Successfully updating a 167-year-old institution isn't easy when generations of customers feel a strong emotional attachment to it.
So when a group took over the beloved Alpine Inn in Portola Valley after its owner died, expectations were high -- as were the fears, that the new owners would create something too trendy, too expensive, too out of character for what had been a casual, down-home hangout for locals for decades.
Judging by the crowds that have flooded The Alpine Inn, known to locals as Rossotti's or Zott's, since it reopened this summer, those fears have been dispelled. Zott's may have new floors, clean bathrooms, free WiFi and artisan wood-fired pizza, but the spirit of the place largely lives on.
The "goal was to make this the best version of Rossotti's that it's ever been," said Greg St. Claire, who was brought in by partners Lori and Deke Hunter, Jim Kohlberg, Fred and Stephanie Harman to restore The Alpine Inn to its former glory. (St. Claire owns Avenir Restaurant Group, which runs Nola in Palo Alto, Milagros in Redwood City and Town in San Carlos.)
Deke Hunter, St. Claire and Fred Harman are all from the area and raised their children in Portola Valley. St. Claire grew up in Portola Valley, playing soccer and baseball at nearby fields and going to Zott's with his father on Sundays. As family lore goes, his dad was a new freshman at Stanford University and had been on campus for all of 10 minutes before his roommate told him, "Put your crap in the corner. Let's go and get a pitcher of beer at Zott's." (They found his father's name carved into a wall during construction.)
When Lori Hunter was a Stanford student, you could find her at Zott's every Friday.
"All the partners that went in on this have been coming here for a long time. We all were afraid it was going to either get closed or be radically changed," she said.
Locals' love for Zott's never faded, but the space itself had, considerably. The new owners undertook a serious renovation project (asbestos removal included), complicated further by the fact that the building has historic status. Over several months, they tore out the tavern's floor, built an outdoor bar, made the 250-seat beer garden wheelchair-accessible and opened up an idyllic, previously hidden view onto Los Trancos Creek, which trickles along the back of the outdoor space. Darts, a beer pong table, cornhole, large flat-screen TVs for game days and live music on Fridays make the backyard a draw for people of all ages.
The original wooden tabletops, picnic tables and benches where decades of customers had carved their initials and names were repurposed into a wall next to the outside bar and a planter for a small herb and vegetable garden. They kept the horse parking out front (a group of locals still arrive on horseback some weekends, St. Claire said) and a plaque marking the "beginning of the internet age" in 1976 when a crew of SRI scientists, sitting at a picnic table in the beer garden, successfully sent an electronic message from a computer.
Inside, the tavern is decorated with Stanford athletics memorabilia donated by an alumnus who went to grade school with St. Claire. One wall is dedicated to framed photos of all of the former owners, starting with Felix Buelna, who opened what was then known as Casa de Tableta in 1852 as a "roadhouse for country men to meet, play cards, to drink and to dance;" to John and Molly Alexander, whose death in 2017 prompted the eventual sale to the group of partners.
Food-wise, the new owners wanted to preserve some of the classics, like the Zott's burger, but completely overhauled the sourcing and ingredients. The burger is now made with beef from St. Claire's own cattle ranch in Loma Rica or grass-fed beef from Oregon. Vegetables are organic and local, including heirloom tomatoes from nearby Webb Ranch. They added salads, a charcuterie plate and wines on tap. The kitchen is led by chef Sean Agoliati, formerly of Los Altos Grill.
Facing some critical cooking limitations -- a too-small kitchen and a lagging PG&E power upgrade -- they brought in a massive smoker from Georgia and a 1942 Dodge Farm truck outfitted with a wood-fired pizza oven to shoulder some of the burden. All of the food and drink is served in compostable containers given that there's not enough space for a commercial dishwasher. (The next project will be to build a bigger kitchen, the owners said.)
They've been overwhelmed by the community response, in a good way. By Sundays, St. Claire said, the kitchen basically runs out of ingredients and the bar out of beer. They're regularly doing six times the volume of the old Alpine Inn at its peak, St. Claire said.
"It reaffirmed what we were feeling," St. Claire said, "that it's such an important part of the community."
The Alpine Inn
3915 Alpine Road, Portola Valley