Thursday, August 16, 2007

47 restaurants in 47 days: #30, St. Michael's Alley

St. Michael's Alley
430 Kipling St.
Palo Alto

I'd like to be a "regular" at a cozy little restaurant. A place where the food is always a treat, but not so upscale that you need to make reservations far in advance; the kind of restaurant where you could order by closing your eyes and pointing to the menu, knowing that whatever your finger lands on will be a delicious choice.

If I lived in Palo Alto full-time, St. Michael's Alley might be that restaurant for me. It's been around since 1959, according to my friendly waiter, in three different locations. It was the first restaurant in the area modeled after a European coffee house. The name comes from the owner's memories of a favorite London haunt, on an alley near St. Michael's Church.

The interior gracefully combines dark stone floors, sponged pale-peach walls, mismatched crystal chandeliers, bright abstract canvases on the walls,and carved wooden sunbursts over the bar and the kitchen door.

I hesitated to ask for a table for one just 20 minutes before the end of lunch service, but I was warmly greeted and never rushed. The owner of the restaurant was relaxing at the bar with a glass of wine, dandling what must have been his baby grandson on his knee, while other relatives and acquaintances came and went.

There were several tempting things on the menu, but what sounded best right then was a nicoise salad with seared ahi tuna. I admit: I picked my wine by the name. But the Page Mill Chardonnay turned out to be a good match for my salad. (Page Mill is the name of a very busy road that runs through PA. The founders of the winery live nearby in Los Altos Hills.) I'm no wine expert, but the wine list seemed more creative than most, with reds and whites humorously divided by price into "up to 40," "forty-something," "50s," and "60 to the moon."

All of the dishes seem unfussy and familiar: an "ABC" burger with avocado, bacon and jack cheese; a savory tart; chicken Waldorf salad with roasted pear and candied walnuts; fresh potato gnocchi.

My summer stay in PA is coming to a close, so I won't be able to sample the half-dozen other items that caught my eye. (The menu changes with the seasons.) I can imagine a leisurely weekend brunch here, or a romantic weekend dinner for two, or even a weekday meal en famille. I'm sure the pleasant staff would quickly make me feel like a regular.

St. Michael's Alley in Palo Alto