Readers' Choice 2020

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Food and Drink

Ada Braun shops at Bianchini's Market in Portola Valley during the first week of the stay-at-home order in March. As an essential business, the market has experienced an increase in customers and orders since last year. Photo by Sammy Dallal.

When news of a pending shelter-in-place order was announced in March, Bianchini's Market found itself in the center of a whirlwind as residents scoured the shelves for necessities before hunkering down at home.

"It was like the whole town was in the store," an employee told this news organization in early May, describing that first day of shelter-in-place as "madness" inside the Portola Valley market.

Months later, even as shelter-in-place restrictions have been loosened, business hasn't returned to normal at the market: The pandemic continues to push demand above last year's levels.

While having more customers is generally a good thing, the designation of being an essential business has come at a price, according to store manager Jason Omana.

Enforcing social distancing, mask requirements and other new health restrictions while accommodating an influx of customers can be challenging for staff, he said.

"My poor employees ... they have to act as policemen," Omana said. "That is a lot to ask of them. That's not in their job description in any way, shape or form. All these new rules that people have to follow — the curve for that was so steep."

At first, the rush on groceries and basic goods was overwhelming. "We've gotten used to it now," he said.

Customers come to the store much less often now than in the early weeks of the pandemic, but when they do, they buy a lot, Omana said.

For two decades, the local community could count on Bianchini's to have their favorite cereal or salad dressing — the shelves always stocked, products always available. The pandemic has changed all that. Now, instead of pointing customers to specific aisles, Bianchini's staff sometimes have to explain unreliable supply chains or product shortages. And although the staff is now well accustomed to the unpredictability that has accompanied COVID-19, the future looks less certain still.

"We've never had a holiday during a pandemic," Omana said. "There used to be an easy playbook to follow during the holidays: You know how much broth to order, you know how much turkey to order, how much everything to order."

The store has already seen a significant difference in holiday buying trends. Halloween candy that usually flies off the shelves was purchased slowly in October, and with travel discouraged and large family get-togethers ill advised, Omana has no idea if the store's demand will meet its supply.

A lot of the holiday inventory had to be ordered months in advance in the pre-pandemic days, Omana explained.

"Now, this hit ... basically (we need) to throw all those playbooks in the trash, because nothing can be predicted at this point," he said.

The one thing Omana said he can count on is the community's support.

"We're pretty much a neighborhood store, and our neighborhood has really supported us," he said. "Some things have not gone well, and they've stuck with us. It's a good community to be a part of."

K.S.

A masked server clears plates from a table on the patio at The Village Pub in Woodside on July 6. To make up for lost tables indoors during new social-distancing regulations, the restaurant added the outdoor patio. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

When Village Pub servers, line cooks and dishwashers clock in to work these days, they immediately have their temperature taken. They sign a form that states in English and Spanish: "I certify that I am in good health and have had my temperature checked and recorded accurately at the beginning of my workday." They deposit the pen they used into a sleek silver container labeled "used pens," put on a mask and start their shift.

The Village Pub, located at 2967 Woodside Road in Woodside, reopened for both indoor and outdoor dining in June. While many of the signature touches of the 19-year-old Michelin-starred restaurant returned — the staff still uses handheld irons to steam wrinkles out of white tablecloths before setting the tables, caviar is still on the menu and service is paramount — much has changed in the age of COVID-19.

Diners can order on their smartphones from a digital QR code or physical menu, and the latter is sanitized after every use. The menu was scaled down from 60 dishes to just 15, which are now offered in a $75 per person pre-fixe model to reduce the time waiters spend at tables. Customers can only take their masks off when seated, and employees keep them on at all times. Only one employee is allowed at a table at a time unless it's to drop off dishes and leave.

The overarching goal, said Tim Stannard, founder of Bacchus Management Group, which operates The Village Pub, is to minimize the amount of interaction between employees and diners — a counterintuitive "180 degrees from our natural inclination, which is to spend as much time as we can (with customers)."

Reconfiguring The Village Pub's elegant dining room to allow for at least 6 feet of distance between tables meant operating at 50% capacity. The restaurant quickly secured the necessary permits to build an outdoor patio — which cost $50,000 — that makes up for the lost tables. On a recent Monday evening, every table on the patio was full while a scarce number of parties sat inside. Stannard said the split between outdoor and indoor seating requests is about 70/30.

Plenty of people still want the traditional dine-in experience, he said. When Bacchus was discussing whether to resume indoor dining, they talked to staff, investors and customers. There was a "pressure — not a pressure," he corrected himself, "but interest" from the community in reopening the dining room. It's sold out nearly every night since reopening, Stannard said in July.

The pandemic forced a major shift for The Village Pub, an upscale restaurant that places high value on the experience of dining in, into takeout. Pre-coronavirus, to-go orders generated less than 2% of sales for the restaurant, Stannard said. Now, delivery accounts for about 30% of sales — a number that's held since the restaurant reopened for indoor and outdoor dining.

E.K.

Scroll down to find out how last year's winners have responded to the pandemic.

Amici's

Amici's has been serving up pizza — along with pasta, soup and salad — to Menlo Park patrons for the past decade. The thin-crust New York-style pies are cooked in traditional brick ovens next to an open flame. Diners can now eat outdoors or order food for pickup or delivery.
880 Santa Cruz Ave., Menlo Park, 650-329-8888; amicis.com
2019: Pizza

Baskin-Robbins

Longtime downtown ice cream shop Baskin-Robbins offers traditional ice cream and frozen yogurt in cups and cones, as well as sundaes, milkshakes, parfaits and ice cream cakes. The shop is currently open for pickup and delivery.
863 Santa Cruz Ave., Menlo Park, 650-323-9335; baskinrobbins.com
2019: Ice Cream/Frozen Yogurt

Bianchini's Market

Since 1998, shoppers have counted on Bianchini's Market for fresh local produce, gourmet cheeses and groceries from small producers whose items aren't found at chain stores. The family-operated market store has remained open throughout the pandemic as an essential business. In response, the market has implemented new health and safety policies, offers delivery in as little as one hour and is now accepting Thanksgiving orders.
3130 Alpine Road, Portola Valley, 650-851-4391; bianchinismarket.com
2019: Place to Buy Meat
2019: Sandwiches
2019: Grocery
2019: Produce

Buck's of Woodside

The eclectic and quirky decor inside Buck's of Woodside is legendary — whimsical figures and aircraft hanging from the ceiling, floor and tabletop gewgaws and oddities, even a Statue of Liberty presiding over tables. Now, during the pandemic, patrons can explore the restaurant's museum-like collection from afar: Buck's has created a virtual, 3D replica of its entire dining room, which can be explored in detail on its website. Until indoor service resumes, the restaurant is open for outdoor dining and takeout.
3062 Woodside Road, Woodside, 650-851-8010; buckswoodside.com
2019: Breakfast
2019: Dining with Kids

Carpaccio

Ever since Ristorante Carpaccio opened in downtown Menlo Park in 1988, it has consistently won Reader's Choice for best Italian restaurant. Carpaccio features weekly lunch and dinner special menus, while also offering a full range of appetizers, soups, salads, pastas and meat and fish dinners. The restaurant is offering outdoor bistro dining, limited indoor dining and curbside to-go service Tuesday through Saturday.
1120 Crane St., Menlo Park, 650-322-1211; carpaccios.com
2019: Italian Restaurant

Cafe Del Sol

Cafe Del Sol in downtown Menlo Park offers extensive lunch and dinner menus with traditional Mexican fare such as enchiladas, tacos and burritos, as well as a range of chicken, fish and vegetarian dishes. The restaurant is now open for dine-in, takeout and delivery.
1010 Doyle St., Menlo Park, 650-326-2501
2019: Mexican Restaurant

Chef Chu's

Since opening in 1970, Chef Chu's specialty dishes, including its homemade potstickers and Beijing duck cooked in a cast-iron Chinese oven, have attracted a who's who list of diners from near and far, including Serena Williams, Steve Young, Justin Bieber and JFK Jr. Chef Chu's is open for drive-thru, takeout and delivery.
1067 N. San Antonio Road, Los Altos, 650-948-2696; chefchu.com
2019: Asian Food

Chef Kwan's

Located in the former Su Hong to-go space, Chef Kwan's offers a full menu of traditional dishes and lunch plates made to order. The restaurant is open for takeout seven days a week.
630 Menlo Ave., Menlo Park, 650-322-4631; chefkwans.com
2019: Takeout

Draeger's

The bakery at Draeger's Market has been a part of the Menlo Park community for 64 years, offering a variety of breads and sweets baked from scratch from favorites like German chocolate cake,vanilla coconut cake and s'mores cheesecake to wedding cakes. The bakery is open for service with new health practices. Groceries also can be picked up on site or purchased through third-party delivery services.
1010 University Drive, Menlo Park, 650-324-7700; draegers.com
2019: Dessert

Jeffrey's Hamburgers

With meat ground fresh every day and numerous patty options for those who don't eat beef, Jeffrey's Hamburgers has been a longtime favorite for those looking to binge on burgers. Jeffrey's also offers salads, soups, sandwiches, fish and chips, milkshakes and root beer floats. The restaurant is open for pickup and delivery seven days a week.
888 El Camino Real, Menlo Park, 650-322-1959; jeffreyshamburgers.com
2019: Hamburgers

Koma Sushi

Family-owned Koma Sushi Restaurant is where Japanese food cravings will be answered with customer favorites like flounder, sashimi, grilled squid, ahi sashimi and a nigiri combination plate. The restaurant is accepting dine-in and takeout orders Monday through Saturday.
211 El Camino Real, Menlo Park, 650-321 5662; komasushi.net
2019: Japanese Restaurant

The Village Bakery & Cafe

The Village Bakery & Cafe in Woodside offers breakfast, lunch, brunch and dinner, as well as specialty cocktails and spirits and wines by the glass and bottle. In addition to takeout and delivery, outdoor dining rooms are open for dinner nightly, and brunch on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, according to the cafe's website. To keep guests safe, the Village Bakery has "carefully configured" its dining areas to accommodate guests at a safe distance. A limited number of reservations are accepted and walk-ins are welcome.
3052 Woodside Road, Woodside, 650-851-5555; tvbwoodside.com
2019: New Restaurant

The Village Pub

The Village Pub is an upscale Michelin Star restaurant that places high value on the experience of dining. Even during the pandemic, the upscale restaurant kept many of its signature touches — including white tablecloths and caviar — as it resumed indoor dining at a reduced capacity in the restaurant's elegant dining room and expanded outdoor dining and takeout service.
2967 Woodside Road, Woodside, 650-851-9888; thevillagepub.net
2019: Romantic Restaurant

Woodside Bakery

Woodside Bakery offers pastries, cakes, cookies and other baked goods that have kept customers coming back for more than 35 years. The family-owned European bakery makes its baked goods from scratch every day. The shop is open for in-store pickup.
325 Sharon Park Drive, Menlo Park, 650-854-6207; woodsidebakery.com
2019: Bakery