Almanac

Cover Story - February 17, 2010

Deep in the Willows, a celebration of an eclectic neighborhood

by Sean Howell

When Kathleen Daly first looked at the property where she would eventually open Cafe Zoe in Menlo Park's Willows neighborhood, she said she was "blown away" by the neighborhood's diversity.

Bordered by U.S. 101 and San Francisquito Creek, touching Palo Alto and containing a section of East Palo Alto, the Willows is a fascinating study in convergences. Multi-million-dollar mini-mansions give way to small wooden cottages and stucco ranch homes as you tour the neighborhood's winding streets. Situated at the mouth of the Menlo Park VA, the neighborhood contains law firms, a yoga studio and a Hispanic market, and boasts East Palo Alto High School, the German-American International School, and Willow Oaks Elementary.

And then, nearly in the neighborhood's geographic center, in a modest shopping district overlooked by most outsiders, there's Cafe Zoe, the coffee shop and eatery opened by Ms. Daly in the summer of 2008 that has since become a neighborhood gathering place; an intersection of eclectic styles and disparate groups of people in an area defined by its diversity.

"I was open to starting a cafe or a retail shop, but the area had to have a certain feeling for me," said Ms. Daly, a blond woman with a delicate smile and a receptive, inquisitive gaze. She thought she had found that feeling in a space she looked at in downtown Palo Alto, but her bid to lease it didn't work out. She had kept an eye on the property at the corner of Gilbert and Menalto avenues for over a year before her first visit there. When she finally dropped in, she knew almost immediately that she had found her cafe.

"There was something special about this place," she said. "I felt immediately like, this is it. There was not a question in my mind."

After spending some time learning the ropes from the previous tenant of the space, who ran Cafe Espresso 1929, Ms. Daly invited the community in. She changed the name to Cafe Zoe, after her 15-year-old daughter (Zoe means "life" in Greek), and added a subtitle: "A place for peace, hope and community."

She invited local musicians to play on Friday evenings, hosted nights out for a hyper-connected group of Willows moms, hired babysitters on weekend mornings so that parents could enjoy a latte while their children played in the patio area out back.

She knew she was on the right track during the first weekend the cafe was open, when two neighbors who had been out of touch for years bumped into each other while waiting for coffee. Another sign came when a man asked if he could set up a tab for his kids, students at the German-American School who wanted to come in and hang out while waiting for the bus.

"I said, 'Yes, of course, please!'" she said. "That's exactly what I wanted."

Ms. Daly's efforts to bring the surrounding community in can be seen on counters and shelves inside the cafe, where she displays crafts and products by local artisans and businesspeople, and on its walls, where work by local artists hangs. It can also be heard in the various languages spoken by its patrons, including English, Spanish, and Silicon Valleyese.

Of course, those efforts are not always successful. The babysitting program petered out after a few sessions, and while the place is packed on some Friday evenings with people there to hear music, sometimes the crowd is so sparse that Ms. Daly ends up feeling sorry for the musicians. But her try-everything mentality fosters a sense of infinite possibility; you never know who's going to come through the door next.

Midway through an interview with Ms. Daly, in walked students in an art class at East Palo Alto High, followed by John Cadigan, whose intricately designed, wildly imaginative woodcuts hung on the walls. Ms. Daly excused herself to help pour hot chocolate for the students. Mr. Cadigan gave them a short talk about his art before chatting with two women, friends of his mother, on the way out. He's a regular, he says; his studio is just around the corner.

Finished serving hot chocolate, Ms. Daly was poised over an ice cream cooler, asking me which flavor I wanted. She slipped a cookie onto the plate, and returned to serving customers, helping out with the afternoon rush.

As I savored the ice cream — I had already eaten a fantastic mozzarella panino, and was on my third glass of iced tea — I thought of something Ms. Daly had said, that she views the cafe as an extension of her living room. Her conversations with customers had an off-hand intimacy, without any of the strain such relationships often carry, as if she were talking with old friends. She wished a man from the VA, whom she had met on her first visit to the property, an early Happy Birthday. The East Palo Alto High students thanked her on their way out, as they might have thanked a friend's mother upon leaving her house.

Told she must have quite a living room, Ms. Daly responded that indeed she does, mentioning that a mannequin with pink hair is currently among its occupants. From the way she said it, you got the sense that that could change at any moment; that, like the cafe, her living room is a space of happy convergences, the contents in constant flux.

She stressed that Cafe Zoe's success has as much or more to do with the spirit and energy of its patrons and her employees as it does with her own efforts. That may be true enough. But in allowing the cafe to be shaped by the entire neighborhood, with all its contradictions and rough edges, Ms. Daly has created a simulacrum of that neighborhood — reminding people, perhaps, of why they fell in love with The Willows in the first place, and awakening outsiders to its charms.

"Everybody's welcome here, but I just love the idea that people think of it as a neighborhood cafe," she said.

INFORMATION

Less than two years since it opened, Cafe Zoe has become a neighborhood institution in the Willows. Located at 1929 Menalto Avenue, it features rotating art exhibits and live bands at 6 p.m. every Friday, and hosts fundraisers and other community events. For more information, visit its Web site: cafezoemenlopark.com.

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