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Happy Days

Carolyn Jung | September 6, 2018 | Food & Drink Story Restaurants Eat and Drink National

There’s no need to pitch a tent or pack a bedroll to be a happy camper at downtown Menlo Park’s buzziest new restaurant. Camper, now open in the former LB Steak space, aims to celebrate the great outdoors with casual yet thoughtful cuisine dictated by the freshest bounty of the seasons. That’s the goal of the three partners who endeavored for two years to bring to fruition this project that marks a major milestone for all principals involved. For Roland Passot—proprietor of San Francisco’s La Folie, the Bay Area’s Left Bank brasseries and former owner of LB Steak—it’s the first time he’s invested in a restaurant that’s not solely his own. For chef-partner Greg Kuzia-Carmel, who cooked previously at New York’s Per Se and San Francisco’s Cotogna, it’s the first restaurant he’s owned. For managing partner Logan Levant, who owned Buttercake Bakery in Los Angeles and authored the cookbook The Kitchen Decoded, it’s the first time she’s built a full-scale restaurant from scratch.

“The name came about because we really wanted to have happy campers as our guests,” Levant says. “We want to bring the fun of the outdoors and a sense of adventure to Menlo Park.” They were well on their way even before opening, as locals already were beating a path to their doors as if it were Half Dome at the height of summer. Weeks before construction was completed, curious passersby routinely popped in to take a quick peek, eager for the 4,000-square-foot space with its 72-seat dining room and 24-seat patio to open. Kuzia-Carmel already has standing offers from locals for Meyer lemons, figs and persimmons picked from their backyard trees. “You don’t get to feel in very many places that you’re in the center of a community,” Levant observes. “But, here, you are.” According to Kuzia-Carmel, that extends even to the local restaurant community, which underscores why they never considered opening Camper anywhere except this Menlo Park spot. “From Manresa in Los Gatos to just south of San Francisco, every chef we’ve met has this ‘we’re in this together’ spirit,” he says. “We’re all doing different things. We’re not competing. We’re symbiotic.”

After a mutual Peninsula acquaintance introduced them, Kuzia-Carmel and Levant realized they shared the same sensibilities when it came to food and business. In a sign of commitment to the project, Levant moved from Los Angeles to Menlo Park—lugging her two Newfoundlands and 500 cookbooks—solely to create this restaurant. A former entertainment-industry public relations executive, she wound up buying Buttercake Bakery, unable to bear losing the source for her favorite lemon bar when the owner decided to retire. She ran the bakery for a decade, before its lease ran out, and fell in love with Menlo Park when visiting her best friend here. Another mutual colleague then got Kuzia-Carmel and Levant together with Passot, who saw the merit in what the two wanted to build. “He’s got a proven track record of more than 30 years,” says Kuzia-Carmel. “It’s like having an uncle with a great worldly view guide you through the growing pains.”

Kuzia-Carmel incorporated LB Steak’s former small private dining room into the kitchen, expanding it by a third. With its picture window, sidewalk strollers can now peer in to see cooks making pasta and pastries. As befits his Cotogna pedigree, Kuzia-Carmel offers up to 10 handmade pastas daily, including mac ’n’ cheese. They’re not strictly pastas that would always pass muster with an Italian nonna, he says, as he likes to take liberties to showcase ingredients that come from no more than 100 miles away. There are also prime steaks, a bodacious burger and a Peninsula version of the fabled Zuni CafĂ© roast chicken, as well as a selection of snacks and housemade charcuterie priced under $10 for those who just want to graze. A dozen craft cocktails are featured, along with a 40-bottle wine menu and a Sightglass custom coffee bar. For an extra touch, Kuzia-Carmel and Levant also are forging connections so that if a diner desires a rare bottle of wine for an important occasion, they can locate it from a private collector. In the months to come, the 62-seat private dining room with multimedia capabilities will be the setting for special dinners curated by guest chefs from around the globe.

Interior designer Beth Martin—founder of San Francisco’s Martin Group, known for its elegant residential transformations, and a longtime friend of Levant—created an airy main dining room, peeling away drywall to uncover rustic wood beams and adding gray wood floors, watery blue Heath tiles, antique mirrors and leather banquettes the color of baseball gloves. To set the mood, the entryway sports a large-format photograph by famed fine arts photographer Mitch Weiss of a vintage camper on Narragansett Beach, R.I. Otherwise, the references to camping are less overt—unless you count the smoked chocolate ganache in the s’mores-inspired dessert, which every worthwhile glamping experience surely ought to have. 898 Santa Cruz Ave.

Originally published in the September issue of Silicon Valley

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