Historic Silicon Valley Bar and Restaurant Review

The Power Lunch. The billion dollar invention scribbled on the back of a napkin. “Accidentally” (on purpose…) running into a potential angel investor at his or her favorite watering hole. These are all familiar aspects of the high-tech business culture in Silicon Valley, where some of the most important conversations occur outside the office.

The “official” Silicon Valley Napkin.

The “official” Silicon Valley Napkin. Courtesy of the Computer History Museum.

But this phenomenon is not confined to trendy eateries in downtown Palo Alto. In fact, the use of pubs, restaurants, and social gathering spaces for business purposes is a distinctive marker of innovative hot spots—in different regions, for all kinds of technologies, and at many different times in our history. For example, Dr. Walter Lillihei, Earl Bakken, and the founders of Medtronic talked shop at the local Lutheran church and the University of Minnesota Campus Club, transforming the Twin Cities into “Medical Alley.” And in 1930s Hollywood, producers, directors, and technicians discussed the artistic merits of new innovations like Technicolor at studio commissaries and the legendary Brown Derby restaurant.

In short, social gathering places—and the exchange of ideas they facilitate—are a key ingredient in fostering a culture of innovation. This is a key finding of Places of invention, an exhibition scheduled to open in 2015 at the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, DC. The Lemelson Center’s historical research draws on the theories of sociologist Ray Oldenburg, author of The Great Good Place. In that book, Oldenburg describes the societal importance of what he calls the “Third Place”—a community gathering place that’s not home and not the workplace. These Third Places—like barber shops, diners, bookstores, and coffee shops—are welcoming places where regulars gather to engage in conversation and trade ideas.  And this easy exchange of ideas, in turn, is a big part of what drives innovation.

But how exactly does this work? Let’s return to the Silicon Valley of the 1960s and ‘70s, when pioneering microelectronics firms like Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel began transforming the region into a high-tech hot spot. In a 1983 Esquire article on Intel founder Robert Noyce, Tom Wolfe wrote that “every year there was some place, the Wagon Wheel, Chez Yvonne, Rickey’s, the Roundhouse, where members of this esoteric fraternity, the young men and women of the semiconductor industry, would head after work to have a drink and gossip and brag and trade war stories about phase jitters, phantom circuits, bubble memories” and other mysteries of the trade. The same concept held true for the sales and marketing guys, who had their own hangouts.

But weren’t they afraid of sharing proprietary information with a competitor? Yes and no. Then and now, Silicon Valley had notoriously high job mobility, so it was common to run into a colleague from a prior job and talk shop at a local tavern. Since techies changed jobs all the time, they were often more loyal to friends and former colleagues than whichever firm they happened to be working for at the moment. Thus, useful information flowed back and forth liberally, even among competitors. Plus, in order to GET good information, you had to GIVE good information, so a certain amount of divulging was necessary. Naturally, alcohol tended to lubricate this process. Moore’s Law suggested that processor power doubled every 18 months, so there was no sense in keeping a secret for too long anyway, given Silicon Valley’s short product cycles. So even though local firms competed intensely, the region’s high-tech workers easily traded information over beers to make deals and keep up with the rapid pace of technological change.

With these ideas in mind, here are a few Silicon Valley restaurants and watering holes—past and present—that have served as high-tech hubs:

Walker’s Wagon Wheel (Mountain View)

Walker’s Wagon Wheel tavern.

Walker’s Wagon Wheel tavern. Courtesy of Carolyn Caddes and Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.

This western-themed bar at the corner of Whisman Avenue and Middlefield Road in Mountain View was a stone’s throw from the Fairchild campus and the place to go in the 1960s. In her book Regional Advantage, UC Berkley geographer AnnaLee Saxenian quoted Jeffery Kalb, a veteran of National Semiconductor, DEC, MasPar, and other high-tech firms:  “In the early days of the semiconductor industry there were certain places that everybody frequented and the standing joke was that if you couldn’t figure out your process problems, go down to the Wagon Wheel and ask somebody.” When the tavern was demolished in 2003, the Computer History Museum in Mountain View picked up one of the tavern’s trademark Conestoga wagon wheels and a section of the bar for its permanent collections.

The Peppermill Restaurant and Lounge (Santa Clara)

nterior picture of the vacant Peppermill in Santa Clara, now the Axis Nightclub.

Interior picture of the vacant Peppermill in Santa Clara, now the Axis Nightclub. Courtesy of Flickr member JAB88.

The Peppermill, located just off US 101 at Bowers Drive, was one of a chain restaurants and lounges owned by a Nevada-based casino. Naturally, it was a little flashy, with velvet and faux-leather booths, lots of mirrors, and a small waterfall in the lobby. In their book Silicon Valley Fever, Everett Rogers and Judith Larsen quoted an anonymous Intel informant: “I can go to the Peppermill at eight in the morning and always meet somebody I know. All of my customers and all of my competitors—and that’s about five hundred people—eat breakfast there regularly…The Peppermill is just a giant meeting place.” A few years ago, the Peppermill was converted to the Axis Nightclub.

The Oasis Beer Garden (Menlo Park)

The Oasis Beer Garden

The Oasis Beer Garden. Courtesy of Flickr member, Xavier de Jauréguiberry.

In the 1970s and ‘80s, hackers from the Homebrew Computer Club would adjourn their meetings in the auditorium at Stanford’s Linear Accelerator and head over to this beer and burgers joint. It was established in 1958, and still sits just north of the Stanford campus at 241 El Camino Real in Menlo Park; according to its website, it serves “families, teams, professors, business tycoons, and students” alike. The Oasis features wooden tables and booths carved by decades of undergrads and techies alike, as well as signs instructing patrons to throw their peanut shells on the floor.

Lion and Compass (Sunnyvale)

The Lion and Compass.

The Lion & Compass. Photo via the San Francisco Chronicle.

After selling Atari for $28 million, company founder Nolan Bushnell opened this upscale bar-restaurant in 1982 at 1023 Fair Oaks Avenue in Sunnyvale. It combines an oak-paneled English-style pub (adorned by a NYSE stock ticker) with a chic sky-lit Terrace Room serving eclectic California cuisine. According to Robert Reinhold’s 1984 write-up in the New York Times, the “Lion and Compass has become the premier deal-making center and gathering spot for the barons of computer technology who lord over the tiny patch of California dubbed Silicon Valley…[Y]oung engineers with bright ideas dine with venture capitalists with money and leave smiling; loans and sales worth millions of dollars are transacted over Saumon Blanc en Croute.” Reinhold concluded that “the Lion and Compass is to the computer world what Sardi’s is to New York’s theater district.”

Buck’s Restaurant (Woodside)

Owner Jamis MacNiven, outside Buck’s Restaurant.

Owner Jamis MacNiven, outside Buck’s Restaurant. Courtesy of John McChesney/NPR.

Buck’s opened in 1991 and is located at 3062 Woodside Rd just west of Interstate 280. The quirky diner is popular with venture capitalists, as it sits halfway between their hillside mansions and offices on Sand Hill Road. Speaking to NPR in 2010, owner Jamis MacNiven recalled a litany of deals made under his roof: “Hotmail was founded here…Netscape had their early meetings in the back room; Tesla was founded here; PayPal got funded here.” Buck’s casual atmosphere would seem to make it an unlikely place to do business. MacNiven himself eschews a suit and tie in favor of loud printed shirts, and the walls and ceiling are adorned with kitschy “flair” that includes a Soviet space suit, several stuffed fish, and a Statue of Liberty with an ice cream sundae for a torch. However, Buck’s has become something of a bellwether for the high-tech economy—a full parking lot is a sign of good times.

Obviously, these are just a handful of the places where Silicon Valley’s tech gurus get things done.  Share your own story—where are your favorite pubs, restaurants, and high-tech hangouts?

Sources:

Gulker, Linda Hubbard.  “A long time Oasis on game day.”  In Menlo blog post, October 3, 2009, accessed June 18, 2013, http://inmenlo.com/2009/10/03/a-long-time-oasis-on-game-day/.

Lion and Compass Restaurant.  “About Lion and Compass.”  Accessed June 18, 2013.  http://www.lionandcompass.com/about.htm.

Markoff, John.  “A Burger with a Side of YouTube Please.” New York Times, October 15, 2006, p. H2.

McChesney, John.  “Checking a tech bellwether: Buck’s restaurant.”  WBUR/NPR blog post, August 2, 2010, accessed June 18, 2013, http://www.wbur.org/npr/128874569/checking-a-tech-bellwether-bucks-restaurant.

The Oasis Beer Garden.  “About Us.”  Accessed June 18, 2013.  http://theoasisbeergarden.com/about.php.

Oldenburg, Ray.  The Great Good Place: Cafés, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community, 3rd ed.  New York: Marlowe & Company, 1999.

Reinhold, Robert.  “Restaurant has Recipe for Multimillion Dollar Computer Deals.” New York Times, January 7, 1984, p. 7.

“Remembering Walker’s Wagon Wheel.”  SFGate blog post, May 21, 2007, accessed June 18, 2013, http://blog.sfgate.com/techchron/2007/05/21/remembering-walkers-wagon-wheel/.

Rogers, Everett M. and Judith K. Larsen.  Silicon Valley Fever: Growth of High-Technology Culture.  New York: Basic Books, 1984.

Saxenian, AnnaLee.  Regional Advantage: Culture and Competition in Silicon Valley and Route 128.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Wolfe, Tom.  “The Tinkering of Robert Noyce: How the Sun Rose on Silicon Valley.” Esquire, December 1983, pp. 346-374.

Yi, Matthew.  “The Lion in Winter: Even after the Dot-Com Bust, Restaurant Draws Silicon Valley Powers.” SFGate blog post, January 24, 2003, accessed June 18, 2013, http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/The-Lion-in-winter-Even-after-the-dot-com-bust-2639147.php.

Revolutionary Invention: Hip-Hop and the PC

What do hip-hop music and personal computers have in common? They were both children of the turbulent 1970s, born to innovative people who, building on inventive skills and technologies, nurtured them through creativity, collaboration, risk taking, problem solving, flexibility, and hard work. As with all inventions, their parents created them using some existing technologies. Hip-hop music evolved from adaptations of sound recording and playback equipment, while personal computers were built on integrated circuits, or “microchips,” co-invented in 1959 by Robert Noyce of Silicon Valley.

Imagine the social, cultural, economic, and political upheavals in America during the 1960s and 1970s. Picture the urban decay happening in inner-city areas of many major metropolises. Then picture the suburban communities that had burgeoned after World War II, representing the American Dream of where and how to live. Within these vastly different contexts, the Bronx, New York, and Silicon Valley, California, became places of invention—for hip-hop music and personal computers, respectively.

From "Yes Yes Y'all." Photo by John Fekner, copyright Charlie Ahearn

By the 1970s, the Bronx served as a national symbol of urban blight. Cut off from the rest of New York City by the Cross-Bronx Expressway, the primarily black and Puerto Rican residents were left to their own devices to deal with crime, drugs, dilapidated housing, few public services, and fewer job opportunities. Meanwhile, across the country, the relatively new, sunny suburbs between San Jose and San Francisco (which became known collectively as “Silicon Valley”) attracted primarily middle- and upper-class white, well-educated residents, many of whom were employed by the rapidly growing semiconductor industry there. Unlike the Bronx, Silicon Valley already had a reputation as a place of invention.

G Man and his crew DJ-ing at a park Bronx, New York, 1984 © Henry Chalfant

Sometimes lack of material resources encourages inventiveness. People in poor communities in America and around the world put their creativity to work on a daily basis using whatever materials are available. In the Bronx, residents searching for innovative, non-violent ways to express themselves took advantage of the limited resources around them to create the technology and artistry of a new kind of music. As Grand Wizzard Theodore (regarded as the inventor of the hip-hop scratch) said, “Hip-hop came from nothing. The people that created hip-hop had nothing.  And what they did was they created something from nothing.”[i] People like DJ Grandmaster Flash had electronics training and used those skills to adapt record players, speakers, and other stereo system elements to invent the new musical sounds, tools, and techniques that became hip-hop.

In resource-rich Silicon Valley, people like Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs had computer experience, access to lots of new technologies, and networks with people in the industry. Among other activities, they were involved in the Homebrew Computer Club, which was founded by electronics hobbyists in a Menlo Park garage in 1975 and later met in a Stanford University auditorium. The two Steves lived and worked in a prime location to invent and promote their personal computer, the Apple I. Although not the first personal computer (that credit goes to John Blankenbaker’s 1971 Kenbak-1), the Apple is arguably the most famous.

What inventors and innovators in Silicon Valley shared with Bronx inventors and innovators was what might be termed “counter cultural” perspectives. Both groups were interested in democratizing their respective inventions—although hip-hop DJs and computer tinkerers probably wouldn’t have expressed it quite this way at the time! In the Bronx, the pioneers of hip-hop wanted to create their own music, uniquely representative of their community, away from the disco clubs in Manhattan and without mainstream limits.

Silicon Valley East. Flickr photo by Andrei Z.

In Silicon Valley, they wanted to break away from the corporate and government control of huge mainframe computers and create small, personal computers for themselves, their friends, and eventually the larger public. As Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak remembered in the 2006 documentary, In Search of the Valley, “There was lots of talk at Homebrew [computer club] about social revolution, we were going to have our own tools at home and own our own computers and not be slaves to what our employers wanted us to use.”

Another important element shared by inventors and innovators in the Bronx, Silicon Valley, and indeed all of the communities featured in the Lemelson Center’s Places of Invention exhibition project was the support of like-minded individuals who collaborated as well as competed to further creativity. In the end, it turns out you’re not necessarily limited by limited resources. What you need is imagination, adaptability, perseverance, encouragement from your community, and eventually a wider, welcoming market. Hip-hop music and personal computers ended up revolutionizing not only American but also global society and culture.

Many thanks to Eric Hintz and Laurel Fritzsch for their expertise on these two Places of Invention!


[i] Mark Katz, Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-Hop DJ (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 253.