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January 11-17, 2006

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Live Feed - Stett Holbrook

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It's a Mall World After All

By Stett Holbrook

LET'S FACE IT, as well demonstrated in Metro's "Why Us?" year-in-review issue (Dec. 28), 2005 was not Silicon Valley's year.

The Earthquakes left town for Houston. The Shark's season was canceled. San Jose failed to win bids to attract a regional biotech campus and the Oakland A's. And lame duck San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales got slapped on the wrist by the City Council for his garbage contract shenanigans. Meanwhile, the local economy has yet to fully recover from the bursting of the dotcom bubble.

Last year will not go down as a particularly stellar year for South Bay dining, either. The still-wobbly economy makes for a pretty unappetizing environment for the prospective restaurateur. There were a few noteworthy exceptions: Alexander's Steakhouse in Cupertino reinvented the tried-and-true steakhouse concept with an Asian-accented menu that is one of the most exciting in South Bay. And newcomer Gochi, a Japanese tapas restaurant also in Cupertino, scales new culinary heights with its vast menu of rarefied Japanese food with a global influence. But that was about it.

The real success story in Silicon Valley dining continues to be Santana Row. I confess to having a soft spot for out-of-the way, hole-in-the-wall restaurants and an aversion for slick shopping malls, but you've got to give credit where credit is due. The restaurant-themed outdoor mall continues to pack them in with its crowd-pleasing, festive restaurants, high-end retail shops and attractive outdoor spaces. And all that parking doesn't hurt, either. Santana Row birthed several good new restaurants in 2005. Sino, Thea and Consuelo's El Jardin all strengthened the Row's culinary portfolio.

While the rest of the valley's restaurant scene remains tepid, Santana Row is hot because the developers filled it with high-quality eateries instead of the low-grade food court fare typically found in retail shopping centers. And when it comes to Silicon Valley, shopping centers and malls are what's it all about. Except for a few well-preserved downtowns (San Jose, Los Gatos, Sunnyvale), malls are where we shop and eat. They're also appealing to developers because they create an environment from the ground up that's attractive to investors and city planners alike.

Malls and neighborhood shopping centers have long been home to some of the best ethnic eats in the Silicon Valley because rents are cheap enough for restaurateurs of limited means to get established. But Santana Row has proven that more mainstream, high-end restaurants can thrive in a mall environment as well.

If that's the future of Silicon Valley restaurants, so be it. Bring on the malls.

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