Menlo Mondays


Last month I hung out in Menlo Park at lunchtime three Mondays in a row. Despite my best intentions I tend to spend most of my El Camino Real time in my home county of Santa Clara. I don’t get up to San Mateo County often enough so I put forth deliberate effort to remedy that. I didn’t mean to make a series of it but once I realized what a cool title “Menlo Mondays” is, I had to go with it.

What started it all was the Music@Menlo festival and their free lunchtime events. Monday, August 2 I had the  urge to go catch a mini-concert but didn’t get an early enough start. I made the decision to go to Menlo Park anyway and just experience the town. It’s not that I never go there, but I figured this time I’d open my eyes a little wider and try to discover something new.

I drove up via US 101 and took the Willow Road exit, reflecting on how devilishly obscure it is to get to downtown from the freeway. None of the major roads go straight through to El Camino Real; they all dead-end at Middlefield. Sure enough, like a self-fulfilling prophecy I goofed and made a wrong turn into SRI International‘s parking lot. D’oh!

I extricated myself and took Ravenswood Ave toward downtown. I parked near the Caltrain station and walked up to El Camino. It was deep into lunchtime and I was hungry so I started walking south on the west side of the street, looking for a place to eat. There are many great eateries in the vicinity of El Camino and Santa Cruz Avenue so I followed my nose. I passed Lisa’s Tea Treasures (so that’s where it is!), Crêpes Cafe, Phil’s Treasure Pot, Sultana, Stacks, Mextogo, Trellis, Su Hong, Oak City Bar & Grill, Cafe Borrone, Applewood Gourmet Pizza, Cook’s Seafood, and the heart-tugging vacancy where Chili’s used to be. I scanned menus as I went but nothing was speaking to me. Then I saw it: Jeffrey’s Hamburgers. When I took my bus ride up El Camino in November, 2009 I had made a note of it and resolved to give it a try. This was the time!

CIMG1295I had walked quite a ways so I was now starving. Jeffrey’s has a sleek retro diner look on the outside which is matched by a classic 50’s car theme on the inside complete with a slice of a car hanging on the wall. I ordered a pineapple teriyaki burger and took a seat at the bar, eavesdropping on the conversations around me while oldies played over the sound system.  My burger came and it was tasty, but honestly it’s difficult to judge it fairly because it was dominated by sauce, just like I wanted. I’ll have to go back and try a plainer burger to see how it compares to those at my longtime local favorites Kirk’s, Clarke’s, and Kal’s. (Alliteration is good for the digestion, don’t ya know.) Jeffrey’s was good and I’d go back but I’m not in love with the diner decor. All the chromeCIMG1296 and stark white formica come off a little cold and clinical; it’s like eating in a morgue. Plus the employees don’t really commit to the theme. The other burger joints I mentioned are all funky and dingy but they are unpretentious and have warmth. This preference might be my subconscious working through the trauma of all the McDonald’s meals I ate as a kid.

While I was eating I noticed something unusual, a sign across the street that said Lydian Academy. It didn’t look like a school; it was a small commercial space above a Jenny Craig Weight Loss center. I Googled it and discovered it’s a boutique high school, fully accredited but very small, offering personalized instruction tailored to each student’s needs.

CIMG1304After lunch I ambled back up El Camino, admiring sights along the way like the Ravenswood Triangle Redwood Grove with its unique yoke-mounted El Camino bell. I had to cross a few streets and noticed something: the traffic lights in this part of Menlo Park are really really long. These intersections are quite busy so I guess the timings are optimized for maximum car movement. It’s a good thing it’s a pleasant stretch of road or else there would be a plague of peeved pedestrians. (Alliteration helps pass the time while you’re waiting for a walk signal, don’t ya know.)

CIMG1308I paused at the Trees for Menlo marker in front of Cafe Borrone and realized how prevalent the oak tree motif is in the city. It’s the city logo and is on all the street signs. Oak City Bar & Grill named themselves after it. Indeed I strolled up and down El Camino that day between Oak Grove Avenue and Live Oak Avenue. I guess unfortunately for Menlo Park the name “Oakland” was already taken when they incorporated.

I walked up to a used bookstore I had never been to, Feldman’s Books. I was on a mission to look for the Signposts books by recently-deceased Patricia Loomis and actually found one on the well-stocked California history shelves. I bought two more El Camino-related books. The first was Stanford: from the Foothills to the Bay by Peter C. Allen. Bonus—it’s signed by my old Stanford president Don Kennedy. The other book was Telling the Santa Clara Story: Sesquicentennial Voices, edited by Russell K. Skowronek. It’s a history of Santa Clara covering the mission, city, and university. I was wavering on whether to buy it but when I thumbed through it I found it ends with an essay by Paul Locatelli, S.J., the former chancellor and president of SCU who just passed away in July. It was a sign. I didn’t mean for my first visit to Feldman’s to be so morbid but really that’s the power of used book stores. In their dusty corners the whispered voices of the past are given new life when they change hands and find new eyes.

That was the end of my first Menlo Monday. I knew I’d be back soon for some music. Stay tuned.

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