Stickney's: Sweet memories
of a simpler age in Silicon Valley

Published: Jan. 18, 2000

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 corner booth.

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 success.

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 gentleman have?''

The gentleman will have some memories.

Loyal customers

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 restaurant.

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 our lives.''

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.

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