I have a meeting with a local man who wants to open a restaurant in San Jose. I’m not an industry consultant, but I’ve offered to give my opinion on what kind of restaurant I think would succeed. Over the course of the past six years writing about Silicon Valley restaurants, I’ve learned a few things about what works and what doesn’t.
I am going to make a couple of suggestions. One, make it affordable. That doesn’t mean 99-cent hot dogs, but the value-priced restaurant is king these days, and it will probably stay that way for a long time.
Two, avoid gimmicks. A restaurant has got to stand on the strength of its food and atmosphere. Goofy promotions or themes never work.
Third, I’d say go for Mediterranean or American food. There are few places that really rise above in that category. And fourth, I’m going to recommend the would-be restaurateur check out a few restaurants that I think really nail it: Pizzaiolo in Oakland, an outstanding pizza/small-plates Italian restaurant; the Refuge in San Carlos, a great gastropub; and the Naglee Park Garage, an informal eatery that gives San Jose something it really lacks, a friendly neighborhood restaurant.
I wrote about the Naglee Park Garage when it opened five years ago. So said I: “The casual bistro bills itself as ‘neighborhood kitchen cuisine.’ Lots of restaurants would like to think of themselves as friendly neighborhood joints but few deliver. The Garage does.”
I’m pleased to say that now Naglee is even better. The food is pretty much the same; hearty, home-style stuff, mainly American comfort food; but the restaurant has grown into the neighborhood place that it set out to be. Regulars are greeted by name as they walk in. Many people walk to dinner instead of drive. The outdoor seating, live music and movie nights add to the restaurant’s community appeal. And of course it’s cool that the old brick building is a former garage.
The restaurant is only open for dinner and weekend brunch, but on the nights when I went, the place filled up as soon as the doors opened. The sight of frosty beers on the bar and the sound of James Brown on the speakers tend to draw people inside. And when they get there, they eat pretty well.
The food here is nothing fancy, but that’s part of the appeal: Naglee serves the kind of food you could cook if you had the skills and a big restaurant stove to play with.
You don’t see trout on the menu much these days, but Naglee Park Garage has got it ($11.50)—just a pan-fried fillet topped with a little chopped parsley. The roast leg of lamb stole the show, juicy and crusty outside and dappled with slow-cooked cloves of garlic, a deal at $10.95.
On one of my visits, fried cod croquettes ($14.95) were featured as part of the “extended menu.” This was high-quality bar food and went great with an Allagash white beer.
I was disappointed, however, with the hamburger ($12). A place like this needs to deliver a strong burger, but the hulking, half-pound burger fell short. It was overcooked, and the patty dwarfed everything else, throwing the burger all out of balance. Great oven-roasted fries, though.
There’s also an enticing lineup of daily specials: beef Bourguignon ($15.95), prime rib ($19.95) and lobster lasagna ($19.95).
While the specials are served with side dishes, everything else is served a la carte, so be sure to try the oven-baked macaroni and cheese and Brussels sprouts with bacon. I say the sprouts were overcooked, but the bacon makes them easy to like.
There are some hearty salads that could stand in for an entree. I recommend the arugula salad (small $4.95, large $7.95), peppery greens tossed with apples, pears, endive, celery root, pecans and goat cheese in a lemony vinaigrette. Desserts are big and belt-busting, chocolate and vanilla bread pudding ($6).
Future restaurateurs take note. This is just the kind of restaurant San Jose and Silicon Valley at large need more of: friendly, affordable, independently owned and, of course, delicious.