Publication Date: Wednesday, April 07, 2004
Eat at Mike's ... and bring the family
Eat at Mike's ... and bring the family
(April 07, 2004) Kids are welcome at this handsome new neighborhood restaurant
By Jane Knoerle
Almanac Lifestyles Editor
Mike Wallau knows the restaurant business. He started out as a busboy at the old L'Auberge restaurant in Atherton, worked six years at Il Fornaio in Palo Alto, and opened Mike's Cafe in midtown Palo Alto nine years ago.
Last month he moved five miles north to open his second Mike's Cafe at 150 Middlefield Road, Menlo Park. "We've had an overwhelming response. The customers say they're grateful to have us here," he says.
Mr. Wallau believes in neighborhood restaurants where "everybody knows your name." "I did this deal because it isn't downtown. I like the neighborhood concept. I hope people walk or ride their bikes here."
Mike's is also a "family" restaurant. "Family" restaurant usually means a noisy place and a dreary menu highlighted by "Do you want fries with that?"
"I call this a family restaurant with better food. People are surprised you can order more than a greasy hamburger. We didn't want to get too fancy-schmancy, however, because we want kids and high chairs here."
Mike's is also a family cafe in another sense. Mr. Wallau's wife, Ellen, recruits artists whose colorful paintings brighten the walls. His brother, John, is a host. Daughter Chelsea is a cashier, and daughter Taylor, 11, is designing the cover for the kids' menu. "She's won all kinds of awards," he says proudly. His dad, Bill Wallau, well-known locally as an AYSO soccer referee, is a host at Mike's Cafe, Palo Alto.
Mike's Cafe may not be "fancy-schmancy," but it is a handsome restaurant built on the site of the old Late for the Train. The ramshackle 56-year-old building is gone, replaced by a one-story building sheathed in vertical clear-grain cedar. ("We hand-picked every piece of wood.")
Inside is a state-of-the-art open kitchen gleaming with stainless steel. The walls are painted in shades of "merlot" and "chardonnay," and sunlight streams through the many windows and skylights.
Mike's menu features many of the Italian and American dishes that have made a hit in Palo Alto. "Now we have a larger kitchen so we can expand some. We have different specials every day," he says.
The night Almanac photographer Carol Ivie and I had dinner there, I chose the special: halibut amandine with asparagus and mashed potatoes. The halibut, coated with slivered almonds, was moist and flavorful. The asparagus was not overcooked, and the mashed potatoes tasted homemade. A garnish of lemon peel and broiled cherry tomatoes dressed up the plate.
Carol ordered veal piccata, prepared with lemon, capers, garlic and white wine ($16.95). We thought the dish needed a little more snap of lemon and capers.
Pasta is a big item on Mike's menu (14 varieties), so to check it out, we split a half order of mushroom ravioli with goat cheese and sun dried tomatoes in a sage cream sauce ($11.95). It was luscious. The pastas, ranging from penne with chicken breast to lasagna, are all priced $11.95, except for linguine with prawns ($13.95).
Our dessert was bread pudding with Grand Marnier sauce. Good, but the sauce tasted mostly like maple syrup. I preferred the delicious apple crisp we had at an earlier lunch.
The lunch menu includes salads, sandwiches, pasta, and entrees such as salmon filet, eggplant parmesan, and charbroiled half-chicken. A bay shrimp salad sandwich served on toasted sourdough ($8.95) was tasty. So was the Philly cheese steak sandwich, made with roast beef, grilled onions, and Monterey jack cheese ($9.95). The sandwiches came with a choice of french fries or fruit salad.
Late for the Train had a loyal following of patrons who showed up for weekend breakfasts, patiently reading the paper and sipping coffee until they could be seated. The custom continues at Mike's, which is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day.
The breakfast menu offers three-egg omelets and several other kinds of egg dishes; French toast and pancakes; crepes; oatmeal; and traditional breakfast meats -- bacon, ham, and chicken and pork sausage.
Breakfast casseroles are something new to me. A chicken and cheddar cheese casserole is made with red potatoes topped with black beans, chicken breast, cheddar, tomatoes and mushrooms ($9.95). The menu also includes a veggie casserole and a ham and cheese casserole (both $9.95).
The only minus we encountered at Mike's Cafe is noise. Mr. Wallau hopes to alleviate the problem by installing new ventilation equipment in a couple of weeks. The carpeted areas are quieter.
Mike Wallau takes his job as host seriously. He makes the rounds and stops at every table to say hello. How long has it been since you've seen that at a restaurant? The servers are friendly and efficient, and your order arrives quickly. The overall feeling is that the staff of 40 is excited about the new restaurant and eager to make it a success.
It took a year to build Mike's Cafe, but Mr. Wallau thinks it was worth it. "You know, it's every restaurateur's dream to build a place from scratch," he says.
Mike's Cafe is located at 150 Middlefield Road, Menlo Park. The telephone number is 327-MIKE (6453) .
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