News

John Bentley closing out career in restaurant business

 

By Elena Kadvany

After decades in the restaurant business and 22 years of running his eponymous restaurant on the Midpeninsula, John Bentley will hang up his chef coat for the last time come this spring.

The longtime owner of John Bentley's plans to close his restaurant at 2915 El Camino Real in an unincorporated San Mateo County area near Atherton. Now 62, he said the time was right to retire and spend more time with family.

"I might start crying," he said in an interview last week, wearing chef whites and sitting at a table in the restaurant's upstairs private dining room. "This is really emotional for me. ... I have had just an unbelievable run."

Mr. Bentley said he and his wife "made a business decision" to sell the property two years ago, but leased it back to have some more time with the restaurant. The lease ends April 30, 2018.

He has not set a firm date yet but plans to shutter sometime in the spring.

Sunrise Senior Living Corp. has proposed to build a 90-unit residential care facility at the site.

Mr. Bentley opened the first iteration of John Bentley's in an old firehouse in Woodside in 1995. In 2004, he purchased and renovated the historic El Camino Real building, which had housed Fabbro's for nearly 70 years. He closed the Woodside restaurant six years later.

Mr. Bentley, who was born and raised in San Francisco, got his start as a chef there in the 1970s and 1980s. He attended the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco and worked alongside culinary household names such as Mario Batali and Joey Altman. He worked at a 42-seat, French-Viennese restaurant in the city called Lipizanner for years, working his way up from busboy into the kitchen.

On the Peninsula, he worked as executive chef at Michael's Restaurant in Sunnyvale and at the Los Altos Bar and Grill.

Mr. Bentley said he stumbled upon the Woodside firehouse in the 1990s and spent three months in a "protracted" interview process with the owners, the Gilbert family, to take over the space. He remembered writing 12-page papers on why he should be given the opportunity to run a restaurant there, cooking for the Gilberts and having them meet his family. Though he planned to name the restaurant after his daughter, Lee Ann Gilbert insisted that he call it John Bentley's.

He opened the restaurant in 1995 "with chicken wire and chewing gum" but soon found success. He was delighted when a diner called requesting a reservation in the "starlight room" the outdoor patio, decorated with string lights Mr. Bentley's mother purchased the day before the restaurant opened because he couldn't afford $800 to install real lighting.

"For a guy in the restaurant business, to bust your rump to get it open and hear nothing and then all of a sudden when you've finished cooking for the night and to hear that electricity, to hear the buzz coming off the dining room ... it was like magic," he said.

He said he told his staff about the impending closure of the El Camino Real restaurant as soon as the decision was made and none left. Some have worked for him for more than 20 years. Others have gone on to open their own restaurants, including Zu Tarazi, who with his wife Kristy Borrone took over the Woodside firehouse after John Bentley's closed to open Station One. That restaurant has since closed.

Mr. Bentley does not describe himself as a great chef, but rather a good restaurateur and people person.

He said this moment is bittersweet in many ways, but he's grateful for the space he's carved out in the Midpeninsula dining scene.

"What I think I'm most proud of here ... is that we use really good, honest product; we try to do as little to it as possible and, most importantly, we like to think that we serve it in a warm, unpretentious manner," he said. "That's what I feel best about."

Comments

22 people like this
Posted by Martin Engel
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Dec 5, 2017 at 12:01 pm

This is as good a place as any to express my admiration for and my appreciation of John Bentley.

Here’s the back-story. As an old-timer who loves food and cooking, I was taken under John Bentley’s wing in his Woodside Restaurant for over three years. (I must have been the oldest apprentice in the restaurant business, ever!) The French word for my position is: "Stagiaire", meaning trainee, apprentice or intern (Wikipedia).
.
He (and his fantastic kitchen staff) taught me everything I needed to know how to make to become a Prep. Cook (I won’t say ‘Chef’ because I never earned that title.)

I would arrive at 3:am to open the kitchen and start the ovens. The to-do list on the wall was waiting for me to prepare all the things John painstakingly taught me how to make, such as his recipes for Risotto, Crème Brulee, Profiteroles, flourless chocolate cake, crepes, Crème Anglaise, etc., etc. The rest of this list would fill an entire column of this newspaper. Though this was about ten years ago, I still re-tell endless anecdotes of my experiences there.

John was patient and never got angry, unlike TV Chefs such as Batali and Ramsey. His staff kept their eye on me, corrected my mistakes, and saw to it that what I made was up to John’s exacting standards. I would could home totally exhausted, with a messy and stained chef’s jacket, and couldn’t wait to go back the next day. These were some of the best days of my life, and I wish to -- here and now -- thank John for what he did for me.

John and I (being his father’s age) became good friends. We confided in each other. These were some of the best days of my life.

My wife and I still go to John’s restaurant on El Camino and are deeply saddened that such an institution must come to an end.

Thank you, John, for everything you have taught me and for the wonderful meals you have always presented to all your customers.

John joke: “You know how to make a small fortune in the restaurant business? Start with a large one.”


8 people like this
Posted by Alison
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Dec 5, 2017 at 12:40 pm

I have so much respect for John and his Restaurant. I am always impressed with his food and the care he puts into doing it right. And that he has always taken the time to give back to the local schools. He has spoken to many young people about his career and shared his passion for food and feeding people. He will be missed.


7 people like this
Posted by Pam
a resident of Woodside: Woodside Heights
on Dec 5, 2017 at 1:53 pm

I have been a huge fan of John's for many years. Not only is the restaurant wonderful (and my personal favorite), but so is he. I don't think many people even realize how much he has done/donated to the community. We will miss him terribly, but he deserves his wonderful retirement.


3 people like this
Posted by Tricia
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Dec 5, 2017 at 1:55 pm

Tragically, with the closing of Chantilly and now John Bentleys, the only two elegant restaurants close by, we will be driving to Belmont to the iron gate . Loved both of them !


4 people like this
Posted by Judy
a resident of another community
on Dec 5, 2017 at 2:04 pm

John,

It is always so special when we dine at your restaurant, which we have been doing for many years. We had a wonderful birthday event there several years ago!!

You deserve to take it easy after these many years, but we shall miss you and the restaurant. We think it is the best on the Peninsula!! Thank you for the memorable meals.FUWR


2 people like this
Posted by Laura
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Dec 6, 2017 at 9:49 pm

We're really going to miss John and his restaurant - it's been our go-to place for a decade. We're happy for John but very, very, sad for ourselves...


3 people like this
Posted by Joe Andreini
a resident of another community
on Dec 6, 2017 at 10:43 pm

For years now I have been coming back to the Bay Area to visit my old friends and family. I have always looked forward to a night at John Bentley’s while in town. I remember one year that I missed out all together and one year he was not working the night we were there. Both times I returned home with a feeling of emptiness. Not only is his restaurant the epitome of what one seeks in fine dining,from the elegant atmosphere and white table cloths to the spectacular menu, but to have John come visit our table is like adding flavor to our egos. It is clear through his handsome steady swagger and infectious laugh that he has not only put his special expertise and touch into our meal but he also cares about how and why we choose to return and has always had a recommendation both to offer and inquisitively receive. Thank you John Bentley for the food, the conversations, the memories, and the love that you have created in your world.


Like this comment
Posted by Jeanette
a resident of Woodside: other
on Dec 8, 2017 at 11:08 am

Dearest John Bentley and family, thank you for 22 years of dedicated work, of delight with your culinary skills, warm, classy environment and extraordinary kind staff. Loved your Woodside restaurant, enjoyed countless exceptional meals there, and it was very sad to see it close. Had one of my most wonderful birthday dinners at your El Camino location, your high caliber of products, turn every meal into a feast for the eyes and the palate, and your staff along with environment, makes your restaurant a wonderful experience. Happy for you, and your choice of a new journey in life, at the same time heart broken to loose one of the most special restaurants in the Bay Area.... You will be missed. Best of wishes, Jeanette P.


Like this comment
Posted by Jeff Paine
a resident of another community
on Dec 9, 2017 at 10:49 am

Jeff Paine is a registered user.

As an almost 50 year friend of John's and a fellow restaurant owner, I want to congratulate him on a fantastic career. Owning and operating a restaurant requires a passion for your business and customers that is unequaled in the business world. The work and the hours can be grueling and the financial rewards can be hard to come by at times. Spectacular food and facilities aside, John is simply a great person (and a grinder) which has led to his success in maintaining a dedicated staff and loyal customers. Best wishes to John and his Family in his retirement. My wife and I will be sure to make a trip from Reno for one last dinner with John before he closes shop. I'm a bit jealous J.B.!!!


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