Issue date: March 17, 1999
By JANE KNOERLE
The bad news. Ken's, a Menlo Park tradition for 40 years, is closing June 1. The good news is an "upscale" (no pun intended) fish restaurant will be coming in its place.
Ken's opened at 888 El Camino Real, its present address, on Dec. 10, 1959. "We were going to open on Dec. 7 (Remember Pearl Harbor?), but thought that might not be a good idea," says owner Jim Cunningham of Menlo Park.
A full page ad in the Menlo-Atherton Recorder proudly advertised Ken's as "Menlo Park's own pancake house," a place where a stack of pancakes cost 55 cents; a cup of coffee a dime.
Jim Cunningham was there opening day, helping out the owner, his uncle, Ken Pruitt. An ambitious 23-year-old, Jim also had his own restaurant, the Shack, over in Whiskey Gulch. "I worked at the Shack during the day, and came over to Ken's to work at night," he says.
Thirty years ago, Jim bought out his uncle, and he and his wife, Elfriede, have run the cozy and comfortable restaurant ever since, usually putting in long hours six days a week. Elfriede, retired last November, due to health reasons, and she's been after Jim to do the same. Ken's has been a real family affair. All three sons, Bob, Tom and Rick, have worked in the business. Now granddaughter Miriam Mardirosian helps out. There's a lot of loyal staff, too, such as Doris Carey who has worked for Jim for more than 30 years, dating back to Shack days.
Ken's is part of a vanishing genre, the American coffee shop. While immortalized on "Seinfield" reruns, the coffee shop is getting harder and harder to find in our "upscale" communities. A coffee shop is a place with a counter for the single guys, big, comfortable, booths, daily specials, and coffee served in thick white cups. A friendly waitress brings a carafe of coffee and a laminated menu as soon as you sit down. She does not introduce herself as "Joan, your server of the day."
At Ken's you can order a latte and a bagel, but that's not what people come for. They come for "the pancakes that made Ken famous"...15 varieties, from French, with a strawberry filling, to Pigs in a Blanket, (3 sausages rolled in buttermilk pancakes.) Most famous of all is the apple pancake, "apple slices in an egg-rich batter, baked with a glaze of cinnamon and sugar." It's big enough to satisfy a hungry teenager.
Another specialty is the German pancake, "oven-baked Heidelberg style, and served with lemon wedges and powdered sugar." Both take 25 minutes to prepare.
Church on Sunday, followed by breakfast at Ken's, is a Menlo Park tradition. The long bench in the front of the restaurant is always crowded with folks reading the newspaper, clutching their numbers, looking hopefully at the hostess, waiting for "No. 25, party of five" to be called. Ken patrons will remember Elfriede Cunnigham as the pretty blonde hostess, who dispensed the menus and honored their request for a booth.
While Jim Cunningham tried valiantly to promote his restaurant as a dinner house, it remained primarily a breakfast and lunch favorite. His most loyal customers are the retired fellows who eat alone at their regular seats at the counter. Not alone, really. They joke with the waitress and shoot the breeze with other regulars who come to Ken's, sometimes as often as three times a day.
Bob Ackerman of Menlo Park is one such regular. He has his favorite seat, the first one at the end of the counter. He's there for breakfast, often lunch and dinner, too. Joe Giarrusso of Atherton, owner of Quintana Tile Co., has been coming to Ken's for 12 years. "I come for coffee about 6:30 a.m., then back mid-morning for breakfast. My whole crew eats here. We even have our Christmas lunch here," he says.
In coffee shop fashion, there is a comforting special each day of the week, (Ken's is open 365 days a year.) The week begins with veal parmesan on Monday and progresses to roast turkey with dressing on Sunday. "On Tuesday everybody orders the meat loaf," says Jim.
Elfriede has been after Jim to retire, so they can have more time to play golf at Sharon Heights Country Club, where she was women's club champion a few years ago, and to travel. Jim would like to have more time for golf and his family, ("You know, I never spent Christmas morning with my family"), but says he gets a lump in his throat when he thinks about leaving. "This has been my second home."
A lot of his old customers feel the same way. When asked what he would do when Ken's closes June 1, Joe Giarruso says, "I guess I'll go to Ann's Coffee Shop or open my own place."