Here in Silicon Valley, land of the new and now, the old-timey takes a back seat to the bright and shiny. One must dig a little to find places that have been around for a more than a few decades. That’s especially true with restaurants.
There are a handful of dining institutions that were around back when the area was called Santa Clara Valley instead of Silicon Valley. I’ve made a point to visit these places (Vahl’s, Original Joe’s, the Plumed Horse, By the Bucket, the Oasis), but somehow I never made it to Henry’s Hi-Life until now.
Henry’s has been around since 1960. It opened in a different location but moved to its current site a few years later in a building once occupied by the Torino Hotel. The red clapboard building still looks an old workingman’s hotel, but today it’s part restaurant, part bar and part hideout.
Day or night, the dim lighting in the dining room and narrow but cozy side room, complete with potted plastic poinsettias, vintage framed photos and male-dominated clientele, makes you feel as if you stepped into Kennedy-era supper club. Only the well-lit—and well-stocked—bar with televisions tuned to sports (go Sharks) places you in the 21st century.
Along with the fake flowers and a no-dessert policy, Henry’s has a few other quirks. During dinner, you must take a number and give your order to a gatekeeper while you wait in the bar. When you’re seated, there’s a skimpy salad waiting for you (all dinners come with salad, garlic bread and warm, ketchuplike barbecue sauce for dipping), and dinner follows soon after.
The number system doesn’t really make sense to me. I can see doing it when the place is busy, and it does get busy during events at the HP Pavilion, but why do it when there are half a dozen or more empty tables? Odd, but at a place that’s been around this long quirky equals charming.
The kitchen is wonderfully spare. Just a long counter and an open, oak-fired grill with the kind of grate you roll up and down with a wheel, the likes of which you find at a country park picnic site.
The menu is all about the meat, but there’s nothing special about it (Organic? Grass-fed? Are you kidding?), just factory-farmed USDA choice beef. But it doesn’t come cheap. Top sirloin will run you $20.50. A 20-ounce Porterhouse goes for $31.95.
The rib eye ($26.95) was cooked to my specs and had a nice oak-smoke flavor, but other than that it was pretty unremarkable. Just a steak. All entrees come with a big baked potato with a scoop of butter. Vegetables? Other than salad and potato, the only choice is a buttery, slow-roasted barbecued onion for $4.99 that’s quite satisfying.
The baby back ribs ($24.95/full rack, $16.95/half-rack) were a disappointment because they weren’t barbecued. They’re baked in an oven and then finished over the fire. They pick up a hint of smoke flavor but lack the deep, smoky flavor that comes from ribs that have spent hours in a barbecue and leave an aroma on your fingers long after you’ve stripped the bones dry.
The grilled chicken ($15.50) takes on a beautiful mahogany glaze from the grill, but I found it quite dry. I would have liked a little more seasoning to set it off, too.
If meat is not your thing, head for the fettuccine Alfredo ($9.25) an intensely creamy, cheesy garlicky mass pasta that’s hits the spot in an over-the-top Italian-American kind of way.
At lunch, I enjoyed my cheeseburger ($7.75), a hulking patty served on an airy but substantial toasted bun. Good, too, was the barbecued tri-tip sandwich ($10.75), a special on my visit.
In spite of the fault I found in some of the food, it’s hard not to fall for Henry’s. The staff is uniformly friendly and welcoming. The bar beckons, and for God’s sake, you won’t leave hungry. Portions are man-sized. Trends have come and gone, but Henry’s remains. Silicon Valley is a better place for it.