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Artist and sandwich maker displays both of her talents at The Sourdough Eatery

By Joe Mangelli

What if a young girl went to Paris to study painting but had to support herself by dancing in the Folies-Bergère for three years? Let's say her father was a chef at the Brown Derby in its Hollywood heyday and her seduction by the muses was inspired by his delicate crafting of ice sculptures. And for good measure, she becomes a model for the Academy Award-winning Edith Head, wearing dresses made with Grace Kelly in mind. Accompanied to the Oscars by Milton Berle ...

No, this is not a pitch at the Polo Lounge to a producer in some flickering past. It's the true life-story of Barbara Lenhart, owner of The Sourdough Eatery on North First Street. This brick oasis in the center of San Jose's drab Civic Center boasts one of the largest patio dining areas within miles. On a bright, sunny day it's a respite from the numbing machinery of county and city offices just across the street. Grab a sandwich, plunk down at a table next to a fin de siècle streetlight, wagon wheels and street signs, and you're in Santa Barbara for 35 minutes. This sandwich shop has been here for 21 years, the building for more than 100. Inside, it's cafeteria style: order by the number, pay perhaps a bit much--about $7 per sandwich--and have a seat in one of several tiny rooms on furniture too heavy to move ... and eat with Oprah or Hillary or Kathie Lee or even Buddy the Presidential Dog staring down at you.

It's difficult to imagine finding as much art displayed in such small spaces as you will find here. Every bit of it, from huge seascapes to naughty blondes in skimpy outfits, is painted by Barbara. She also mans the cash register with husband Michael or can be seen making sandwiches. Every sandwich is crafted on hot, shimmering, home-baked sourdough bread, and most meats are cooked in house. The No. 4 (top-round beef, Idaho ham and turkey breast) is the bestseller. There are more than 20 choices, from corned beef (Reuben) and German salami to the Veggie (lettuce, cucumbers, peppers, carrots, tomatoes and Swiss).

Perhaps Barbara could have painted presidential portraits for, say, George Bush Sr., and he would have loved one so much he'd hang it in his library in Texas. Maybe invite her to the White House ... Reality check! She did. He did. Barbara and Michael went. In fact, Barbara painted a portrait of President Clinton with JFK in the background and presented it to him at the Fairmont when he was first in town. He loved it. Sent her a picture of Hillary to paint. She did that, too. A copy is hanging on the wall as you enter the old house. Some things really are stranger than fiction. The Sourdough Eatery is at 848 N. First Street, San Jose (408.295.7709).

Other Local Notables

Zagat, the consensus-based dining guide, has just published its millennial edition of the San Francisco Bay Area Restaurant Survey, a guide covering 799 restaurants from Napa to Carmel. Nearly 3,000 diners participated this time. Once again, Nancy Oakes' Boulevard in San Francisco retained its top ranking in "popularity" and Yountville's French Laundry was first in "food." In the South Bay, David Kinch's Sent Sovi (14583 Big Basin Way, Saratoga, 408.867.3110) moved from 10th last year to No. 8 for food. It was named "the perfect small restaurant." Spago Palo Alto (265 Lytton Ave., Palo Alto, 650.833.1000) was the top-rated "best newcomer."

Though not listed in the survey, Zibibbo in Palo Alto should have a category all its own: "multimedia restaurant and banquet facility in the heart of Palo Alto's brain trust." No other restaurant in the area can seat 120 people (350 stand-up reception) in a private space of nearly 3,000 square feet, replete with Internet access, conference-call capacity, drop-down screens, laptop connections and good food, too. The restaurant is at 430 Kipling St., Palo Alto (650.328.6722).

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From the December 9-15, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.




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