Camper is ready to breathe new life into the Menlo Park dining scene.
Chef Greg Kuzia-Carmel, who has cooked in some of San Francisco's top kitchens, and managing partner Logan Levant, former owner of Los Angeles' Buttercake Bakery, are gearing up to open the doors of 898 Santa Cruz Ave. by Labor Day, Sept. 3.
They have renovated what used to be a steakhouse into a modern, comfortable space they hope will be approachable but also bring a new level of dining to Menlo Park.
"We say we want it to be the place you come three days a week," Levant said last week, standing in the near-finished dining room with light pouring in from a wall of large windows facing University Drive. "You join us at the bar one night and then for brunch on the weekends and (also) to have a proper sit-down meal."
Camper — a project with an unusual level of pedigree for sleepy Menlo Park — came about by a twist of fate. Two years ago, Kuzia-Carmel and Levant met in an investor's kitchen. Kuzia-Carmel was doing private cooking for the family, who Levant had known for awhile. He was thinking about what he wanted to do next after his experience at the three Michelin-starred Quince, Cotogna and Outerlands in San Francisco and Per Se in New York City; she was considering where to pursue a new project outside of the oversaturated Los Angeles market.
One thing led to another and eventually, they partnered with Roland Passot of the South Bay's Left Bank Brasseries and La Folie in San Francisco. They took over LB Steak in Menlo Park after it closed in April.
Camper will initially be open for dinner and later expand to lunch and weekend brunch. The menu will feature handmade pastas, roasted chicken, a burger and market-driven salads, among other dishes. Kuzia-Carmel posted a photo on Instagram this week of a smoky seaweed casarecce pasta dish with Half Moon Bay squid, prawns and mussels, potatoes, Calabrian chili relish and "burnt bread."
He promised plenty of vegan and gluten-free options. There will also be a kid's menu. Shawn Gawle, the executive pastry chef at Quince and Cotogna, and others are consulting on the pastry menu.
"We came to this project basically saying, 'we don't have a concept that we want to impinge upon the community; we just want to come in here, talk to the neighborhood' ... we want this to feel like something that was brought about because the people asked for it," Kuzia-Carmel said.
The restaurant's name alludes to the philosophy that everyone should leave the restaurant a happy camper. It also contains references to the restaurant’s California cuisine (CA) and city location (MP).
The cocktail program will offer "eclectic mix of classics as well as interesting, fun creations," Kuzia-Carmel said. The wine menu will have a "sustainable mentality" with an eye toward "familiar" but interesting bottles as well as some rarer, "exceptional" wines.
As you enter Camper, there is a communal table custom made from salvaged pistachio wood by San Francisco woodworker Luke Bartels. The communal table, as well as the 12-seat bar, will be available for walk-ins. Most of an outdoor patio on Santa Cruz Avenue and half of the dining room will also be available for walk-ins. The full menu will be available at the bar and on the patio.
Famed Heath Ceramics did the tilework behind the bar. Hidden underneath the bar are Silicon Valley-friendly electrical outlets and USB ports.
In the back of the restaurant is a large private dining room that can seat up to 60 people. Equipped with AV technology and a flat screen TV, Kuzia-Carmel envisions it as a space for tech companies to gather, hear pitches and hold board meetings. When it's not booked for private use, it will be be used as additional dining space.
The private dining room was designed to feel like part of the restaurant rather than a sterile add-on. One wall is covered in wood and another with a minimalist mural by San Francisco artist Elan Evans.
"The most important thing that we came into this project with was to give this property a heartbeat," Kuzia-Carmel said.
The 4,000 square-foot restaurant seats up to 126 people, including the private room.
As the restaurant gets up and running, Camper will serve dinner, Tuesday-Saturday from 5-10 p.m. Camper will eventually be open Monday-Saturday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. with "all-day brunch" on Sundays.
Kuzia-Carmel and Levant see Camper as part of a new culinary order on the Peninsula, citing peers including Protege, Vina Enoteca, Taverna and Bird Dog in Palo Alto.
"The beauty of this is I think there's a readiness for a new world order of what can become an institution down here," Kuzia-Carmel said. "Nobody (has) really spearheaded that on this side of El Camino.
"Hopefully, fingers crossed, there's a significant, full tank of gas we can take on the highway with this -- really sink in, settle in, get comfortable, get to know people and be a part of their lifestyles for a long time."