderately-priced restaurant we love. On the slightly-higher end, there are a few options we like: Evvia, Mayfield Bakery, Bistro Elan.

For an easy weeknight meal, we've found the options to be amazingly poor. There are so few high-quality fast-casual and high-quality middle-priced restaurants that I'm wondering if I'm missing something.

Wish we would've stayed in San Francisco.

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  1. Try Mountain View. Palo Alto is the Noe Valley of the peninsula: a few good options and a lot of overpriced Americanized ethnic food.

    I do love the hot chocolate at Caffe del Doge and the frozen yogurt at Fraiche.

    Caffe del Doge
    419 University Ave, Palo Alto, CA 94301

    1 Reply
    1. re: Windy

      That analogy is hilarious and accurate, Windy! +1 on Fraiche, and also add Howie's.

    2. Yes, I definitely agree...
      I live in Redwood City, and we regularly drive up to 15 minutes on a weeknight for a good casual meal. And even though Palo Alto is well within our casual weeknight range, we never go there (except for occasional trips to Coconuts for tasty Caribbean food).
      I would say that ~80-85% of the time we wind up in the San Mateo/Foster City area (there are endless choices in this area), 10-15% of the time in the Redwood City/San Carlos area, and 5% of the time in Mountain View.
      So I don't think you need to move all the way back to San Francisco... just closer to San Mateo.

      1 Reply
      1. re: lrealml

        I used to live up in San Mateo/Foster City and always found myself in downtown San Mateo for casual weeknight meals; there's a lot of variety there. Then I moved to downtown San Jose and found a dearth of places and ended heading to Mountain View/Sunnyvale all the time.

        Palo Alto has always been one of those places where I felt like with all the restaurants on University and along El Camino that there ought to be more than a handful of places worth eating at.

      2. I'm not sure what your definitions for fast-casual and middle-price restaurants are.

        The following below in Palo Alto or Menlo Park will do take out (which is what I think of when people say "fast"), but any restaurant that doesn't have a explicity-stated dress code is "casual" in my book, and that covers most of the restaurants in the area.

        The following below have the majority of their entrees for less than $20, and are pretty much my go-to places when I was working in PA and picked it up on my way home when I felt lazy and didn't want to cook.

        Hunan Garden on El Camino for Chinese food (high quality, casual)
        Gyros Gyros on University for Mediterranean (high quality, fast, casual)
        Siam Royal on University for Thai Food (high quality, fast, casual)
        SGD Tofu on El Camino for Korean Food -- their specialty is Tofu Soups, but they also do decent Korean BBQ there too.
        Cook's Seafood (I think this is actually in Menlo Park) for fast, high quality, super-casual Seafood. Fish & Chips, Fried Scallops, that kind of thing)
        Darbar on Lytton for Indian Food (high quality, fast, casual)
        Coconuts on Ramona for Jamaican (high quality, fast,casual) -- not sure if they do take out or not, but their sister restaurant Back-A-Yard for sure does.
        Cafe Barrone (Menlo Park) is more cafe than restaurant, but their food is also pretty good.
        Gombei in Menlo Park (next to Beltramo's) is homestyle Japanese food. They do offer sushi/sashimi occassionally as specials, but their strength is in their other dishes.

        Hunan Garden
        3345 El Camino Real, Palo Alto, CA 94306

        Gyros Gyros
        498 University Ave, Palo Alto, CA 94301

        1. I think the question may be what's your deal? (Sorry, that's a Stanford joke.) What type of food do you like? Palo Alto has good-to-excellent choices in Indian, Chinese, Italian, Middle Eastern, pizza, and many more cuisines which you can find with a little bit of searching here on Chowhound. Have you tried the places recommended here before? Which do you like and which do you not?

          You're right that there aren't great Greek, American, or French places within Palo Alto at a lower price point than Evvia / Mayfield / Bistro Elan, but there are plenty of other of the world's cuisines represented there.


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

          1. Believe me, bergersworth, I can relate. I moved to Mountain View six years ago after decades in SF. It's an adjustment in many ways. It's still the bay area, but it's really a different culture down here and values about and attitudes toward food are different. You'll be smiling in July, though, when it's summer here and it's 58 degrees with the wind howling in SF.

            Sometimes, you'll have to head up to the city or the east bay to have an inspired meal in an urban environment and you'll savor it knowing that what was once easily available is now a special, but still accessible treat.

            Otherwise, search the board and see what you can find. Be willing to drive twenty minutes. That will help a lot. Density of quality is not the name of the game in the south bay. (That's not unique to the south bay. Any suburban style area is this way, lots of SoCal, the Texas cities, etc.) You'll find your spots where you do and eventually, you'll build a list of places you feel pretty good about. There are a lot of good things to eat, but not a lot of great things, at least not for me and my family. I realize this offends some people, but it's not meant that way.

            We enjoy Calafia. It's not necessarily the place for the greatest recipes; it's not at the top of the list for California cuisine, but it's good food in a casual setting made with high quality ingredients, including grass feed beef and the like, something which is in shorter supply in restaurants down this way. I think it fits the bill for what you're asking for if your expectations are in the right place.

            I haven't tried anywhere near all the places near University Ave. or on Castro in Mountain View, but I find those areas to be more quantity than real quality. There are places I haven't been that I want to try, though. Scattered about are interesting ethnic restaurants that aren't worth a plane flight for those outside the area, but that are worth trying. Some will probably become regulars on your circuit, some that aren't will at least have been worthwhile adventures.

            On a related note, there are lots of good farmers markets, very reasonable competitors to the ones in SF. Some items will require a trip north, though. Trying finding a good selection of cheese somewhere. If you succeed, please post its location.

            855 El Camino Real, Palo Alto, CA

            5 Replies
            1. re: maigre

              I do not know of a dedicated cheese shop on the peninsula but for good cheeses I go to Robert's Market in Woodside, Piatti's off of 92 in San Mateo and The Milk Pail on the Palo Alto Mountain View border.

              625 Redwood Highway, Mill Valley, CA 94941

              1. re: artychokeasana

                I think you mean Piazza's Grocery. And there's another in Palo Alto on Middlefield Rd near San Antonio Road, near the Milk Pail. Roberts Mkt has a 2nd place now, in Portola Valley. For Italian cheeses (and others) go to Woodside Deli in RWC on Woodside Road, closer to 280 than 101. Great place for imported pastas, proscuitto, deli meats and popular for big, old-fashioned sandwiches.

                1. re: idtoca

                  yes, thank you I did mean Piazza's and I didn't know there was another-so thank you!

              2. re: maigre

                I think it depends on what you mean by "good"...
                With places like Sigonas, Draeger's, the Italian specialty stores, and Whole Foods, I can find enough different cheeses to make do, but there is certainly no Cowgirl or Cheeseboard equivalent on the Peninsula.

                We are complaining, but honestly, most "Suburbs" and event some cities in other parts of the country are much much worse than Santa Clara County for food...
                The cheese selection at our local whole foods would be like cheese heaven in most parts of the country.

                1. I'd be interested in the casual places you've tried and "don't love". Our favorite places are: Cafe Barrone, Darbar, Bangkok Garden/Amerin, Crouching Tiger, Coupa Cafe, Med Wraps, the steak frite at Left Bank, Su Hong PA, and Martin's West. But I might say there's a lot of "like" and not a lot of "love" in that price range. Most neighborhoods in SF are better.

                  I also have to say that I was deeply distraught my first year or so here --- and warmed up considerably after I found a dozen places I really enjoy.

                  A few more. I don't share the popular love for Gombei, but Kampai is serviceable, Naomi is fun at the bar . I do love El Gruelense, El Rancho carnitas, casita chilanga #2, Chavez burritos. Right now I live closer to better burritos than I did when I lived in SF.

                  Another cold fact is menlo park to Delfina is 35 minutes, door to door.

                  Su Hong
                  1039 El Camino Real, Menlo Park, CA 94025

                  Coupa Cafe
                  538 Ramona St, Palo Alto, CA 94301

                  Crouching Tiger
                  2644 Broadway St, Redwood City, CA 94063

                  1. What "fast-casual and middle-price restaurants " do you love in SF? Have you tried Sprout on University? Friend said her family loves their salads...been meaning to go.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: ceekskat

                      I went there last week for the first time and got the "Kyoto" salad - yum! It was just like Mixt Greens, my favorite overpriced healthy lunch in SF. It's not life-changing in level of deliciousness, but I thought it was very tasty and fresh. I'll probably go to Sprout more often than Pluto's now.

                      Mixt Greens
                      114 Sansome St Ste 120, San Francisco, CA 94104

                    2. Have you tried Vero? Very reasonably priced high quality Italian. (Caveat that I haven't been in two years since I'm now gluten free.)

                      530 Bryant Street, Palo Alto, CA 94301

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: Cialti

                        This is why I always wish people put a NUMBER on "reasonably priced". Dining at Vero is about $50/pp out the door for a normal dinner. Antipasti for $10, pasta for $15, secondi for $25, wines by the glass at $10. I have a feeling the OP is looking for something as casual and cheap as Med Wraps, where you can get a seriously tasty schwarma and a ginger for about $10 out the door.

                        Vero is a very nice joint, but I wouldn't say it's particularly casual (less casual than Crepevine), or particularly cheap. Nice price-performance.

                        530 Bryant Street, Palo Alto, CA 94301

                        1. re: bbulkow

                          Good point.... although, the OP did say "middle-priced", not cheap....
                          This can definitely mean different things to different people....
                          For example, to me mid-priced, casual weeknight dinners need to be under $30/pp with tax and tip; however, $30/pp would be "special occasion only" to my very frugal parents.

                          Maybe the OP can chime in on his definition of middle-priced..

                      2. I understand your conundrum. Can't specify any restaurants on University (that you didn't already mention) that are special and not overpriced.

                        However! I really like Shiok: Singapore Kitchen off of Santa Cruz in Menlo Park. Grandma is in the kitchen cooking or training the people who cook when she's not cooking.

                        Also, there's a Middle Eastern Wrap place on California Ave that has the most amazing lentil soup ever. Their falafel is pretty good too.

                        And I have to say yes, everything else delicious and moderately priced requires a 10-15 minute drive.

                        7 Replies
                        1. re: kbengler

                          Is Grandma back permanently at Shiok? I haven't been there in a while. The food was pretty good when she was there in San Carlos.

                          1. re: rotiprata

                            I haven't been in a while either. I was there for lunch like 4 weeks ago and she was around.

                          2. re: kbengler

                            The middle eastern wrap place on California is the same as the middle eastern wrap place on University, so if you can rec' one, you can rec the other. And Zan Keman has the same owner.

                            1. re: bbulkow

                              One additional data point: The falafel wrap at Kan Zeman is vastly inferior to the falafel wrap at Mediterranean wraps on California Ave, despite the fact that they have the same owner. I haven't been to the Mediterranean wraps on University.

                              Kan Zeman Restaurant
                              274 University Ave, Palo Alto, CA 94301

                              Mediterranean Wraps
                              433 N California Ave, Palo Alto, CA 94301

                              1. re: ssfire

                                I think you'll find that the wraps at the two Med Wraps are about the same. I thought the CA ave one was a little better for the first few weeks, then they stabilized. Same menu, same price, same general kitchen setup.

                                1. re: bbulkow

                                  Actually, the two med wrap locations menu are not the same - they have the lamb kebabs at the University one and not at the California one...plus several other dishes are added to the menu on the downtown location (University Ave)

                                  1. re: takuhead

                                    Then, I stand corrected. The vast majority of the menu is identical. The prices seem very similar, but I would almost expect the Univ ave one to be a few cents more.

                                    I have frequently gotten extra falafel balls at the California ave location - like they had a few too many on hand. And somehow the California Ave moroccan tea tastes better. That tea is one of hte best kept secrets of that place - it hits that wonderful blend of caffine, mint, and sugar perfectly. I only knew because the owner foisted a free cup on me one day. The first hit's free, as they say.

                          3. In PA we really like:
                            Oren's Hummus (new place that opened last month) - Israeli/Mediterranean
                            Thaiphoon - Thai
                            Royal Siam - Thai
                            Crepevine - Crepes
                            Bistro Maxine - Crepes
                            Joanie's Cafe - casual American/French
                            Patxi's - Pizza
                            All of these you should be able to get out for less than $15 per person.

                            Junnoon is also one of our absolute favorites. Its a bit pricier than the others I've mentioned but is cheaper than Bistro Elan/Evvia.

                            I'd also recommend:
                            Taqueria Los Charros (Mountain View) for burritos
                            Mediterranean Grill House (MV) for falafel wraps
                            Thaibodia (Redwood City) for spicier Thai (both of the places in PA are pretty mild)
                            Old Port Lobster Shack (RWC) for lobster rolls

                            Old Port Lobster Shack
                            851 Veterans Blvd, Redwood City, CA 94063

                            150 University Avenue, Palo Alto, CA 94301

                            Bistro Maxine
                            548 Ramona St, Palo Alto, CA 94301

                            Royal Siam
                            512 Center St, Moraga, CA 94556

                            2155 El Camino Real, Santa Clara, CA 95050

                            Taqueria Los Charros
                            854 W Dana St, Mountain View, CA 94041

                            Thaiphoon Restaurant
                            543 Emerson St, Palo Alto, CA 94301

                            Oren's Hummus Shop
                            261 University Avenue, Palo Alto, CA 94301

                            2 Replies
                            1. re: adrienneellen

                              I'd just like to give a shout out to Palo Alto Sol (on California Avenue). Others may disagree, but the people from Mexico who I've taken there have enjoyed it and thought it was at least authentic to some part of Mexican cuisine.

                              Palo Alto Sol Restaurant
                              408 S California Ave, Palo Alto, CA 94306

                              1. re: adrienneellen

                                Does anyone know how Thiabodia compares to Erawan (also in RWC)? To my knowledge the Peninsula/SB is lacking in great Thai food (but Erawan is decent if I really want it out), and I can never get the food spicy enough. Thiabodia appears to have 2 other locations (The RWC Thaibodia location is new). I see that they have a bunch Cambodian specialties, which is interesting (I don't know much about Cambodian food);however, their Thai menu looks very fusion and not very authentic.

                              2. Moderately priced, good quality, plentiful European restaurants, better in SF.
                                Moderately priced, good quality, plentiful Asian restaurants, better in South Bay.

                                OK, in PA itself. More problematic. Better places tend toward the pricey; University Ave. has become a destination street. Higher income in general makes the neighborhood places on CA more pricey. There are low end places catering toward numerous students. Agree that supply of all good moderate priced restaurants are more limited.

                                2 Replies
                                1. re: jman1

                                  i'm just seeing this thread now. ..

                                  it's definitely a great rule of thumb to hit up SF for euro restaurants and the south bay for asian.

                                  i also want to strongly dispute the belief that the South Bay is just another sprawl of suburbia with nondescript food options--as mentioned by some earlier posts on this thread. and to MAIGRE's comment that the ethnic food is nothing to travel for - that is a grossly incorrect statement. the vietnamese food alone is worth a plane ride - i know this because i've lived in New York for almost 14 years and jump at any chance to visit my family for the Vietnamese food. I've also traveled to over 40 countries and many cities within the US and (with the exception of Vietnam--obviously, Orange County and Westminster) have not found restaurants that come close to the ones in San Jose. And really, if you're coming from out of State wouldn't you rather fly to the Bay Area than SoCal? ;)

                                  Not only that, the ramen scene is also unparalleled in the rest of North America. And though there are Indian communities in other parts of the US, the fact that the ingredients come so fresh around here gives ours a great edge. Oh and Chinese food in SF is not what it used to be. I've had my mind blown way more by the restaurants down here.

                                  Beyond Asian, there are still great Mexican, Central American options...not to mention some amazing wild cards like Rose Market, the Persian grocer/takeout grill in Mountain View.

                                  As someone who's traveled the world eating at down-to-earth AND top-tier restaurants (if you need me to name drop, here goes: El Bulli, Noma, Arzak, Akelare, L'Astrance, Chateaubriand, One Madison Park, Jean-Georges, Manresa, Momofuku, etc) - I can say with great confidence that the South Bay has a wealth of amazing places to eat.

                                  But back to the mid-priced conundrum. SF is loaded with casual but amazing American and Eurocentric eateries--the best out of all the cities is been. So if that's the only kind of food you're after, then yeah the lower peninsula and South Bay may not be right for you.

                                  1. re: waxyjax

                                    A more effective way to convince is your list of everyday PA eateries - when bumping a year old thread -
                                    Here's a few of my everyday list:
                                    Palo Alto Creamery
                                    Da Sichuan
                                    Med Delight
                                    Homma's brown rice sushi
                                    El Gruellense
                                    Some like Pluto's, I don't
                                    Sancho's, almost a crime to eat there so close to better mexican, but still.
                                    Some like The Couter, I don't like the service

                                2. Our standards are Palo Alto Sol for Mexican, Darbar for Indian, and Jing Jing on Emerson just north of University for Chinese. There is also Armadillo Willy's on El Camino at San Antonio for BBQ (try their beer-batter onion rings). All are good and we are never disappointed.

                                  5 Replies
                                  1. re: chris319

                                    I like Palo Alto Sol and second Evvia.

                                    For Indian, head slightly south to Amber India (very well executed but pricey). Da Sichuan for spicy/rustic Sichuan Chinese. Jin Sho for pricey, decent quality sushi.

                                    In Menlo, there is Flea Street Cafe and in Woodside there is Station 1 and Village Pub.

                                    1. re: chris319

                                      I tried Palo Alto Sol recently and liked it well enough, though nothing was spicy. Armadillo Willy's seems to be a local chain. Looks like the one on El Camino is in Sunnyvale? What do you like to get there?

                                      1. re: chris319


                                        What do you like at Palo Alto Sol? I find their food to be generic and heavy. I would try any of the numerous taquerias, like the one in Chavez Market at 5th and Middlefield. I even like Sancho's on Lytton better, sometimes the meat is good. Once you get to Mountain View or RWC there is mexican a plenty - La Bamba, Los Gemelos, etc. For sit down I've liked Cafe Del Sol (not to be confused) in downtown Menlo Park - just a lighter touch with the lard yet lots of flavor.

                                        Darbar I like the vindaloo. Ever since Sue closed her shop on Castro Street, the richness of Darbar's vindaloo keeps me coming back. The other dishes are good but somewhat generic.

                                        Jing Jing I've never had anything worth eating there - what do you recommend? I like Hunan Garden, Da Sichuan, Hong Kong Restaurant has been recommended, some like Taipan I consider it overpriced and stuffy but with passable food.

                                        Armadillo Willy's - again, really? They make a plausible burger but with all the discussion of places like Smoking Pig and Trail Dust and the places in San Carlos (Mac's and Emergency) I don't see them as anything more than a mediocre stop gap.

                                        I had a very nice burger during the end of the Giants game at Francesca's sports bar in MV last night. Given their excellent beer selection, and that very nice burger, this place is underrated. I just wish they'd turn the music down. I love when I order a lagunitas and they ask "which one? I've got IPA up here and we've cracked Lil Sumpin' in the back, what do you like?"

                                        I can't consider Flea Street, Station 1, Village Pub, or Jin Sho as a "standard" - somewhat above my price level. Good for you if you can!

                                        1. re: bbulkow

                                          Palo Alto Sol - I like their mole and their tequila selection/margaritas. I find it tasty (certainly not a destination worthy spot ...but if you are in the area....I'm having a hard time thinking of a place with good mole and good margaritas/tequila).

                                          As to flea street etc. they are my standars for a nice dinner. Certainly not for daily takeout.

                                          1. re: goldangl95

                                            Mole is a serious pain, finding mole you like is a good thing. Good mole is great, average mole can be seen as either "better than nothing" or "not worth the bother". I really liked the mole at Tu Mero Mole, but that's kind of a hike from PA. I also became far pickier after the few days of mole orgy in oaxaca.

                                            Regarding tequila and margeritas, we're on different pages. I don't bother much with mexican places and drink at places that mix the classics well - a margarita is a great order at Village Pub, for example, where they're quite particular about their lemons and limes.

                                            Mexican, I'm really all about a good taco these days with horchata.

                                            Thanks for helping me understand my variance with the standard love of PA sol. Maybe I'll go back for mole and give it another shot.

                                      2. In one word, rent. I've lived in downtown PA for 25 years, and the proliferation of well-funded startups has changed the nature of all local businesses, including restaurants. These days, I mostly go out for lunch, and when my DH and I want a nice dinner we take the train to San Francisco.

                                        For lunch, I like Darbar (although they disappointed today - they do change their lunch buffet lineup a lot), Janta (spicier, but more limited selection) and Amber Dhara (a branch of Amber India). Jing Jing is OK: there are better places on Castro St. in Mountain View, but walkability is one of my criteria. Tai Pai is good, but pricey. For Thai I like the soups at the one on University, and the salads and vegetarian dishes at the one on Lytton. Sancho's is the only decent Mexican (why, why are there so many places serving frozen yougurt or sliders when the only taqueria has long lines at lunch?)