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Little River WineryI don’t think anyone’s claiming that the recession has bottomed out, but there are three signs of new business activity on Main Street, two of them food/beverage related.  The first and probably most dramatic is that the Pleasanton Hotel will have a new restaurant — The Farmer.  According to Assistant Manager Beth Salazar, remodeling of the space has begun, and they hope to open by mid-July. No word on cuisine but expect a bar, music, and banquet rooms.

Further south on Main Street, Little Valley Winery, presently in Sunol, will either be moving to Pleasanton or opening a second location for its tasting room and light meals, according to an alcoholic beverage permit application posted at the site, which is the Los Pilares building at 739 Main, currently under renovation.

Rick's PicksAlmost next door, past the vacant lot formerly occupied by the Union Jack Pub, the third development is at 719 Main, where a discount retailer, Rick’s Picks, will occupy the space which was formerly Cattelan’s Antiques.  The building was recently re-roofed and partially remodeled.  According to a job ad, Rick’s Picks is a fast growing high-end discount store that primarily sell brand names at 40% to 80% off regular retail prices. […] We sell home décor, housewares, furniture, books, toys, candles, children’s clothing and much much more.” Their current store is in Danville and this would be a second location.  It does not sound as upscale as Domus, a non-discounter which was very popular but ultimately not able to remain in business on Main Street, but might expand the range of products available downtown without needing to drive to a big-box store in a shopping center.  On the other hand, if it’s something like Tuesday Morning, it might provide an eclectic but not particularly consistent selection. Rick’s Picks expects to open by July.

The election is a little more than three weeks away, and this is one of the most important – perhaps the most important – of this era. This is a time of crisis, and what takes place in Washington (and Sacramento) will have significant effect on our town, its economy and finances, and our ability to continue to enjoy eating out and shopping at our local businesses. I’m an independent voter, not a member of either of the major parties, but this year I think the difference in the party tickets and platforms are very significant.

President and Vice President of the United States: Barack Obama and Joe Biden. This is a very clear choice. We need a sharp break from the Republican policies that have led to the current financial crisis, the loss of individual rights and privacy at the hands of the government, and the tragic and costly war in Iraq.

Congress, 11th District: Jerry McNerney. Rep. McNerney has proven to be an effective and well-respected member of Congress in his first term representing Pleasanton and the surrounding area. He has taken the lead in programs promoting alternative energy and balances local and global concerns.

Mayor of Pleasanton: Jennifer Hosterman. During Mayor Hosterman’s tenure, Pleasanton has been one of the most successful, prosperous, and agreeable small cities in the United States. There is every reason to believe that would continue if she were elected to another term.

Pleasanton City Council: Jerry Pentin. As a local businessman and member of the Parks Commission Pentin has shown good judgment and would be an excellent addition to our council. (Howard Neely would as well, but he has withdrawn from the race for family health reasons and has endorsed Mr. Pentin.)

City Measures: No on PP, Yes on QQ. While they are somewhat similar, the Council’s measure (QQ) is superior in preserving open space through an open public process. It is endorsed by Mayor Hosterman, Councilmembers Thorne and Cook-Kallio, and former mayors Tom Pico, Ken Mercer, Bob Butler, and Bob Philcox, as well as a list of other dedicated Pleasanton public servants and advocates.

The old Kolln Hardware buildingThis last year has brought an unusual number of changes to Main Street, reflecting economic stress and turmoil all over America (and elsewhere). Some changes (like the renovation of the old Kolln Hardware building) have been in progress for quite a while; other were more sudden or unexpected.

Like many other people, I was initially disappointed that the Kolln building, which is being lovingly restored to Victorian glory, would be home to a Comerica Bank branch. Banks clearly have their place on Main Street, and I’m glad Wells Fargo returned earlier this year. But the problem with a bank in the Kolln building is that it would essentially limit its use to those who bank with Comerica. (Which is not to say that Comerica would not welcome visitors, or perhaps even host a historical display.) Retailers attract a broader spectrum of local residents and visitors, and — yes, I know, I always say this — a specialty food retailer like A. G. Ferrari or Dean & Deluca would have been ideal.

But these are difficult times in commercial real estate, and banks are attractive, stable tenants. (At least until very recently, and Comerica has made efforts to assure Pleasanton of its stability and longevity.) So I can’t really blame the owner, and who knows what other offers (if any) he got?  Most recently, there seems to have been a rather silly attempt to keep the bank from putting an ATM on the exterior of the building, but the Planning Commission wisely approved it. One odd note from that story was that the possibility of Division Street becoming two-way was mentioned, which differs from at least one artist’s conception of the Firehouse Arts Center plans that I saw, in which Division was to become a pedestrian street. (I hope that’s the case.)

Elsewhere up and down Main, there have been plenty of developments. DAYart Studio, which had been vacant for quite a while, will apparently become a clothing (?) store; home store Domus held a lengthy going-out-of-business sale and finally closed (now, that would be a wonderful site for a local grocery, which is what the building originally housed); Silver Palate closed somewhat abruptly, and a liquor license transfer notice appeared in the window promising a new restaurant, but disappeared shortly thereafter — I hope the deal is still on.  (I enjoyed Silver Palate on my two or three visits; their relaxed and casual Sunday buffet brunch was a nice alternative to the very elaborate spread at the Pleasanton Hotel.)  The former Century 21 Realty storefront remains vacant as well. A bit farther north, Oasis Grille has expanded into the full ground floor of the Coffee Roast building, with a wine bar, and finally seems to be catching on.

Site of the former Union Jack PubAcross the street, the vacant lot where the Union Jack Pub formerly stood has lain fallow for quite a while. A Pleasanton Weekly article in July 2007 said that a developer would be building a two-story “Monterey-mission style” restaurant designed by prominent local architect Charles Huff, but after the parcel was graded, no further work has appeared. This week, however, the chain link fence sported a colorful banner (from the Downtown Association? The Chamber of Commerce?) urging Pleasantonians to “Shop Local”.

Next door to the vacant lot, Cattelan’s Antiques gave up the ghost some months ago. Its building remains vacant, and would probably need significant remodeling for a new retail tenant.  Down the street a bit, Coffee Beans ‘n’ Things is papered over, but it is supposed to be the site of a restaurant or cafe operated by the owner of Baci.  While Coffee Beans was favored by a number of locals and occasionally hosted music and readings, I preferred Tully’s across the street — where I’m writing this right now — which, although a chain, is very comfortable and has a friendly staff. I don’t think it was Tully’s that killed Coffee Beans, but more likely its bizarre and unpredictable opening hours. (On summer Friday and Saturday evenings, the corner of Main and Angela attracts a crowd, but Coffee Beans was often dark.) A bright spot nearby, just off Main, is the new-ish 55 West Angela building, with wildly popular Amelia’s Deli-Bistro and a number of clothing and specialty retailers.

Which brings us to the issue of chains. I don’t believe that Pleasanton has an anti-chain store ordinance (correct me if I’m wrong) although city council members have often spoken against chains and big-box stores.  Since Pleasanton is lucky enough to have both a traditional Main Street and a number of shopping centers (an enclosed mall, and several large-scale open centers and strip malls), we get the best of both worlds. You can find almost every signficant retail and food-service chain represented in Pleasanton or neighboring Dublin. Stores open and close and shuffle around, but you can find pretty much anything you need.  Consequently, there’s less pressure to locate chain stores on Main Street. Other than the banks, there are relatively few chain outlets on Main.  I don’t propose remaking Main Street, but — in addition to the specialty food retailers I’ve mentioned — a hardware store, a home store like Pottery Barn, and an electronics or music retailer might not be a bad addition to downtown.

Having seen economic wreckage in less prosperous cities and towns elsewhere, including here in the Bay Area, Main Street (and Pleasanton as a whole) seems to be dong pretty well, considering. On the other hand, this is probably not the bottom of the market, and just from casual observation I’d guess that restaurant receipts on Main Street and elsewhere are down quite a bit. (One measurement is the ability to get a table without a reservation or wait at popular spots.)  We’ve clearly been fortunate so far, but I hope the current unsettled climate does not destroy the character of our Main Street.

On Friday afternoons I’m usually downtown, often sitting in Tully’s Coffee before dinner. Summer Fridays in downtown Pleasanton tend to be crowded, with the free concert in Wayside Park and the outdoor dining scene on Main Street. I had a hankering for some authentic Chinese food, in specific, a restaurant in Milpitas Square called Nutrition House. It’s one of my favorites, and I’d passed it by the day before on the way home from a meeting in San Jose, but was willing to head all the way back down there and pick up some some takeout.

I packed up and got in the car, which was parked in the sun at the corner of Main and Angela St., and it was no place to try to read the takeout menu. So I drove a couple of blocks west of Main and turned onto a side street, and parked in the shade in a residential neighborhood, and began to peruse the menu. (It’s truly impressive, about 10 pages long.) I had come to a tentative conclusion about what to order after a few minutes, and had my phone out, when out of nowhere came a woman in her 40’s, who knocked at my car window. I rolled it down a little, and as soon as I did, she asked, “Do you have friends or family in this block?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“I’d like to know who you are and what you’re doing here.”

“I’m sorry… am I blocking your driveway?” (Well, I thought I was legally parked…)

“I’m with the Neighborhood Watch, and we like to keep track of what’s going on in the neighborhood.”

I confess was too flabbergasted to engage in any repartée, so I explained that I was ordering takeout Chinese food.

“And you decided to do that here because…?” The tone of her voice was exactly that of Dana Carvey’s “Church Lady” character.

“…because trying to drive and order food at the same time might be a little difficult.”

She seemed to soften a little bit, and said, “Well, I’m glad you don’t drive and talk on your cell phone at the same time.”

“Actually, I do drive and talk on the cell phone all the time,” I replied, turning my head to reveal a Jawbone Bluetooth headset, “but I don’t drive, talk on the cell phone, and try to read a Chinese takeout menu at the same time. That would be a bit much.”

So, we exchanged a few pleasantries, I introduced myself, and she stood there looking dubious for a moment, and then walked off. I can only imagine what nefarious mischief she suspected me of (casing houses to burgle? looking for children to abduct?) and briefly considered a facetious reply along those lines, but thought better of it, not really wanting to have to answer questions from a sheepish and embarrassed police officer.

The incident left me with an odd feeling. While I generally support neighborhood anti-crime activities — including Neighborhood Watch — being questioned by the block’s Mrs. Nosyparker as to my identity and business while legally parked on a public street was somewhat intrusive and a bit creepy. I asked her if there had been any specific incidents that led to her suspicions of strangers, and she demurred, saying that she kept a watch on everyone. Indeed.

In any case, the second odd (though not unexpected) encounter was when I called Nutrition House a few minutes later. I had the menu, which is organized into sections with letters, and was going to try to order S5, S7, D15, and B37 (I think; the first two are northern dim sum small plates), but unfortunately, no one who answered spoke enough English to take the order. I apologized (when I’m there, pointing and using the few words of Chinese I know works fine) and said I’d come there another time. It’s a very Chinese Chinese place; the English name of the restaurant is never used (and isn’t even on the sign, I don’t think); it’s really called Wu bing er yu, “Five loaves, two fishes” and its web site is www.5bing2yu.com.

So I decided to get sushi instead. Senro is my favorite, but it’s difficult on Fridays unless I’m on foot or at Tully’s; having given up my downtown parking space, I wasn’t going to get another, and their lot is almost always full. So I headed up to the other sushi place I like, Tomo, and got a nice takeout plate of rolls and sashimi.

Another freaky Friday in Pleasanton, I guess.

zagat2008Well, the 2008 edition of the Zagat San Francisco Bay Area Restaurants guide is out, and there’s not a single Pleasanton restaurant included. Even Dublin made the grade (albeit only with chain locations of Amici’s Pizza and Casper’s Hot Dogs), and Livermore’s Wente Vineyards was justifiably featured, and San Ramon checked in with Cafe Esin (which I mean to try). But despite my write-in efforts (Delatorre’s Trattoria, Claude & Jacqueline’s Bistro, Casa Madrid, and Mahalo Grille) we’ll have to wait until next year. Even though I didn’t write it in since I haven’t been in several years, I expected Blue Agave Club to be included — it gets a fair amount of buzz, it’s in a historic building, and as a comment pointed out, many people consider it a destination restaurant on its own.

Musings on what Pleasanton lacks in the food department, in no particular order:

  1. A destination restaurant. Sure, there’s plenty of good food in town, but given the demographics it would be nice to have something truly excellent and innovative, the sort of place that might get a Michelin star. (Were any places in the 680 corridor awarded stars in the new edition?) I see why a high-end ownership group and established chef might worry if suburbanites have sufficiently refined palates (or whether city dwellers would brave the long drive), but right now it does not seem like anyone is even trying.
  2. A good market. Pleasanton is a food retailing wasteland. We have the chains, of which Raley’s/Nob Hill is clearly the best, and then there’s Gene’s Fine Foods, which has a good meat and fish department, a decent selection of non-perishables, but not much in the way of prepared foods. And Main Street no longer has a single food market (although the weekly farmer’s market on Angela St. is lovely). While something like Draeger’s might be too much to ask for, it seems like the nearest quality market is Lunardi’s (née Andronico’s) in Danville. While I get to San Francisco weekly (and shop at Bryan’s, Cal-Mart, or Mollie Stone’s) and to the Peninsula from time to time, why isn’t there good shopping right here in town?  How about a Dean & Deluca or even an A.G. Ferrari?
  3. A real Vietnamese restaurant. Most ethnic cuisines are well represented in Pleasanton, but for anything beyond Pho Hoa’s limited menu of pho and bun, you have to hear for Livermore or Fremont. (There was a short-lived place called Saigon on Santa Rita Rd. in the pace formerly occupied by Blessings, but it’s now a Korean restaurant that I haven’t tried yet.)
  4. A Greek restaurant. It seems that there’s an Italian restaurant on every corner in the Bay Area, but precious few Greek places. After Bert’s Hofbrau on Main St. closed, the papered-over windows had a liquor license application notice for something with a Greek name (Agora Bistro?)