DON'T look for Stickney's on any map of Silicon Valley's cultural hot spots.
It wasn't that kind of a place. As far as I know, nobody ever swung a big
venture-cap deal between bites of the fried chicken special. And nobody
ever plotted to launch the Next Big Internet Thing from the comfort of a
But that is not to say Stickney's was not a big deal in these parts. For
some of us lucky enough to have grown up here during the last five decades,
the restaurant chain was an institution, as much a part of El Camino Real
as mission bells. Now, the last Stickney's has quietly slipped away,
without so much as goodbye.
I suspect that 40 years ago every town in America had a place like this, a
place for families that wasn't marketed as a ''family restaurant.'' Most
are gone now -- or they're soon to go. For all the high-minded talk of
diversity these days, we are living in a monoculture. The way we talk, the
way we dress, the way we eat -- it's all being filtered and squeezed into
one bland, homogenized consumer experience, one that's predictably the same
from the Florida Keys to Puget Sound.
I don't care how much Chevys or the Olive Garden may spend on
advertising to establish themselves as down-home places that treat their
customers ''like family.'' The waitress who really knew your family, she
worked at Stickney's.
Friday, Kay Stickney, owner of the last remaining Stickney's Hick'ry
House, put a simple note on the door of the landmark restaurant in Palo
Alto's Town & Country Village shopping center. It said the temporary
closure that had been in effect for three weeks would be permanent.
It wasn't supposed to end like this. Stickney closed the business the
day after Christmas for a routine plumbing repair, expecting to reopen Jan.
10. Two days later Town & Country Village hit her with a rent increase.
The shopping center management and Stickney both refused to say just how
much the rent was increased, but the jump was substantial enough to make
Stickney pull the plug on the splendid little family empire that had been
running almost 50 years.
Gift for marketing
Adrian ''Red'' Stickney, Kay Stickney's late husband, didn't get to be
the Fred Harvey of El Camino Real by barbecued ribs alone. The
butcher-turned-restaurateur had an uncanny gift for marketing. In 1952, he
opened the first Hick'ry House restaurant on El Camino Real in Redwood
City. He made sure that drivers on the Peninsula's main commercial strip
could see the hickory pit as they passed by. The venture was an immediate
His signature barbecue sauce -- tame by any measure -- was part of the
deal. He ladled it out by the gallon and promoted it as if it was the most
precious development in the culinary arts since the discovery of wine.
One year later, Stickney's second restaurant became the first tenant in
Palo Alto's new Town & Country Village. Eventually there would be six
Hick'ry Houses from San Mateo to San Jose. (The Valley Fair branch in San
Jose, the only one not on El Camino Real, closed in 1987.)
At the chain's peak in the '60s, Stickney was Santa Clara County's
largest employer in the restaurant trade. Stickney often said running a
restaurant was like being in show business -- and he lived that motto.
Three decades before the advent of celebrity chefs, Red was everywhere --
on billboards, on the radio, in print and highly visible in the open
kitchens of his restaurants.
Classic Big Food
A diplomatic person might describe Stickney's culinary stock-in-trade as
''hearty'' and ''honest.'' Others would probably say it was an engraved
invitation for a massive coronary. This was classic Big Food, a holdover
from a time before Americans were taught to fear what they eat. Although
Kay Stickney added some lighter dishes in recent years, the menu remained
stuck in some parallel universe, heavy on barbecue and comfort dishes like
fried chicken. In this era of California cuisine, Stickney's fare was
nothing less than reactionary.
There is nothing like Stickney's anymore -- and there was nothing quite
like it back then. Each of the restaurants had a dual personality. On one
side of the operation, there was a standard coffee shop. But the other side
was another world, with a cocktail lounge and a set of dining rooms that
were over-the-top Western kitsch even by '60s standards.
For a small child with a big imagination, the entire package -- bull
horns everywhere, Western murals, cowhide walls (I kid you not) -- was like
being lost in a Frederic Remington diorama. It was dark and mysterious, in
a very adult highballs-and-martinis way. It was what passed for fancy, with
jackets and ties encouraged for gents. And it was fun -- the nicest local
establishment any kid could hope to dine in on a special occasion.
I recall one particular night when I was maybe 6 years old, sitting next
to Eva Aubertin -- my unofficial foster grandmother -- and the waiter
looking directly at me and asking in a hushed tone, ''And what will the
The gentleman will have some memories.
Of course Stickney's couldn't live forever frozen in time as an artifact
of a bygone age. I believe changing tastes and an aging clientele were
behind its demise. The rent increase, it would seem, is just the final step
on a long downward march. But there's something very sad here that goes
beyond the death of a business.
Stickney's loyal customers -- many of them senior citizens -- will
probably end up getting their early-bird specials at some corporate
cookie-cutter operation. It will all be dietetically correct and seasoned
by three layers of focus groups. It will be a canny imitation of a real
Since she put that fateful note on the door last Friday, Kay Stickney
has been overseeing the dispersal of Red's empire. The sports memorabilia
in the Stanford Room -- the site of innumerable Big Game parties -- will go
to the university across the street. Many of the Western artifacts will go
home with her to Redwood City. Customers have asked to buy certain beloved
items. ''It's just too hard,'' she says. ''I can't talk about it without
crying. What can I tell them? We're all just going to have to get on with
Yes, we will get on with our lives. But before we do, it must be said:
Something of value slipped away from us here. Today, we're a tiny bit more
like Dayton, like Denver, like Anytown.