Palo Alto Paradox
A funny thing happened on the way to the core apple store.
Driving into the heart of Silicon Valley, where the tech beat began, I started out touring the grounds of Stanford University and then traveled along their palm tree-lined boulevard, under the freeway, popping up on the main street of Downtown Palo Alto. University Avenue is lined with beautiful, huge canopy trees that are impressive both day and night. They are wrapped in brilliant mini lights, provide shade from the California sun, and what blew me away was that they are all a uniform species and size.
How is that even possible when in Canada we have so much trouble keeping our street trees alive long-term?
The lack of cold winters must be the secret! Beneath these wonderful trees, the street is very inviting with a mixture of retro, historic and modern architecture, a plethora of sidewalk cafes and interesting shops. It happens to look like many other downtowns so far.
In search of Breaky
I easily pull into the angled parking in front of a trendy café, which looks like it will suit my need for morning sustenance. Upon entering I am told they are not open yet, it is a lunch spot, so I ask for a recommendation for breakfast. They refer me around the corner to another restaurant.
As I enter it is like stepping out of a time machine directly into a 1950’s diner! It was so authentic with black and white checked floors, vinyl and chrome chairs, tables, booths and those cool round stools that spin, lining the fountain counter. Vintage touches abound from the metal stamped ceiling, wood paneling, shiny white tile, chrome coat racks, retro pop art on the walls, penny candies in glass jars, right down to the napkin holders and menus!
Not just the look of the menu but the offerings inside were very traditional, old school comfort foods. I looked up from my window seat and noticed a television hanging from the ceiling – no big deal you say – well it was an antique, wooden cabinet style television, legs and all, ripped from my grandma’s living room to hover above us! No flat screens here.
I thoroughly enjoyed my bacon and eggs and pancakes – I am a traditionalist when it comes to breakfast – you can keep your kale smoothies thank you very much. Looking around I honestly thought this diner had been around since the ‘50’s. Either that or they were incredibly committed to the brand they chose and did a very convincing job of it.
The real kicker came when I decided to bring out my laptop to do some work and asked for the WiFi password. “We don’t have any WiFi” was the reply. I was so surprised and wondered again if that was authentic or deliberate. It certainly fit with the surroundings of the diner but holy cow I am a block off main street, the town is ground zero in Silicon Valley, home of Apple!
The irony made me laugh and warmed my heart.
Home of Apple
Speaking of Apple, after breakfast, strolling University Avenue I observed evenly spaced cross streets, but then the pattern was disrupted. Side street on the left, but alas on the right there was no street. Behold the massive glass atrium, arched glass roof and stone walls filling the entire space. The Apple store in all it’s glory, radiating the super confidence of tech giants.
As it turns out it is one of only four in the world with this dramatic design. I have no idea if there had ever been a street there, but it sure looked like Apple wanted a large space on a prominent street, so they created the opportunity by buying the street. Anything is possible in this part of the world!
This glass palace was the type of thing you expect in the heart of Silicon Valley but there were all kinds of different eras celebrated here. One of Apple’s neighboring businesses is a vintage theater building converted into a communal commercial building, complete with a coffee shop in front, a co-working space in back and offices upstairs.
The overall mix gave the downtown its own unique identity, for me, the radical difference between breakfast in the diner and admiring the Apple store made my day.
In fact, the juxtaposition was so intriguing I had to do some research; “The Creamery Fountain and Grill” is the name of the diner and it has been in business since 1923. They have an in-store bakery that makes amazing pies, and the ice cream fountain crafts authentic milkshakes. Their philosophy is “simple food done well” with everything made from scratch.
It also proves out the theory that in any downtown or business neighborhood the more variety in business mix the better. There is an advantage to old and new being together, if everything is new and shiny it lacks character.
If it is more like a family with the old-timers providing stability and sharing wisdom, the start-ups bursting with innovation and excitement, and the dependable, practical ones anchoring the group, then it will succeed.