Features & Columns

Yard Times

With Michelin-starred dining and classic amenities, a center that grew out of the valley's orchards in the 1960s has been reinvented
SHOOT FOR THE MOON: Alexis Ponce shows off Luna's modern approach to Cali Mexican cuisine. Photo by Greg Ramar

Jo Lerma-Lopez grew up ten minutes away from the Pruneyard Shopping Center. As a kid, she remembers eating the cookies at Mrs. Fields and going to the movies there. When Jo and her husband John opened the second location of their successful restaurant Luna at the Pruneyard in 2019, she admits it wasn't as "bustling and vibrant" as it used to be. "But the bones of it, and the history, that's what attracted us to the Pruneyard," she says.

In 2017, The Lopezes converted the Las Palmas Taco Bar into Luna. The humble taqueria had been on the Alameda for more than 60 years. Two years later, Luna earned a Michelin Bib Gourmand recognition. The Lopezes had started their careers as musicians, eventually opening Upstairs Records in downtown San Jose. But the turn to opening a restaurant had always been in the back of the couple's minds; Lerma-Lopez went to culinary school, Lopez found the location on the Alameda and Lerma-Lopez says, "Everything just came together."

After Ellis Partners purchased the Pruneyard in 2015, the operators reached out to the Luna co-founders to take over the location inhabited by El Burro, a 47-year Pruneyard staple. The Lopezes had established a loyal following in San Jose, but the Campbell location looked promising as a second location in a larger space. "We did have an opportunity to go to another high-end shopping center, but we didn't want to," Lerma-Lopez explains. "We felt like the Pruneyard was more — just our energy." She feels that Campbell residents take pride in supporting local businesses.

The Lopezes are also pleased with the approach the Ellis Partners took to courting their business, as well as the way they thoughtfully brought in new tenants. "They really took a chance on a small business," Lerma-Lopez says. "We are not a big franchise." John Lopez adds. "We were only open [on the Alameda] four months when they approached us."

City Founder

The arrival of chef Jeffrey Stout's Orchard City Kitchen (OCK) predates the Ellis Partners' acquisition. Having made his mark with the Michelin-starred Alexander's Steakhouse in Cupertino, Stout moved his new California cuisine venture into what was formerly a Hobee's restaurant in 2014. "I had been looking for a restaurant spot for quite a while and nothing really popped out," Stout recalls. Evan Low, who was the mayor of Campbell from 2010 to 2014, was instrumental in bringing OCK to the Pruneyard. "There was really no place around that had the history and charm — exposed beams and iron connectors," he says. "You couldn't find that in any center that was recently developed." For him, the Pruneyard stood out as a unique spot.

At the time, Stout notes that OCK was the first wave of "new guys" coming into the Pruneyard. "Our restaurant was independent, farm to table, with a hyper-seasonal changing menu," he says. OCK differentiated itself from some of the more staid restaurants that had been in place for several years. The first year they moved in, OCK earned double Stout's projected sales and a Michelin Bib Gourmand award.

HERE'S THE SCOOP: Lexi Garcia with a cone from Tin Pot Creamery. Photo by Greg Ramar

After seven years, Stout continues "to change things up and make it fresh." He admits that with the arrival of Luna, OCK has to "step up our game" as well. "A rising tide lifts all boats — you try to continually be the leader and not necessarily follow what everybody else does," he says. Across the parking lot a few feet away from OCK, the chef has recently opened a second restaurant, Be.Steak.A.

Stout explains that he looked at other places in different cities, but says he didn't really find anything that would fit with what we wanted to do. Initially, he looked at the Outback Steakhouse location in the Pruneyard, but decided that it was too small.

"We wouldn't have been able to do enough guest counts," he says. In the end though, he and his partners decided to expand the square footage of the space. "Having two restaurants close by is significantly easier to manage than driving an hour to another location." They can borrow cups of sugar from each other, he says. "Knowing what the sales were at Orchard City, we were confident that we could do well here in this particular location."

That's despite what happened during the pandemic. "It was a clusterfuck, not knowing what to do with our format, our menu, our personnel," Stout recalls. They went from a staff of 90 down to 10 employees. It took a while for them to climb back into a normal format of brunch, lunch and dinner menus. "Now, we're almost back to normal as far as the way we do business," he says. As restrictions begin to loosen on dining out, OCK has already started to buzz back to life. When I ate there earlier this month, tables were filled to social-distancing capacity, both indoors and out. Stout's Korean fried chicken and lamb riblets are as delectable as ever.

Stout, who is half-Japanese, started Alexander's Steakhouse about 15 years ago. He says it was built with his cultural heritage in mind, incorporating Japanese influences. Alexander's, he says, was part of a new wave of steakhouses that has since emerged. Wolfgang Puck ventured into the game with his restaurant Cut, and Stout also points to Gozu, the so-called "wagyu emporium" in San Francisco run by Marc Zimmerman. Stout is leading Be.Steak.A in a different direction—what was unique 15 years ago is no longer so.

"I can walk into a steakhouse in any city, and I'm pretty much going to find a hamachi dish there with jalapenos and ponzu," he explains, referencing a signature dish he introduced at Alexander's. "You're going to find lobster tail and four different cuts of Japanese A5 wagyu."

Stout decided that in order to stand out, everything old could be new again. Be.Steak.A is embracing Continental Cuisine and old-world Italy, where pastas are made by hand. He describes the approach to service as formally informal, closer to a family dinner. "We're not circling the table with six servers, crumbing the table between every course."

Creating a Destination

Earlier this year, another Michelin-starred chef announced he was moving into the Pruneyard. Peter Armellino made his name as chef and co-owner of Saratoga's Plumed Horse, but his South Bay food empire has been rapidly expanding since he took a more casual-upscale approach—not unlike Manresa chef-owner David Kinch's foray into Aptos last year with Mentone.

In 2018, Armellino opened Pasta Armellino with co-owner Josh Weeks just a few steps from his highly regarded Plumed Horse on Big Basin Way, and by last year, undeterred by the pandemic, he had opened another in Cupertino. By the beginning of May, the Pruneyard location had launched, expanding Armellino's "casual with an artisan touch" approach to spaghetti, gemelli, orecchiette and more.

Be.Steak.A. Photo by Dan Pulcrano

It's another big move that demonstrates the impact of Ellis Partners' gradual reshaping of the Pruneyard. Dean Rubinson, a partner and director of development at Ellis Partners, says that the most important change his firm considered when they bought the Pruneyard was to shift it from "a vehicular-based experience to a pedestrian" one. They created gathering spaces in the central plaza that were, "pedestrian-focused, to make vehicles feel secondary." Ellis designed more inviting crossings between the different corners of the buildings. They installed paver bricks, and spaces in the middle of a crossing for pedestrians to sit and linger, with blue gorillas for kids to climb on. A bookseller and Pruneyard Cinemas, an independent operation with recliner seats, a kitchen and a bar, served as complementary amenities. The idea was to make the Pruneyard a destination, not just a place to run errands and return home.

Tenant mix, Rubinson adds, is another approach Ellis took to "creating more synergistic adjacencies." He explains that in 2015 the various stores were "disparate pieces" that didn't knit together architecturally or experientially. As they began to look at site planning, they wanted to create "a unified vocabulary on the horizontal and vertical surfaces." New wayfinding signage encouraged wandering rather than a quick return to your car.

Ellis Partners recently flipped its interest in the Pruneyard to Regency Centers, but Rubinson says that they're still acting as consultants for anything related to leasing and construction management. He explains that, "Our intention was to execute a vision and a direction, to be there for the first heavy-lifting phase of the project." Once the Pruneyard was redeveloped and stabilized, they followed up with their intention to sell.

Jenny Bernabe, district manager of Tin Pot Creamery, says that vision has been key to the Pruneyard's success. "The mall really works closely with us to make sure there's always an event or something to encourage guests to visit us," she says. The marketing team consistently reaches out to see if the retailers want to participate in the events. "And they're always making sure that this mall is in top shape."

Bernabe notes that there aren't really any empty storefronts either. The ones that are there complement each other. "We're the ice cream shop. Right across is Luna, Books Inc. and a bakery," adding, "They're not competing with our location." Instead, after dinner, they'll drop by for dessert. The Pruneyard, she feels, "makes sure that the businesses really work well together."

"There's a heart and soul to that shopping center," Jo Lerma-Lopez says. "It reminds me of my childhood and I feel very proud that I'm part of that community." Luna is a minority-owned business. Lerma-Lopez' father came to the States in the 1950s. John Lopez grew up in East San Jose and went to San Jose High School. Lerma-Lopez says that, "For someone like us to be able to have a business here in San Jose, where we were born and raised … we have a lot of pride in that."