[Best of the Santa Clara Valley 1998

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[People, Places & Ideas]

They're not for sale, they're inedible and they have little to do with playing games or hearing music. They're the features of our local landscape that have helped mold the character of the valley over the years--the landmarks, public personalities, surprises, projects and oddities that make life interesting. More than that, though, they make this place feel like home to millions of people who can't help noticing that a sense of familiarity resides in the details. We aimed to find the little things people might miss as well as point out the obvious ones. So here they are--the people, places and notions that people rave, joke and sneer about at the water cooler and any other time they're just shooting the breeze.

El Capri

Best Window Without a View
Plopped on a broad paved lot on Monterey Boulevard, the high-'50s-style El Capri fits into its bucolic surroundings about as unobtrusively as a space ship from Alpha Centauri would. Or less--it looks like a top hat tipped upside down. The main attractions are the two-story-tall windows that look out onto the panorama of dusty pickups stopped at the light on Monterey. But with this architectural wonder it's not so much what you see through the glass as the glass itself. On a 40-year-old post card, the restaurant and bar is touted for having "25-foot glass panels, the tallest west of the Mississippi." Behind the massive glass panels, a couple of classic horseshoe-shaped booths and lots of little tables grace the dining room floor. The food is inexpensive traditional Mexican fare served up by the Andrade family, who must be absolutely stoked to be running the most stylish eatery in Morgan Hill.
18625 Monterey Road, Morgan Hill, 408/778-5642

Best Sign of Community Growth
A forest of towering sunflowers and tomato plants the size of small trees kind of makes a person wonder: Is it something in the soil or just a lot of hard work that makes plants thrive in the plots of the community gardens of McClellan Ranch Park? We're guessing the latter. The city of Cupertino rents plots to its residents, who, without the help of chemical pesticides or fertilizers, transform the small, individually fenced-in areas into lush vegetable and flower gardens. Visitors to this park and preserve can not only admire the handiwork of local green thumbs, they can also visit a native plant garden, enjoy a self-guided nature walk or go birding. Brochures for the last two activities can be picked up at the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society office and gift shop, housed in one of several historic buildings left over from the park's incarnation as a dairy farm in the late 19th century.
2221 McClellan Road, Cupertino, 408/777-3149

neon Light on the Fat, Please: No one knows why the little pink guy atop Stephen's looks so happy, but his smile has been lighting up the night for more years than any pig would care to admit.

Christopher Gardner

Best Neon Sign
What is it about neon's glow that brings a little thrill of happiness? Doesn't matter if it's lighting up the Vegas strip or the window of a Double Rainbow ice cream parlor--neon signs always manage to push the kid button in us. Savvy marketers and oh-so-hip artistes have figured that out, and now the brightly colored pipes are showing up everywhere. But none are as good as the signage turned out in neon's heyday of the '40s and '50s. Reflecting the era's innocence, neon winked a promise, not a hipper-than-thou cynicism. Its job was to advertise and sell, using eye-catching colors and syncopated bursts of light. Most of this town's best work found its way into the dump or some lucky collector's attic. But one of the best is still blinking away--that galloping pig above Stephens Meat Products. Given that right below the little porker workers are happily stuffing thousands of sausage casings, one can assume that this particular pig has a good reason to be eternally on the run.
105 S. Montgomery St., San Jose, 408/294-8024.

Best High-Wire Act
The peregrine falcon--which thrives in Manhattan's skyscraper canyons--was just taken off the Endangered Species List, demonstrating that wildlife can sometimes appropriate the trappings of modern civilization. A flock of cormorants--oceangoing birds that look like a cross between seagulls and black ducks--can be seen demonstrating the same enterprising spirit a few hundred feet from Highway 17. They gather almost every evening to perch on power lines above the percolation ponds in Vasona County Park, looking like giant suburban starlings with long, not-quite-graceful necks. Are they commuter-birds that head back over to the crashing waves at night? Were they blown off course by El Niño last winter? It makes a body wonder ...
Los Gatos Creek Percolation Ponds, Highway 17 near Highway 85

Best Place to Skin Dive
Some people believe coincidence is a God-given thing and revel in life's little ironies, and for them the location of the Burbank adult theater is a gift from the Big Guy himself. Sitting smack next to Stan's Skin Diving Shop on South Bascom, the Burbank Theater, an art deco throwback with green tiles and a flushed red lobby, showcases films appealing to the prurient interests of (mostly) men. If patrons get too hot under the collar, next door's shallow pool for testing scuba equipment is the perfect way to dampen lust. Stan's shop sign is certainly no deterrent. "Enjoy diving!" it enthuses.
Stan's Skin Diving Shop, 552 S. Bascom Ave., and Burbank Theatre, 554 S. Bascom Ave., San Jose

Best Place for a Museum
Founded in 1970, the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, set on the rolling golden hills off Page Mill Road, is ground zero for modern computing. The laser printer, graphic interface, networking and other cornerstone technologies all trace their origins to the quiet office complex tucked into the hillside. But except for the humble sign out front, the center still goes on quietly with its research tasks without fanfare. It's only fitting that the birthplace of so much of what geeks hold dear should be recognized in some way. Most people, even lifelong Peninsula residents, haven't even heard of the place.

But Xerox may want it that way. In the '70s, Xerox brass were more interested in beating the Japanese in the copier market and all but ignored PARC's work. The company subsequently dropped the ball on all of its pioneering technologies, which were brought to market by more enterprising folks--like Steve Jobs, John Warnock and Bob Metcalfe. If nothing else, the Xerox PARC should stand as a monument to the myopia of the boardroom.
3333 Coyote Hill Road, Palo Alto, 650/812-4000


Best Impersonation of Cast from The Wizard of Oz.


Best Spot to Catch a Summer Breeze
The old Alviso dock area is one of the coolest places in the valley, literally, with temperatures generally 10 degrees lower than they are in downtown San Jose. Just a short drive up North First Street across 237, this is a good spot for a two-hour lunch break. Walk the levee paths out to the edge of the bay to birdwatch or to take in awesome views of the Pacific Coast hills. Bring a lunch and picnic on the public tables at the marina or walk down a couple of blocks through the old port and cannery district to eat at the world-famous Vahl's Restaurant & Cocktail Lounge, Maria Elena's Mexican Restaurant or the Marina Seafood Grotto. Lucky visitors might run up on Bill Cole at the Marina, who can tell tales of old Alviso.

Best Advertisement for ID Tags
After all these years, the truth can be told: the rooftop Amazon of 13th Street, Maria of the moonlight pallor and strapless gown of indeterminant hue, is not posed atop her eponymous nightclub in the world's longest overhead lift just to attract customers. After calling for him day and night, she, in fact, has thrown up her hands in despair of ever being reunited with her beloved bulldog, Mack, who, unbeknowst to her, is being held captive just a few blocks away over the portal of Bay Area Truck Services. The loyal canine strains at his tethers, bug-eyed and desperate to return to his mistress' side--but judging from all the little Mack lookalikes adorning truck cabs, not too miserable to make the most of having to stand on his haunches 24/7, good buddy.
Maria's Club, 728 N. 13th St., San JoseBay Area Truck Services Inc., 757 Commercial Way, San Jose

Smog Layer

Best View of the Smog Layer
Here's a cheery thought: From the summit of Cow Hill, all four layers of Silicon Valley's smogline strata are clearly visible: deep azure fades into light blue, then gray and, near the treeline, dark brown. But even the noxious haze can't ruin this view. First, there's Hoover Tower, Stanford's red rooftops, the bay, both bridges, Moffett's hangars, the Shoreline Amphitheater, downtown San Jose and the golden mountains that form the other rim of the valley. And second, there's the human scenery that keeps jogging, power-walking and strolling by, undeterred by visions of blacklung. To get to the top of Cow Hill, start at the trailhead at Junipero Serra and Stanford Avenue. The steep path is straight ahead. For the more gentle meander, go right and then left on the paved road, keeping an eye out for the ferocious poison oak bushes. At the summit the view is 360 degrees, and chances are there will be a low-flying raptor overhead watching you.
Corner of Junipero Serra Boulevard and Stanford Avenue, Stanford

Best Gym to See a Judge Sweaty and Half-Naked
Well, not just judges. You can also rub tennis elbows with $250-an-hour lawyers, high-tech executives and cubicle geeks at Capital Club Athletics (until recently known as the San Jose Athletic Club). For rich people the cost of joining is often reduced through the club's generous corporate discounts. For the rest of us, a $250 initiation fee and 99 bones a month allows access to the club's swimming pool, weight equipment, exercise bikes, racquetball or basketball courts and endless networking.
196 N. Third St., San Jose, 408/292-1141

Best Monk's Retreat
Shielded by a pink stucco wall, amid busy streets and adjacent to downtown Santa Clara are the sleepy, sprawling gardens that make up the grounds of the Carmelite Monastery, which is open daily to the public. A visit to the grounds makes for a peaceful walk; bordered by an olive grove and the walls of the monastery next door, wide paths give way to arbors, lawns and rows of roses, all shaded by overarching trees and cloistered in a pleasant quiet.
Benton and Lincoln streets, Santa Clara

Best Second Homes for a King's Mistress
If Madame de Pompadour, mistress of the 18th-century French king Louis XV, had lived in our time, she would have had no problem finding a place to stay if she visited the South Bay. Our area boasts not one but two buildings inspired by Le Petit Trianon, the house that King Louis built for his cookie-on-the-side at the palace of Versailles near Paris. On the grounds of De Anza College, one of the Trianon's incarnations--itself a registered national landmark--houses the California History Center, which offers history courses for credit, exhibits and a library that focuses on California and Santa Clara Valley history. The San Jose ringer for Chez Pompadour, like the original, is called Le Petit Trianon, and serves as a concert hall for local musical groups like the San Jose Chamber Music Society and the Silicon Valley Gay Men's Chorus.
California History Center, De Anza College, 21250 Stevens Creek Blvd., Cupertino, 408/864-8712

Le Petit Trianon, 72 N. Fifth St., San Jose, 408/998-0223


Urban Survival Tip #5.


Best Swallow Rookery
Tucked at the bottom of the foothills just south of Gilroy is Gavilan College, whose wide-open spaces, waterfalls and duck ponds give the sleepy community college a rustic quality and parklike feel. While colleges have long been notorious for hosting a variety of wildlife, particularly squirrels, deer, bats and ducks (not to mention those wacky fraternity brothers!), Gavilan hosts something a little special. Tucked up in the eaves of the chemistry building and the new library resides a tremendous community of barn and cliff swallows. During the day, students can watch these graceful birds swoop across the lawn in a dense cloud, or busily flit to and fro in their tight network of nests. With a little luck, these active little insect-eaters will become as treasured as the swallows in San Juan Capistrano.
Gavilan College Campus, 5055 Santa Teresa Blvd., Gilroy

Best Place to Beer and Barbecue by the River
If the Grange Hall sounds like something country and western you might have read about in high school history, you're right. South Valley farmers and ranchers used to hold political and social gatherings at the Coyote Grange Hall in the '50s; now, it's a catered facility for barbecues, picnics, reunions and music fests. The inside hall has a kitchen and can accommodate 200; the outside garden area comes equipped with barbecue pit, creekside deck, stage area and space for another 250. Coyote crouches on the outer edge of the San Jose sprawl, so you can still see the hills without peering through the smog, or gun your motorcycle down a back stretch of road without running into a traffic jam, or wade in Coyote Creek at a spot where the water is still clean. Hurry, though. The polluters are coming.
412 Monterey Road, Coyote, 408/463-8004

Best Place to Dodge Cosmic Rays
We live in a violent place: cosmic rays are constantly slamming into the atmosphere, producing particles called muons that bombard you and me and everyone else on Earth pretty much all the time. Normally we don't notice, but a Cosmic Ray Detector in the Stanford Linear Accelerator Visitor's Center marks each passing muon with a light showing its general direction and an annunciatory "beep!" It's a little unnerving, but very interesting. SLAC, as it is called, was built in 1962 to shoot electrons and positrons along a two-mile linear electron accelerator to study the smallest building blocks of matter. Quarks were discovered here, and three Nobel Prize laureates made their discoveries at SLAC. Also at the center is the skeleton of a fearsome marine mammal from the Miocene Epoch discovered during the building's construction. A model of the Paleoparadoxia makes it look something like a seafaring hippopotamus with giant jaws and muscular front legs. Tours of SLAC are usually twice a week and reservations are required.
2575 Sand Hill Road, Menlo Park, 650/926-3300

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From the September 17-23, 1998 issue of Metro.

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