Long overshadowed by San Francisco, the affluent Bay Area city of Palo Alto is now a cultural and culinary destination in its own right. Considered by many to be the soul of Silicon Valley, innovative energy pulses throughout the small city, which also boasts the best weather in the bay.
Bordering Stanford University, downtown Palo Alto is a vibrant area filled with enough dining options to attract visitors from all over the bay, who arrive on the local Caltrain, which runs from San Francisco to Gilroy. A mix of students, professors, tech giants, young professionals, expats and tourists make up the milieu, and it’s likely you’ll hear a mix of languages as you amble down University Avenue. Here’s our guide to the best ways to enjoy downtown Palo Alto.
The melting pot of cultures found in Palo Alto means there is a variety of dining options that originate from all over the globe. Tai Pan (560 Waverley St) specializes in authentic Hong Kong-style Chinese food, served in a lovely upscale dining room. Dim Sum is also served during lunch hours every day of the week, and includes dozens of choices of specialty small plates that make up the traditional brunch-type meal.
JOYA (339 University Ave) puts a contemporary spin on pan-Latin cuisine, with tapas like braised short rib tacos, empanadas and queso fundido. All three ceviches come highly recommended as well, or go for the sampler and try them all. The lounge area broadcasts important sporting events and serves the entire menu, so grab a seat there if you can’t miss your favorite Bay Area team in action.
Opened by an Italian family that settled in Palo Alto more than three decades ago, Osteria (247 Hamilton Ave) was recently sold to another local family of restaurateurs. But aside from an update to the interior, most of the menu remains the same, as do the two head chefs in the kitchen. Favorites include the chicken parmigiana and veal with mushrooms and artichokes. Hint: be sure not to miss the calamari steak, which can be ordered to share as a starter.
Other restaurants, like Tacolicious (632 Emerson St), have made their way to Palo Alto after originally seeing success in San Francisco. Founded by Joe Hargrave, who grew up making trips down to Mexico and opened the first San Francisco location in 2009, Tacolicious serves authentic Mexican fare in a trendy setting. So far, its Palo Alto location on Emerson Street is the only one outside of San Francisco.
Pizzeria Delfina (651 Emerson St) also opened a Palo Alto location after several successful locations in San Francisco. But the ample space and milder weather means that the Palo Alto location can host special events, especially on its large outdoor patio. In the summer and fall for example, they host Pig Roasts once a month, with unlimited food and drinks. And though the margherita is a bestseller on regular days, it may come as a surprise that two thirds of the menu is dedicated to non-pizza items, which are also excellent. “Our menu changes from day to day, as we roll through the seasons,” adds Craig Stoll, one of the owners. “The ingredients are sourced from the same farms, ranches and artisans as the ones we use at Delfina (in San Francisco). There’s real cooking going on in our kitchens.”
Located on the ground floor of the Epiphany Hotel, Lure+Till (180 Hamilton Ave) is a restaurant and bar that has perfected the arts of craft cocktails and northern Californian cuisine. The bar area is particularly inviting though, with lounge areas indoors and a lovely outdoor patio that is heated on cooler evenings. Specialty cocktails include the Pisco Punch, made with Capurro Pisco, pineapple gum syrup and citrus, while the beer and wine lists include options from local California wineries and microbreweries in addition to imported choices.
If you’re looking for an intimate wine bar, head to The Wine Room (520 Ramona St), which offers dozens of wines by the glass and even more by the bottle. Popular among a more sophisticated after-work and evening crowd, the small space includes a lounge and plenty of cozy nooks for couples or small groups.
Of course no city would be complete without an English style pub. Palo Alto’s best is Rose & Crown (547 Emerson St). Tucked a bit out of sight on Emerson Street, with the entrance facing a parking lot, this laid back pub has dozens of European and local beers on tap and in bottles, including Murphy’s Irish Stout, Fuller’s London Pride, Franziskaner Hefe-Weiss and Palo Alto Brewing Rye-C IPA. TVs screen the most important sporting events and dartboards keep patrons entertained at halftime.
But for more space and watching multiple screens at a proper sports bar, head to the Old Pro (541 Ramona St), which also has outdoor lounge seating and screens in back. This place transforms into a rowdy bar at night, though that is popular among local students, so leave before 10pm or else stay and see the mechanical bull in the corner put to good use.
With the arrival of Pace Gallery’s (229 Hamilton Ave) first permanent location on the west coast in April, downtown Palo Alto has become an official must-stop destination for art lovers. Located on the ground floor of the art deco Cardinal Hotel, which was completed in 1924, Pace’s inaugural exhibition includes a site-specific installation and series of holograms by artist James Turrell.
But the Bryant Street Gallery (532 Bryant St) has also been exhibiting contemporary artists for years. A mix of local and foreign artists working in sculpture, painting and photography have all been exhibited here, including Aondrea Maynard and Jeanne Vadeboncoeur.
Coffee and Tea
Opened by a Venezuelan family, Coupa Café (538 Ramona St) offers every type of coffee drink imaginable, from South American favorites like Guayoyo, a Venezuelan-style Americano and Vietnamese coffee (served with condensed milk) to cold brews, pour overs and four types of chai lattes. The first location, opened in 2004 on Ramona Street, proved so popular that they have since opened eight other locations in the Bay Area with more plans to expand. “We wanted to give people the warmth of a coffee shop with a nice ambiance, where you could do everything—have a cup of coffee, meet a friend for wine, eat dinner or have a meeting with an investor,” says one of the founders Camelia Coupal. Watch closely and you might even see the next big tech deal being made.
That line you see coming out of Forest Avenue in downtown Palo Alto is for Philz Coffee (101 Forest Ave), a coffee house focusing on drip coffee (you won’t find any espresso here) with unique blends that have names like “Ambrosia” and “Canopy of Heaven.” Owner Phil Jaber, who grew up around coffee culture in Ramallah, ran a corner grocery in San Francisco, but transformed it into Philz in 2003 after decades of teaching himself about coffee. With a cult following in the Bay Area, Philz now has dozens of locations.
Bubble tea also known as “boba tea,” named for the tapioca balls that typically come inside it, is a sweet ice tea originally from Taiwan. Based on its popularity with the locals though, it could easily be mistaken for a Bay Area specialty. Located near the Caltrain station, T4 (165 University Ave) allows guests to choose their level of sweetness and has dozens of flavor options, which can be made with or without milk and tapioca.
For tea from around the world, head to DAVIDsTEA (318 University Ave), which sells dozens of verities of tea from Asia, South America, the UK and Europe. Once you’ve enjoyed your drink, browse the huge collection of tea and tea accessories, or take home a bag of freshly scooped loose leaf and recreate the experience at home.