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Dining with the Digerati

In the wild, wired world of Silicon Valley, deals mean more than dinner—even at the places where you can actually get a good meal.

It's not easy having dinner with a billionaire, especially one lionized as a leader of the New Economy. For starters, there's the tacky question of who pays—me, the hyperethical, you-can't-buy-me journalist, or him, the fellow for whom a $300 tab is a rounding error. Worse, there's the pricey bottle of Pinot Noir (1993 Saintsbury) he decides to order; it tastes great, but only if you manage to get the goblet all the way to your mouth. I accidentally knock mine over on him.

Jim Clark is a good sport. I pick up the meal, but not his dry-cleaning bill. This serial entrepreneur, who founded Netscape, Healtheon and Silicon Graphics—three modern high-tech rockets—likes to earn money and then spend it. (He also gives it away, including $150 million to Stanford last year.) He knows more about fine food and wine than any other techie I know. He has his very own chef for his cyber-yacht, the 155-foot cutter Hyperion. "I like the best," he says. "I just can't find it around here very often."

"Here" is Silicon Valley, the 50-mile corridor stretching from San Francisco south to San Jose that has become the boomtown of the Internet Age. Yes, the eating's grand in and around San Francisco, but drive south from the city and the epicurean possibilities start to dwindle significantly. In-N-Out Burger, anybody?

Still, the Valley isn't a complete culinary wasteland. Restaurants like Left Bank in Menlo Park, Sent Sovi in Saratoga, and L'Amie Donia and Zibibbo in Palo Alto can compete with the best in most cities. Spago in Palo Alto is Wolfgang Puck's bid for some of the stray money circulating around the Valley; asked two years ago why he was opening up in this location, he explained unpuckishly, "It's the demographics." This Spago is a bit chichi and overwrought (and Puck's choice of an old mortuary to do business in is weird), but the food is just fine. Not that the restaurant attracts as many hotshots and wannabes as its L.A. counterpart—no place here does. That's not what restaurants in the Valley are about.

It is the absence of any singular characteristic that's so surprising about Valley restaurants. The only sure way you can tell you're in one is the incessant chatter about venture capital and the next next thing. Deals, not dinner, are the main item on the menu; in the cultural anthropology of Silicon Valley, food remains a mystery. The explanation centers on three chief characteristics of the digerati: They're young, they're busy and they're basically toads. When you're 25 and working all hours, when your training is in engineering or calculus, when your idea of a good time is watching the NASDAQ ticker, then taking the time to enjoy dinner or friends (or, for that matter, music or art or baseball, pleasures that the Valley doesn't much support) isn't on your Palm Pilot's To Do list. If you have to eat something around here and it's not going to be Mrs. Swanson's, where do you go?


Ostrich Steak On El Camino

Clark and I are dining tonight at Wild Hare (1029 El Camino Real, Menlo Park; 650-327-4273), a year-and-a-half-old restaurant on El Camino Real, the sun-soaked Champs-Elysées of Silicon Valley. It's a favorite of Clark's because it's near his office, and because the chef and co-owner, Joey Altman, has some fun with the food: Think Alice Waters meets Jurassic Park. Altman encourages us to try the kangaroo he's flown in from Australia. But while we're too chicken to order kangaroo from a guy named Joey, we're up for some of the other possibilities: ostrich steak, tandoori quail, wood-fired duck cannelloni and South Dakotan brown bear. The Wild Hare Pot Pie is a mix of meats—the menu says "We'd tell you what's in it, but we'd have to kill you." Altman, who used to be the chef at the popular Miss Pearl's Jam House in San Francisco, settled on game because he thought the entrepreneurs of the Valley might go for something adventurous, "to be on the bleeding edge," as he puts it. When you've gambled everything you have on a new Web business, wild boar on a stick hardly seems like much of a risk.

Part of Wild Hare's appeal may also be its distinct lack of techiness. The decor in the open, high-ceilinged dining room is Early American Ski Lodge, with a huge backwoods mural above the windows painted in the style of a Dutch landscape. Cell phones are banned, though I surprised a guy in the men's room using one. The cell phone and its newfangled cousins—the Minstrel, the Timeport, the Backflip and the ominous-sounding "wireless Web appliance"—are the bane of eating out in the Valley. Sure, the things exist in Nebraska, too, but not like they do here: The toys of the trade don't merely facilitate business in the Valley—they are the business. I once ate at a bistro where one patron was yakking away on his phone to another patron at a nearby booth. Take away that man's dessert privileges!

Its anti-techiness notwithstanding, Wild Hare has become a favorite of venture capitalists. Although Buck's of Woodside gets lots of press as a V.C. haunt (a high-end coffee shop, Buck's has a media hound for an owner, and the media are content to follow the hound), Wild Hare is the spot where they're really transacting commerce.


Gastronomy Meets Technology

Some establishments have decided not to fight the passion for gadgets but to cater to it. The Basin (14572 Big Basin Way, Saratoga; 408-867-1906) serves traditional American comfort food (though not at comfortable prices). But it's the private dining room, the Atomic Lounge, that sets the restaurant apart. Forget any Internet cafe you've ever seen: Seating 30, the Lounge is set up for business meetings day and night. (In workaholic Silicon Valley, there's not much difference, except that hatching deals on a golf course is harder after dark.) Internet ports with full DSL connectivity, a Pentium III PC, laser disk, DVD and CD players, an NEC overhead multimedia theater projector with a 100-inch flat screen—the Lounge has all the high-tech advantages of Bill Gates's living room, without Bill here to whine about his antitrust troubles. Techies like the Lounge because it's a neutral, relaxed setting away from work that still lets folks plug in; several start-ups trace their lineage to a Cabernet shared here.

The Basin is only 15 minutes west of San Jose, the biggest city in the Valley. That makes it painless for executives and managers to come over for a meeting and a Mac-N-Cheese. "We're trying to merge gastronomy and technology," co-owner Jon Mittelhauser says. He certainly knows the latter. He was one of the founding engineers of Netscape, and, like Clark, he's fond of food. He says he and his current partner, Bill Foss (another Netscape founder), were willing to indulge in something Old Economyish precisely because it was old, though their New Economy success obviously made it easier. "We didn't start talking seriously about it," Mittelhauser admits, "until after the IPO."

Sweet And Low Tech

Not every good restaurant around here got its start from the New Economy. And that brings us to the Peninsula Fountain & Grill (566 Emerson St., Palo Alto; 650-323-3131), which most everybody just calls the Creamery, a mile down University Avenue from the Stanford quad. It's a diner like one in any college town, even if the prices seem to assume you've just had your own IPO. My usual drink here, the extra-thick hot-fudge malt shake, costs $4.75, but they always bring me the big metal canister so I can slurp up every last drop.

The Creamery is sweet and authentic and true. It has about as much to do with high tech as a Dairy Queen does. When Marc Andreessen, the superwunderkind, came to town fresh from the University of Illinois in 1994 and got busy founding a company called Netscape with Clark and Mittelhauser and a cadre of computer jockeys, this was where his friends always knew they could find him. (That was in the dinosaur days before Web appliances.) Andreessen went on to multimillions and new ventures. Today's he's one of the Valley's high-tech superstars. He's trimmed down, buffed up, bought some Ermenegildo Zegna suits and is a Creamery poster boy no longer.

Actually, you might find him at Spago. In the fairy-tale world of Silicon Valley, it's not hard for a toad to turn into a prince.

David A. Kaplan is a senior writer for Newsweek and the author of The Silicon Boys and Their Valley of Dreams (HarperPerennial).

Published December 2000
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