36 hours in my Silicon Valley
September 30, 2010
The NYT travel section featured Silicon Valley in its “36 hours in…” column recently, and wow did the article make us sound duller than dirt. It was a combination of stuff no one ever does (hanging out in Los Gatos boutiques??!), factually incorrect statements (Antonio’s Nut House is anything but “low-key” according to the police blotter), and ideas that are right but for the wrong reasons (Friday afternoon at the Rosewood bar is allegedly “cougar happy hour”, the VCs are getting pitched but not the way the NYT thinks). But the piece did get me thinking that maybe I should write down some of the things my out-of-town guests like to do when they visit.
First off, there’s no way you want to stay all the way out in Santa Clara unless you’re at a convention there; also neg the Rosewood unless you’re on a fatty expense account and love the idea of being in the middle of nowhere next to the freeway. Dinah’s in Palo Alto is the spot: it’s historic, centrally located just off a bike route, and includes a rather upscale tiki bar called Trader Vic’s with pupu platters and zombies in case you need a handy refuge.
After you check in on Friday afternoon, I’d personally start on University Avenue in Palo Alto to see some entrepreneurs right away. Head straight to the University Coffee Cafe (the sign just says University Cafe, but everyone adds the “Coffee”), where you want to sit next to a table of two men — one of them preferably nerdy-looking and/or saying “value proposition” a lot. Note how shiny are the eyes of the entrepreneur… although whether the glaze is optimism or desperation is never quite clear. The coffee is nothing special here, the floor is unsettlingly tilted, and the reserved seating policy is baffling… but it probably has a higher density of entrepreneur-funder meetings than any other place in the world.
After that, you’ll need a drink. Cougar Happy Hour at the Rosewood actually sounds mighty entertaining, so I’d head up there for a fancy cocktail before returning to California Ave for dinner. If you’re feeling flush, two ex-Nobu chefs serve excellent sushi at Jin Sho; or Palo Alto Sol offers yummy “cocina poblana” (food in the style of Puebla, Mexico). Antonio’s Nut House on a Friday night will be filled with Facebookers and grad students, giving you the opportunity to marvel firsthand at Silicon Valley’s infatuation with youth and novelty. I would not personally eat anything there, or drink anything without wiping down the lip of the glass, or use the bathroom if at all possible.
On Saturday morning you will definitely want to see redwoods. The best spot in my opinion is Purisima Creek Redwoods in Woodside, the town where all the venture capitalists live (VPs prefer Los Altos, while CTOs for some reason lurk in Portola Valley). Eat breakfast at Buck’s, to get the full flavor of Woodside’s old-California small-town facade; then CAREFULLY thread your way up Woodside Road to Highway 35 (Skyline). On Saturday mornings this road belongs to packs of road cyclists, because Silicon Valley is the capital of the sport. A lot of these guys put more miles on their bikes every year than you do your car, and they don’t even necessarily commute or race… they just love hammering up the hills.
The awesome thing about Purisima Creek Redwoods is that you can hike for hours… or visitors of any age and ability can simply enjoy the deliciously scented Redwood Trail. Sequoia Sempervirens, the Coast Redwood, can be identified by a flat needle with a groove down the center; and the cones are only about the size of a nut. At the right times of year, this forest is filled with naughty mushroom-hunting Russian immigrants who seek out delicious fungi in blithe disregard of your silly American laws.
One oddball tip for finding Saturday afternoon activities in Silicon Valley is to check the calendar of the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition. Their members (I am one) provide “bike valet parking” at Stanford football games, art festivals, and other major happenings along the “Caltrain corridor”. If you like to ride bikes, you can rent or borrow a bike easily and use the newish “bike directions” feature on Google Maps to tap into the network of bike lanes and trails in the area. Even if you don’t feel like mingling with the masses at an art festival, you can easily pedal over to a bookstore — Rasputin in Mountain View for used, or Kepler’s in Menlo Park for new — and pleasantly while away the afternoon.
No one can possibly say they have visited Silicon Valley without gorging on Indian food. My visitors always enjoy the South Indian specialties called vada (savory chickpea donuts) and dosa (paper-thin crepes) at Udupi Palace in Sunnyvale, where the food is delicious, super cheap, vegetarian, filling, and probably different from the Indian food you can get at home. Before dinner, I like to take my friends to watch the sun set over the decades-old apricot trees at the Sunnyvale heritage orchard. Before it was called Silicon Valley, this area was known as the Valley of Heart’s Delight, and it was a famous fruit-growing region… of which this small plot of Blenheim apricots is the last vestige. If you are extra-eco, you might also enjoy a quick trip to nearby Full Circle Farm, an 11-acre working CSA on the grounds of a public middle school.
After parking back at Dinah’s, walk over to Dan Brown’s Sports Lounge to meet the forgotten townies of Palo Alto — the restaurant managers, schoolteachers, bookkeepers, and carpenters who constitute the “normal” part of the population. On a Saturday night you’re unlikely to run into very many high-tech workers here… but you can get quite the education on the middle-class squeeze in a part of the world where the median income is in the six figures. Or you can just enjoy a shot and a beer, televised sports (hockey season is the best because you can see how successful the Sharks have been at bringing their icy sport to the area), and a little dancing.
Sunday morning means dim sum brunch. The best place to go is Cupertino, one of the increasing number of high-achieving California towns run by Asian immigrants. The mayor of Cupertino is Chinese-American, as is the entire city council and most of the residents. Unsurprisingly, the Cupertino school district is so renowned that houses located within its borders command a substantial premium over those in neighboring Sunnyvale. You want to get to Joy Luck in Cupertino Village before it opens at 10AM, and be sure to get the pan-fried shrimp and chive dumplings. Afterwards, a little stroll through Ranch 99 supermarket next door is always fun and reinforces how much Asian immigration there has been to this area.
If you have time left, the NYT’s suggestion of a quick visit to the Mountain View farmers market is definitely a good one. Unlike most such markets, this one operates year-round although there are more vendors in mid-summer. The quality and variety of fruits, veggies, meats and prepared foods are pretty dazzling, especially considering that every little town in Silicon Valley has a farmers market like this. Take special note of the Asian vegetables, and the amazing variety of baby greens — and pick up a picnic lunch for your plane ride home, after your weekend in Troutgirl’s Silicon Valley.