[Best of the Santa Clara Valley 1997]

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Best of Willow Glen

Willow Glen Billiards and Brew
Smoke Screening: Willow Glen Billiards and Brew attracts a stogie-munching crowd, but considerable energy has gone into an air-filtering system that will help non-smokers peacefully coexist as well.

Best Place to Lighten Up
About Lighting Up
While many Californians turn their noses up at cigarette and cigar smokers, especially in upscale restaurants and eateries, Willow Glen Billiards and Brew on Lincoln Avenue has rigged an ingenious arrangement where good food, health snobs and pole puffers can mingle in harmony. First, cigar smoking is allowed upstairs only. And since smoke rises, the secondhand fumes have no choice but to sift into the building's elaborate ventilation system, which sucks smoke into the ceiling, cleans it and spits it out again. For the cigar lover, WG Billiards and Brews not only offers a selection of 20 cigar brands, but also rents humidified cedar cigar lockers for customers to store their favorite stogies--a quasi-safety deposit box for $195 per year.
1180 Lincoln Ave., San Jose (408/288-9422)

Best Venue for Rock & Roll Fantasies
Tucked in a quiet corner of Bramhall (a.k.a. Willow Street) Park, a giant, camouflaged amphitheater, unbeknownst to most, lies in wait. Middle-school kids cardboard-slide down its sloping, grassy lawn. Families and couples picnic there, men's retreats have held drum rituals, and on sunny days the risqué have been known to strip off their shirts and catch rays. The only sign that this idyllic spot is an actual amphitheater is a wall of stones topped by what could simply be someone's lawn, or possibly a grassy stage. Large, bolt-locked electronics boxes with outlets for amplifiers are kind of a giveaway. While a handful of young musicians have long dreamed of converting the picnic spot into a live music showcase, nearby residents keep the peace by disguising the electrical boxes with pronounced shrubbery.
Willow Street near Glen Eyrie Avenue, San Jose

Best Drive-By Park
Officially this small bit of green along Plaza Drive and Palm Haven Avenue is classified by the city of San Jose as a street median. But a quick drive-by shows that the small forested paradise is the largest, grassiest, most tree-filled street median ever. Nestled smack dab in the middle of Palm Haven, one of Willow Glen's toniest neighborhoods, the amazing median has undeniable potential to become a city park. But surrounding residents haven't pushed the idea or even proffered the suggestion. "I like it the way it is," says Scott Cochran, who lives directly across from the median. "It totally gives it character. I go out there and chip golf balls on it."

With shady glades, sunny spots and dappled areas, the street median makes an ideal picnic or lounging site, except that it's apparently everyone's favorite place to bring Fido for his daily business as well. Maybe that's why the grass looks so green.

Best Salad Graze
Consider the dilemma of the salad lover. At coffee shops, the cook lobs a little iceberg lettuce and pinkish dressing into a bowl and calls it a house salad--the price is right, but that's about all. Meanwhile, at trendy bistros, the chef sprinkles pampered baby greens with balsamic vinegar--delicious, but it takes plenty of folding green to harvest this salad. At John's XLNT Foods, one gets the best of both worlds. At $4.50, the house salad can stand in for a full meal: a mound of hearty greens topped with tomatoes, hard-boiled egg, carrots, cucumbers and kalamata olives. The snow drifts of feta cheese see to it that this is no diet dish, but hey, that makes it easier to give a shrug of the shoulders and order a side of french fries. Surely woman does not live by salad alone.
John's XLNT Foods, 1238 Lincoln Ave., Willow Glen (408/998-1440)

Best Street on Which to Pick a Pasta
Italians have long cooked up major portions of Willow Glen's culinary history, and the pasta tradition continues into the present. Though the area isn't as heavily Mediterranean as it once was, Willow Glen's main drags still boast an array of Italian-accented restaurants. La Villa delicatessen (Lincoln Avenue) and Fratello's (Meridian Avenue) serve up the past with specialties from the old country, while Goosetown Caffe keeps its eye firmly set on the present, mixing classic Ialian touches with such innovations as grilled quail with mixed greens, blackberries and almonds. And at nearby Willow Street Wood-Fired Pizza, the thinking is strictly postmodern: pizzeria roots mingled with influences from around the globe. Cafe Primavera (behind Casa Casa on Lincoln) specializes in collaborative pasta salads that appeal to the purist and cultural villager alike.
Lincoln and Meridian avenues, Willow Glen

Best Place to Eat Cheap
Without Feeling Cheap
While only software engineers can afford to throw down $20 for lunch every day, nobody wants to seem cheap. Luckily, there's Willow Street Wood-Fired Pizza. Between the hours of 11:30am and 4pm, diners can get certain slightly miniaturized entrées--any pasta or pizza, chicken and portobello mushroom sandwiches, veggie melts, garden burgers and turkey clubs--with choice of soup or salad for $7.95. Stick to good old-fashioned water, and lunch is under $10 with tip. Meanwhile, coworkers, clients and friends feel like they're lunching at an upscale spot. Truly upscale dining might only mean an appetizer to calm hunger pangs before the real deal comes.
1072 Willow St., San Jose (408/971-7080)

Best Place to Teach a Kid to Ride a Bike
At Lonus Street and I-280, a peaceful stretch of concrete that dead-ends into trees and bushes, parents have been known to hunch over their child's bike, butt in air, without worry of being seen by a soul. While the view to the left is a graffitied brick wall, Los Gatos Creek bubbles down the right side of the trail, hidden among flora and fauna. Kids can fumble over bicycle wheels with only the birds and salamanders watching. Conditions are amenable, with the concrete worn smooth, so a scraped knee won't include sharp gravel. The path is long enough for a fledgling to get momentum and balance, while sparing Mom and Dad from running a marathon. Cars and trucks zooming down Interstate 280 make it apparent when the trail comes to an end.

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From the Sept. 18-24, 1997 issue of Metro.

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