OPENING a restaurant is an act of faith. The hours are grueling, the financial reward small and the failure rate extremely high. Opening a restaurant in an out-of-the-way location in a town that is not known for its food culture and that requires potential patrons to step out of their culinary comfort zone is plain insane.
I came to the Red Crane for a winemaker’s dinner featuring the Burrell School Winery, located in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The Red Crane is situated in a small strip mall in Cupertino called Bollinger Plaza. It is sandwiched between “New Fashion Hair” and “Grand Interiors,” an unlikely location for a place that serves sophisticated food like marinated Alaskan black cod, salmon tartare and coffee-glazed ribs. The restaurant’s interior, although sparsely decorated, is warm and cozy. Guests sat at three long tables with the winemakers holding court at a two-top of their own.
The four-course meal with wine was $80, and with 40 dinner guests, the turnout was impressive for a Tuesday night. My favorite pairing was “Asian pesto” (Thai basil mixed with sesame oil) with the “Principal’s Choice,” a pinot noir. I thought the crispy pineapple chip gracing my snow crab cake was delightful, and I loved the pan-roasted filet mignon with a sour-plum reduction, which sat atop a lovely bed of golden beets. It was served with the “Honor Roll” Merlot. But in spite of the fact that everything was done right, I wondered, how does this place survive?
There were thoughtful touches like a menu with each of the guests’ names printed on it, signed by chef Royce and Dave and Anne Moulton, the winemakers. The small space quickly began to feel like home. I sat at a table with two locals, Kay and Ed Kinney, who have been coming since the restaurant opened. They told me that this was their favorite place to eat. They talked about Royce like he was their son. The answer to my question began to take shape.
Winemaker dinners are common in Silicon Valley, yet partnering with a winery does not guarantee a restaurant’s success. The Red Crane, however, has managed to become part of the community. Rather than trying to get big-name wineries, it features small local ones like Burrell School. This is equally beneficial to both parties. Royce also works with the Cupertino Educational Endowment Foundation, because he believes in the role it plays. He makes each and every person who walks into the Red Crane feel like family, which keeps them coming back. It’s satisfying to see a restaurant like the Red Crane flourish against all odds by simply embracing the strength of small community bonds.