CLOSED – Bella Vista, Woodside, California

UPDATEOn August 10, 2013, the Bella Vista closed.

In my last post I profiled a classic Continental restaurant in San Diego, The Imperial House. Let’s continue the Continental cuisine focus by visiting the historic Bella Vista restaurant, in the fog-shrouded redwood forest south of San Francisco, just north of the quaint little town of Woodside. Several years ago I was on a weekend excursion with my girlfriend along Skyline Boulevard when we happened upon the Bella Vista. We were fascinated but it was closed so we returned later for the full fine dining experience. I don’t know why but I didn’t return for many years until a couple of years ago I dined there with friends and it exceeded my expectations for food and service, all with incredible views of the South Bay Area. I just went back with a friend last week and we had a marvelous meal, though the view was just of the fog.

 

image by G3Miller on Panoramio.com

The restaurant started life as roadhouse in 1927, though details of it’s original name could not be found by your intrepid researcher. However, I did find out that it was called the Bella Vista Sky Lounge in the 1940s and 1950s, after what is now the main dining room was added to the original restaurant (which became the cocktail lounge and adjacent banquet room). A review in the San Mateo Times’ Bright Lights column by Lloyd Johnson in 1959 had this to say:

After our last Wednesday evening
Bella Vista Sky Lounge “12′
courser” with owners Nick and
Yvonne Sanisel, we can see why
“Stu” Adams of Bardelli’s and
the Giants’ Horace Stoneham make
the trip up the mountain
to 13451 Skyline boulevard.

Besides being almost at the
top of the world, the club’s food
is clear out of it. Frog legs saute
Bella Vista prepared with wine
was our selection. Add assorted
hors d’ouevres, tossed green salad
and turtle soup to the above,
plus dessert and coffee, and this
“buck” was well spent. Yep,
there’s a cocktail lounge and
banquet space, plus a panoramic
view that’s second to none.

 

In 1965 the restaurant was renamed simply Bella Vista and owned by Bob and Jetty Hogan, who sold it the present owners, the Ward family, in 1977.

 

Bella Vista cocktail lounge, image by Bella Vista’s Facebook page

 

You enter the restaurant through the cozy cocktail lounge with a fireplace (which wasn’t lit on my recent visit on a Tuesday night), past the bar and into the dining room set among the redwoods with incredible views. When you make a reservation ask for a view table if possible, or at least the main dining room because there is another back dining room which may not have the same views.

Bella Vista dining room, image by http://bvrestaurant.com

 

 

The menu is traditional Continental, with emphasis on French classics, some Italian dishes, and American classics like Oysters Rockefeller and Steak Diane, which is prepared and flambéed at a station in the dining room (not tableside, but the steaks are displayed at the table before preparation). Other flambé options are a Steak au Poivre Flambé (Pepper Steak) and Cherries Jubilee. The dessert menu also offers four varieties of souffle, which are the same souffle with different sauces.

Waiter preparing Steak Diane

Waiter preparing Steak Diane

 

Steak Diane

Steak Diane

 

Our meals came with very tasty side vegetables: a potato dish, some pureed carrots, and excellent green beans that tasted like they came out of a local garden. I had the huge lamb shank, which had ultra-tender meat that fell off the bone, served with a delicious rich red wine sauce. I didn’t even need a knife. My friend had the steak Diane, which he said was very tender and cooked to perfection (medium rare).

Lamb Shank

Lamb Shank

 

Service was excellent. The waiters wear tuxedo jackets and bow ties, and know the menu. The presentation was classic and classy, with white linens, a single fresh rose in a vase at each table, and the restaurant’s custom plates.

SAMSUNG

 

Going to this restaurant is not only like stepping back in time, but it also makes you feel like you are on a vacation to the redwood forest, yet it’s only about a 40 minute drive from San Francisco and a 50 minute drive from Oakland via the San Mateo bridge. The food is great, yet pretty expensive but the views and atmosphere of the restaurant make it worth a splurge.

 

Video tour with an interesting historic photo:

 

An excellent recent review in the San Jose newspaper.

 

Bella Vista

13451 Skyline Blvd, Woodside, CA 94062
(650) 851-1229
Open Tues-Sat 5:00pm-11:30pm, closed Sunday and Monday

 

Imperial House, San Diego, California

San Diego’s last holdout for classic continental dining in a perfectly preserved dining room, the Imperial House opened in 1969 (it is still owned by the same family) in a mid-century apartment building overlooking Balboa Park in the Banker’s Hill neighborhood (my old neighborhood). It was great returning there recently to dine with friends from San Francisco who were in San Diego at the same time as me. My last visit to the Imperial House to dine was back in 2003, though I have visited the bar a few times since then.

ImperialHouse5

 

On entering the restaurant from their private driveway (I wish more restaurants had one…it seems more classy than entering from a sidewalk), you are greeted by original maître d’ Felix Galindo, ‘the man who rolls his R’s’, who escorts you past the medieval armor in a glass case into the beautiful dining room of red booths and high-backed chairs, tables with starched white linen tablecloths, chandeliers, wood walls with framed paintings, and Olde English style windows overlooking Sixth Avenue and the park.

 

image by Metromix.com

 

image by Imperial House’s facebook page

 

The menu is classic Continental, including French and American specialties such as mock turtle soup à l’anglaise au sherry, filet mignon Oscar, roast rack of lamb jardinière, chateaubriand bouquetiere for two, and steak Diane, which is prepared tableside. Also prepared tableside are flambé dishes like spinach salad flambé, bananas flambé, cherries jubilee, and café diablo for two. Steak and seafood entrées round out the menu. You might start with an appetizer such as escargot bourguignonne or oysters Rockefeller.

Escargots Bourguignonne

Escargots Bourguignonne

 

We had too much Mexican food for lunch (which is always great in San Diego, by the way) so we didn’t have room for main dishes, but instead opted for appetizers, salads, and dessert. We had both the spinach salad flambé and the Ceasar salad, prepared tableside.

Felix Rinaldi prepares Caesar salad dressing by hand.

Felix Rinaldi prepares Caesar salad dressing by hand.

 

For dessert we had bananas flambé (bananas Foster) with dark rum, brown sugar, butter, banana liqueur, cinnamon, and some 151 for pyrotechnics. Served over vanilla ice cream of course. Delicious!

ImperialHouse3

 

The entire meal experience was lovely, with some pop vocal classics playing softly in the restaurant (Dino, Sinatra, etc.). However, I would ask for a table in the back if entertainment is in progress in the bar because in the front of the dining room it may be possible to hear noise from the bar. The service was perfect, with the waiters dressed in black jackets and bow ties (as seen in the photo). There are dinner specials nightly through the week, such as prime rib on Friday and Saturday, as well as a swell $60 3-course dinner for two including a bottle of wine.

There is a happy hour in the bar with free hot food on Tuesday through Saturday. On Thursdays through Saturdays there is a popular piano player (Rick Lyon) performing classic rock songs to a synthesized backing track, and they serve food in the bar late on Fridays and Saturdays (10pm-12am). They also have a popular dinner theater called Mystery Cafe, which is performed in a room behind the bar (not in the main dining room).

 

Imperial House
505 Kalmia Street, San Diego, CA 92101
Phone: (619) 234-3525
Open 4:00pm-10:00pm Tuesday thru Thursday, 4:00pm-1:30am Friday and Saturday
Dinner hours are limited so call first (I assume they are approx. 5pm-10pm Tue-Sat).