Al fresco in Menlo

Sidewalk seating proves popular with downtown diners

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By Jane Knoerle

Almanac Lifestyles Editor

The outdoor dining season is in full bloom in Menlo Park, with sidewalk cafes, patios and gardens open all around town.

Almost every eating establishment, plain or fancy, is sprouting colorful umbrellas and outdoor seating, especially along Santa Cruz Avenue.

While it's no Rue de la Paix, our main street does boast two French-style bistros, nearly side by side, with sidewalk dining.

Bistro Vida, 641 Santa Cruz Ave., evokes Paris with its brick-red walls, classic black and white tile floor, racks of European newspapers, and traditional bistro dishes featured on chalk boards.

Owner Ali Elsafy, who has lived in Paris, Avignon and Provence, has recreated an authentic bistro, right down to the charming outdoor cafe seating. Opened in 1998, Bistro Vida was the first outdoor cafe to offer full sidewalk service on Santa Cruz Avenue, Mr. Elsafy says.

Its red awning, lace-curtained doors, and red umbrellas shading zinc-topped bistro tables are typical of those found all over France. Rattan planters were imported from Paris. "It took seven months for those to arrive," says Mr. Elsafy, who has just returned from Paris, where he spent three months attending Ecole Lenotre.

Sidewalk seating is open all year round, but there are no outdoor heaters. On winter days, guests may choose to sit in the bar area with the doors open to the sidewalk. While lunch on summer days is busy, the 5 to 7 p.m. "happy hour" is also a popular time to relax outside with a glass of wine and listen to French music.

Bistro Vida is open for lunch and dinner daily and brunch on Saturdays and Sundays.

The Left Bank, 635 Santa Cruz Ave., is a French-style bistro with sidewalk seating for 35.

"It's part of our tradition," general manager George Perezvelez says. There are also Left Bank bistros in Larkspur and Santana Row in San Jose.

It's an attractive setting, with red Louis Jadot umbrellas and urns of flowers. It is open all year round, with heaters for chilly days.

What makes diners choose an outside table? "They're dog friendly and kid friendly and great for people watching," he says. "At night, it's dark and kind of romantic. And there's very little street traffic."

The "happy hours" from 4:30 to 7 p.m. are also favorite times for sitting outside.

Mr. Perezvelez is glad our unseasonably cold spring is past. "When the weather turned (warm), we went crazy. For Saturday and Sunday brunches, when the weather is beautiful, we're packed."

Left Bank is open for lunch and dinner daily, with brunch on Saturday and Sunday.

Angelo Mio, 820 Santa Cruz Ave., is all things Italian, from its traditional menu to red, green and white banners and streamers flying the colors of the Italian flag. There is outdoor seating for 18.

Diners may also choose "indoor-outdoor" seating at two inside booths that open onto the sidewalk. It's the best of both worlds. You have comfy upholstered seating and the ambience of outdoor dining.

Angelo Mio is open for lunch and dinner seven days a week.

Two newcomers to Santa Cruz Avenue also have outdoor seating for their patrons. Amici's East Coast Pizzeria, 878 Santa Cruz Ave., which opened in May 2009, has a covered outdoor dining area, as well as sidewalk tables. The "porch" is a popular gathering place, with flower boxes facing Santa Cruz Avenue.

The pizzeria is open seven days a week.

Ristorante Mataro, 827 Santa Cruz Ave., is the latest to join the sidewalk set. Menlo Park's newest Italian restaurant opened last September and features many favorites, such as veal piccata, chicken marsala, and petrale sole.

It is open seven days a week for lunch and dinner and for brunch on Saturday and Sunday.

A Menlo Park tradition

You can't mention the local cafe scene without the presence of Cafe Borrone, 1010 El Camino Real. With the best outdoor seating around, it has been packed since Roy and Rose Borrone opened the cafe 20 years ago.

No matter the time of year, there's always a crowd. The joke is some fans came the first day and never left.

A place in the sun is not the cafe's only attraction. The food is first-rate, and there are all kinds of delicious coffee drinks, as well as wine and other beverages. The restaurant's website describes Borrone's as a combination of an outdoor Italian piazza and a Parisian coffee house.

It is open daily from 7 a.m., and starts serving coffee at 6 a.m.

Lunch in the garden

It's a few blocks from the downtown cafe scene, but you won't find a prettier place for outdoor dining than Cafe Primavera at Allied Arts Guild, 75 Arbor Road.

In warm weather, lunch is served in the Blue Garden, adjoining the restaurant. Diners may be seated at bistro tables surrounding a blue-tiled fountain, or beneath a wisteria-covered arbor.

This time of year the tree-shaded garden is surrounded with blooming blue hydrangeas. Their color is repeated in large glazed cerulean urns.

Cafe Primavera, which took over operation of the Allied Arts restaurant last September, serves an appealing selection of soups, small plates, salads, sandwiches, and desserts Monday through Saturday.

Longtime residents of Menlo Park remember the days where there was no outdoor dining in town. Today, if a restaurateur wants to put tables outside, he needs to get approval from the Menlo Park Planning Department and a go-ahead from the San Mateo County Environmental Health Department.

The county sends inspectors to check restaurants several times a year, says food program supervisor Chris Day. They make sure that food preparation is done in a covered area, garbage containers are sealed, and strict sanitation measures are maintained.

When it comes to outdoor dining, Menlo Park is ideal. No worries about sudden summer showers, few bugs to contend with, and little of the big city's grime.

In Richard Russo's latest book, "That Old Cape Magic," two characters joke about how much they like eating with "Al Fresco." Seems local diners feel the same way about Al. Whether it's a sandwich on a park bench or a salad at a cafe, food just tastes better outdoors.

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