WALKABOUT II: Our Culinary Neighbors
(March 31, 2024)

My blog’s Walkabout series takes me out and about our retirement community’s Portola Valley neighborhood. Visual impairment has terminated my driving but spurred me to explore on foot. Although our small town is more rural than suburban, within a mile of our campus can be found a grocery store and a farmers’ market, a public middle school and a Benedictine prep school,  two restaurants, town-government offices, a public library, an auto mechanic and a fire station. A bounty of opportunities for getting better acquainted.

This month I visited our two neighborhood restaurants. One well-established and respected, the other just starting up, both are owned and operated by immigrant couples. After introducing myself and my blog project, I was invited for cordial, candid conversations with the owners. Their small-business histories and strategies were fascinating. Their personal life stories were inspirational.  


            I asked Hope Petkopolous what two or three words she might use to capture the essence of her popular restaurant. Nancy and I have enjoyed multiple evenings at the Parkside Grille. In preparing for this blog conversation, I read reviews and skimmed their website. Recent menu specials included Rigatoni ala Vodka, Slow-braised Pork Osso Bucco and Line-caught Wild Alaskan Halibut. I expected to hear “gourmet,” “fine dining,” or “well-respected.” I couldn’t have been farther off-target.

            “A neighborhood kitchen.” The owner’s smile confirmed she was detecting my confusion. “What’s the favorite room in your home?” And answering her own question without hesitation, “For us, it’s always been the kitchen. And why do folks gather there? Cooking aromas, for sure, but also the shared family space. The Grille is our family space.”

            I felt an immediate understanding of the magnetic hospitality Hope was evoking. In my parents’ home, no one chose to sit in the formal living room. No one drifted to the dining room until dinner was served. Almost always, family, friends and guests gathered in the den. Snug, cozy, with a warm fire in the fireplace, comfy furniture, tall shelves stocked with books and pewter, a bay window at the front. Without discussion, this was where folks wanted to be.

            Still, I wasn’t quite convinced by Hope’s metaphor. In a restaurant, the customers never enter the kitchen. And even in upscale Silicon Valley, a household kitchen doesn’t have 150 seats. To give me a clearer impression of the hospitality she and her husband are striving for, she switched from architecture to relationships.

            Three Parkside Grille Families

            The Petkopouloses. Hope and Bill are both immigrants. She came to America from Korea at the age of four. Her relatives were already settled in New Jersey and New York City, owning commercial real estate and operating restaurants and grocery stores. Hope’s father died young. Two strong women in her family stepped forward as matriarchs. Her grandmother held their households together. Hope’s mother took over leadership of the family businesses. From her earliest days, Hope had female role models to respect and emulate.

            Bill emigrated from Greece at the end of his teens. (He came over as “Vasilios.” Hope was always “Hope.”)  Bill’s family was also in the New York restaurant business. Their two cultures were widely divergent but shared strong core values — what Hope calls “home, God, family and hard work.” Also shared were firm commitments to education and English fluency for the new generations. Bill was recruited by Syracuse University on an athletic scholarship, where he played striker on the varsity soccer team. Hope was a student there too. The young couple met, soon married, started their own restaurant business and began raising two children.

            By this time, Hope’s mother was living in California and loving it. Bill and Hope decided to make the same move. She flew West with the kids in 1999, while Bill focused on selling their East Coast home and business. Then he joined her in the San Francisco Bay Area, and the couple began investigating restaurants for possible acquisition. This was a serious project: they spent a full year and evaluated “60 to 70” properties. In 2000, they purchased the Parkside Grille in Portola Valley. “The numbers were right,” but she was most attracted by the site’s calming green vista and surrounding redwoods.

family of three            Twenty-four years later, the restaurant is still a Petkopoulos-family enterprise, with all hands on deck. Bill serves as CEO, with overall responsibility as well as specific Back-of-the-House roles including finance, cuisine (recipes and cooking,) supplies, inventory and mechanical systems. He takes particular care to procure top-quality, locally-sourced, organic ingredients. He even designs guest plates to balance protein, vegetables and carbohydrates.

            Son Aristotle (“Ari”) is General Manager, in charge of daily restaurant operations, including staffing, scheduling and payroll. Hope works in the Front of the House, in charge of guest reservations, greeting, special requests and special occasions. Daughter Nikki works part-time, covering marketing and communications. Away from the restaurant, Nikki pursues her other career as a screenwriter. The whole quartet participates in ad hoc troubleshooting.

            “Many guests think I’m just the hostess. That’s fine. It’s not about me; it’s about us. I tell my staff to think of me as their Mother Duck: calm above the surface, paddling full-speed below. And in fact, 70% of what we do occurs behind the scenes and before opening hours. It’s like a theater production.”

            She added that both children tried out independent careers in New York City: Nikki in the theater, Ari in advertising. They came home two years ago to rejoin the family business. It was a mutual decision warmly endorsed by all.

            The Staff. The Grille’s second tightly-knit family is 29 strong. The core kitchen crew has remained intact for all 24 years since opening.  

            The proprietors’ chief hiring criteria include experience in comparable establishments, solid references, and a compatible commitment to offering top-quality food and service. Trying to recruit on the cheap is never considered.

            The couple devotes sustained time and effort to building a harmonious, integrated team. In training and mentoring, Bill and Hope emphasize to the mostly immigrant newcomers that they too are immigrants. They understand the struggles, the pressures and the vulnerabilities. They are also American citizens. The owners know these ropes. They can share personal experience in how to navigate this transition successfully.

            The Guests. Hope never uses the word “customer.” Guests are welcomed “into the neighborhood kitchen” with an aim of retention. Eighty-three percent become repeaters. They make up the restaurant’s third family. Most are older. Most appreciate fine dining. The proprietors track these demographics in order to offer custom-tailored service.

            Hope commented that maintaining this standard requires coordinated alertness by the whole serving team. Many guests like personal attention: being recognized when they return, having their favorite seating, dishes and drinks. Being awarded the invisible badge of “a regular.” But when most customers are regulars, that translates into special treatment for all. There are no second-tier tables.

            She knows that Nancy and I are residents of the Sequoias retirement community down the road. She referred to our community to illustrate her team’s commitment to personalized service. Many seniors use walkers and can’t easily navigate stairs. Many have hearing problems, aggravated by ambient noise. Yet not all, in her experience, are comfortable calling her attention to their special needs when she greets them on arrival. If alerted in advance, when a party makes a reservation, she can reserve a quiet nook or stair-free access, without calling attention or causing embarrassment. Small dining spaces are appreciated by almost everyone, but especially by elders.

            Hope emphasized that all three Grille families are linked by relationships. “We’re not in the business of eat-and-run. We want first to offer a satisfying evening and then for that satisfaction to become a pattern, and an expectation. If that’s going to happen, all three families have to contribute.” Again, I recognized what she was advocating. When Nancy and I lived in central Italy, every village trattoria could have signed this same service pledge. Mom or Dad worked in the kitchen. The other spouse managed the Front of the House. Often kids helped with serving. Fresh, tasty, seasonal and regional cuisine was on offer. A warm, homey atmosphere, preferably a fireplace. The trattoria diners’ experience was as important as their meal. And the bill was always slow in coming. You don’t give guests the bum’s rush. 

            COVID’s Impact

            Hope traced how COVID hammered the Grille (and in fact the entire food-services industry.) Diners stayed away from commercial gathering places. Supply chains were snarled, deliveries of perishables delayed. Soon, the Petkopouloses had to cancel lunch service as well as Monday evening dinners. Their annual output shrank from 40,000 individual meals to 30,000. With reduced revenues, they had to lay off staff, reducing the team from 39 members to 29 (excluding the family.)

            The pandemic’s negative impacts were complicated. With lunches cancelled, some retained staff had to seek second jobs during daytime to sustain their incomes. This led to longer commutes and nighttime fatigue. Reduced staff meant reduced serving teams for each dining table. The pre-COVID roster had included host/greeter, server, busser and food-runners, combining to give the personalized attention that was a Grille signature. Without lunches, the restaurant began to lose contact with daytime neighbors. Portola Valley’s Town Manager and other local officials had been regular luncheon clients. But they go home for dinner.  

            Stop-gap remedies were attempted but without impressive results. Outdoor seating provides fresh air and distancing, two factors in preventing COVID spread. But it never replaced indoor coziness, and it required extra staff legwork. Take-out has been added but doesn’t allow for the Grille’s signature kitchen-to-table delivery of piping-hot dishes.

            Even though the pandemic appears to be relenting, rehiring qualified talent is proving problematic. Everyone in the industry is encountering similar shortfalls. A significant proportion of previous workers seem to have adopted alternative employment or lifestyles. Immigrant candidates remain eager and available, but they often lack comparable skills, experience and English-language proficiency.

            The good news is that guests are now steadily coming back. Business is rebounding. Hope notices, however, that several clients seem to exhibit post-COVID stress. It’s going to take time and effort to restore the inter-families harmonies that have been this restaurant’s cherished culture.

            Moving On

            Hope continues to love her work. She jokes that she and Bill may never retire. But she’s amending her role, reprioritizing her personal objectives. No longer closely focused on supervising details, since her son has stepped up and the whole team knows the ropes, she’s taking a step back. Attending to what she calls “the ribbon of the business,” long-haul consistency and continuity. She still has her passion, but with increasing equanimity. One recent evening, she realized that a single diner, a long-time guest, was lingering at her table after finishing her meal. Hope knew that the woman’s husband had recently passed away and the couple had always come in together. Hope went over to sit with her guest and offer some quiet comfort. Another couple was chafing for that same table and starting to make a fuss. Hope didn’t get irritated by their impatience. Instead, she calmly explained to them the woman’s situation, found them another table, and returned to the grieving widow. “Time stopped for me. Giving comfort was most important. This relationship deserved my care and attention.”

            It occurred to me that Hope has become a third-generation matriarch. Just like her grandmother and mother 50 years ago. Applying her hard-earned wisdom and experience to hold linked families together. 


Jalisco's Grill signJALISCO’S GRILL

            Lilia and Martin Martinez are both from the West Mexican state of Jalisco. Her husband grew up in a small village. She, in the state capital, Guadalajara. Later, in California, they met at the bar in a Hayward club. “We weren’t dancing,” she explained with a grin. “We disliked the same music.”

            He was helping out in his brother’s Bay Area restaurant. She had come north at 15 to help generate income for her single mother, Lilia’s younger sister and brother. Soon she was holding down two jobs, sleeping in her car between shifts. “This was not my dream. In Guadalajara, where I lived with my grandparents, I loved education. I was a good student, Straight A’s. My dream was to be a flight attendant. But my mother called for me.”

            After the couple married and began raising a family, they found they made a good business team. “Martin’s a little crazy. He has vision, sees opportunities. A risk-taker.”  

            “And you?”

            “I’m more conservative. Slower to act. But perhaps also more practical! Once I make up my mind, I make things happen.”

            Lilia illustrated these personality traits with a story. “One evening, Martin came home all excited. ‘I’m going to make you rich.’ I asked him how. ‘You’re going to start your own business.’

            “I didn’t pay much attention,” she continued. “Martin is full of ideas. But the next day he bought me a food truck. Not like the ones now, big and fancy. $100,000 or $200,000. He paid $5,000. I told him I couldn’t drive it. He said ‘Tomorrow you can learn. And how to cook.’”

            Lilia paused and winced. “It was very hard. Total failure at first. I started in Redwood City. In 2010 on the Peninsula, no one knew food trucks, and the authorities didn’t like them. They were worried about parking congestion and hygiene. It was almost impossible to get a permit. They pushed me from city to county and back. I tried to show them I was serious. I rented a warehouse for myself and other trucks. It had restrooms and sinks for washing pots and pans. I called it a Commissary. It made no difference.

            Four Helpers

            “One morning I was standing outside a San Mateo County building with my baby carriage, waiting for the permit office to open. I was crying just a little. A lady walked by from the parking lot. She said ‘You’ve been here every day. Come with me.’ I didn’t know who she was, but she knew how things worked. She showed me the forms, helped me fill them out, and said she would send them in. I got my permit.

            “I still didn’t know much about cooking, but I started selling tacos. The first week I had no sales. Zero. I told Martin I wanted to quit. He said, ‘Keep trying until you earn $300 a day. Then you can stop.’

            “My mother was my next helper. She said I needed a special advantage. There was too much competition. And we’d never eat thawed, processed tortillas at home. So the two of us got up at four in the morning to make fresh flour tortillas each day. She also began teaching me how to cook Jalisco dishes. For the first week, I gave tacos away free. Then the word got out and I began selling. One day I earned $300 by noon. I closed the truck, rushed home and called my husband to tell him. Martin was very proud. He asked me if the customers were still lined up — it was lunch-time. I told him no, I’d made his target so I’d come home.”  

            “No, no, Lilia! You have momentum! You must go back.”

            “But I made $300.”

            “Good job! You are at the next level. Your new target is $500.”

            “We were selling better. But it was stop and go. Then my third helper came. A general contractor in Atherton starting a big construction project.

            “He spoke politely. ‘I’ve been watching you. And I’ve sampled your tacos. You’re going to be somebody.’ He offered me space to park my truck all day in front of his worksite. ‘I want happy workers,’ he explained.

            “I realized it was better for him if his workers could buy snacks and lunch without driving away.”

            “And then?” I asked.

            “Then Martin quit his job and bought a second truck. But he still wasn’t happy. He wanted our own restaurant. One day he asked me to drive around with him and look at possible locations. He headed towards Portola Valley. I told him the area was far too expensive for us. At the corner of Alpine Road and Portola Road, he spotted a small café. ‘That’s it!’ he shouted. I could see it was someone else’s cafe. Martin pulled over and went inside. I waited in the car. The owner was from Pakistan but running a Mediterranean café. Martin saw from the hours sign she was only open for lunch. He asked if she’d consider renting her space to us for dinners. She explained that her husband had recently passed away. She was mourning and wanted to retire. Martin expressed our condolences and asked if we could be her substitute tenants. She said she’d want to make sure any take-over occupants were good people, out of honor for her husband. She asked Martin to bring his family to tea. The two of us returned with my mother and our four children. The widow rented us the space. My fourth helper.”

           What Next?

            Our conversation had caught up to the present. “And today?”

            “We’ve been here eight months. We are doing better every day. I manage the café and help with cooking. Martin is the chief chef. We have five employees and stay open for all three meals.”

kitchen workers


            Does her mom stay involved in the kitchen? “On a part-time basis. When she brings a new recipe, and I need to learn how to cook it. Most days she also takes care of our baby.”

            I tried to comment diplomatically that most Grill customers still seem to be Latino construction workers.

            Lilia confirmed this remains accurate. “They come from all over the Peninsula. Some have been with us since Redwood City.”

            I asked her what pulls them from such distances during tight lunch breaks.

            “We offer them authentic Mexican food for a fresh taste of home. And Jalisco food is different. Frijoles Puercos (refried beans with pork); chile rellenos with a Guadalajara salsa. There’s too much business to keep making our own flour tortillas. But a reliable supplier makes them for us every morning and delivers them before we open. To our standard: not too thin, not too thick.” [Nancy and I love them in Jalisco quesadillas, with real, unblenderized, chunky guacamole.]

            Would she like more Anglo customers?  “Of course. But that is a problem. The Jalisco dishes that bring in the Latinos are unfamiliar to most Americans.”

            That may be so, but already Sequoias residents are coming for lunch and spreading the word. Lilia’s Jalisco cooking is fresh, tasty and distinctive. Nancy and I spot Anglo diners every time we’re there.  

            Thinking of her increasing success, I remembered Lilia’s visionary husband. Could slow and steady make Martin restless?

            She responded softly, with a complex smile. “It’s already happening. My husband doesn’t like to stand still.”

            “And what about you?”

            While insisting that she’s no ambitious businesswoman, Lilia confided that she too is hatching plans. “Once the Grill is running smoothly, I’d like to open two more cafes. But keep things within our family. Mom could run one, my sister the other. We need to stick with what makes us special.”

            I closed our conversation by asking what she most liked and disliked about her new enterprise.

            “I like the full parking lot and satisfied customers. We didn’t give up. What I don’t like is nothing-but-working. We’re becoming too American, forgetting who we are. So I insist to Martin that we stop for two months’ vacation every year and take the children back to Jalisco. His village is tiny and very peaceful. Only 20 houses. We sit and chat with the neighbors, feel the breezes and listen to the scratching chickens.”



            I’ve always been convinced that America in general and California in particular are renewed and refreshed by the inflow of immigrants. Not least because so many who come here voluntarily are the best and the brightest, pulling up stakes to give their families a chance for a better life. Look back far enough, of course, and we’re all immigrants, even Native Americans. Recent arrivals are all around us, many invisible, adding energy and inventiveness to our communities.

            The Petkopoulos family operates “a neighborhood kitchen,” serving fine food and restorative evenings to thousands of appreciative guests. Lilia and Martin Martinez offer nostalgic nutrition to hundreds of construction workers, themselves motivated immigrants building regional offices and homes. Savvy locals are discovering these Latino delights. Even at our dining tables, our differences can bring us together.


Thanks to Hope Petkopoulos, Lilia Martinez and Nancy Swing for the use of their photos.


Good readers, let me hear from you: rbs@agileaging.net.