The return of the Alpine Inn

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The collective disappointment reverberated down Interstate 280 when the Alpine Inn (aka Rosottis — or “Zott’s” for short) closed a few years ago. As of late summer, though, the 169-year-old tavern is back, starting the newest chapter in its history. Though most readily associated with Stanford University (more specifically, Stanford football), the Alpine Inn has had many lives: a gambling retreat for Mexican-Californios, followed both by days as a saloon and then a Prohibition-era “dry” picnic park, and now this 21st century reincarnation.

I really shouldn’t have been surprised when it was nearly impossible to find a parking spot on the third Thursday after the inn’s rebirth. Patrons young and old were flocking back in droves to a place that, clearly, had been missed. Once inside, it quickly became clear that the Alpine Inn is as much the new Alpine Inn as it is the old Alpine Inn. First a word to those longing for the days of square burgers on sourdough…they’re gone. I am sorry for your loss. The pinball machine and jukebox are also gone, as are the posters that used to paper the ceiling. All good decisions, I might add, because my vague memories of the old Alpine Inn were of a place dark, cramped, and chaotic.

Those adjectives definitely don’t apply to the new Alpine Inn. The owners, a trio of Portola Valley families who partnered with the Avenir Restaurant Group, have managed to bring Zott’s into the present while paying homage to the past. Hints of what was, like the tabletops carved by the patrons of yesteryear and the license plates that used to be behind the bar, have been strategically repurposed. Stanford football paraphernalia still abounds, but it’s not just the old guys who are celebrated. Andrew Luck’s helmet hangs pride of place on a ceiling beam next to Plunkett’s and Elway’s.

Yet for all that has stayed the same, the Alpine Inn now has the proper markings of a modern-day watering hole. When your order is ready, you’ll get a text to your phone. There’s free WiFi and a note about safe driving and ride-sharing apps on the chalkboard listing “House Rules.”  Food allergies and a commitment to local ingredients get footnotes on the menu.

The cheery staff kept the long line moving swiftly. While I did check my phone once or twice to make sure I hadn’t missed the “order ready” text, the delay wasn’t egregious for the third week of operations. Despite the crowd, it was surprisingly easy to get a table. That said, we had to be reseated indoors from our first table in the beer garden because of wasps, which was disappointing because we missed out on the relaxed and convivial setting. Wasps, unfortunately, like outdoor eating too.

But what about the food? For those of you still reeling at the loss of that square burger, don’t despair. Though the patty is round, the Painted Hills Grassfed hamburger has great flavor. On the smaller side, I thought it was reasonably priced at $7.95. Then I thought about how it didn’t come with fries. Fries come separately, for $3. It’s a similar situation for the sausage sandwich — the sausage is fine but you’ll get charged $1 to $3 extra if you want anything more than the meat and the bun. Depending on what you order, this menu approach can quickly feel like you’re being nickel and dimed.

Fry-rant over, top marks go to the pulled beer can chicken with spicy purple cabbage slaw. Oddly enough, the crunchy slaw as a side dish was very, very spicy, but on the chicken sandwich, it had just the right amount of heat and flavor. Since I couldn’t try everything on the menu (though the cheeses and charcuterie boards caught my eye, as did the Mexican Street Corn and a fig jam and prosciutto wood-fired pizza), I would say the pulled chicken was the best representation of the expanded, slightly-elevated-but-not-pretentious fare.

Last but not least: dessert. Both offerings — the chocolate chip cookies and banana pudding — are made in house. The cookies were fine, though to this chocolate chip cookie enthusiast, neither exciting nor offensive. What I really appreciated was the banana pudding. It was thick and fluffy in a way that only house-made pudding can be. More than anything, I like that the team went with something different and a little old school. It’s a welcome departure from the booze-soaked bread puddings that seem to have become a requirement of every dessert menu over the last few years.

Overall, the Alpine Inn has made a triumphant return.  The new owners have done a good job capturing the nostalgia of years gone by while upgrading and fine-tuning the overall experience. Now they just need a bigger parking lot.

This story was originally published in the October print edition of Climate Magazine.