Good things come to those who wait. The phrase evokes marketing campaigns from the 1980s and ’90s, but it also applies to the restaurant team behind Palo Alto’s new crown jewel, Protégé. The new American eatery opened on California Avenue in spring of last year and just six months in was awarded its first Michelin star. However, it was a long time coming for Protégé’s owners, master sommelier Dennis Kelly and chef Anthony Secviar. “Chef Anthony and I met in 2005 while working together at The French Laundry,” Kelly says. “I had gone there looking for a chef. I knew I wanted to start a restaurant and he was very well respected from the start.” The duo would often discuss what was next for them and realized that they had a shared vision for a fine dining establishment in a warm and inviting environment.
In 2011, Secviar left the French Laundry for San Diego, where he became the chef de cuisine at Addison at the Grand Del Mar. “Honestly, I was devastated,” Kelly remembers. “However, I was hopeful that one day we could work together, so I stayed in touch with him.”
The stars aligned in 2015: Kelly was beginning the process of opening a restaurant, and Secviar’s contract in Del Mar was up. With a shared vision of hospitality, they started the search for the perfect space. “We looked at San Diego, and we decided it was too casual for what we had in mind,” Kelly says.
The duo noticed that Palo Alto lacked a high-end eatery serving superb cuisine. “The advantages of opening in a market with a ‘need’ are clear, especially in the notoriously challenging restaurant industry,” Kelly maintains. High-profile closures including Jeremiah Tower’s Stars and Wolfgang Puck’s Spago caused many restaurateurs to wonder if Palo Alto would support an ambitious upscale restaurant. “While that may have been a possibility 10 or 20 years ago, we’re confident that Silicon Valley diners have come a long, long way since then,” he says.
With a packed house and shiny new Michelin star, it’s obvious that Kelly and Secviar were on to something. What makes Protégé unique from other fine dining establishments is its lack of pretense. The chefs might use tweezers to plate miniature lemon verbena leaves just so, but gone is the stuffy atmosphere.
“I think the best fine dining restaurants are more comfortable than they used to be in the past,” Kelly says. “Formality is no longer required to impress guests, and we can now offer beautifully refined cuisine in a warm and approachable environment.” With a neutral color palette of creams, chocolate and taupe, wooden accents and a long velvet banquet, the space is elegant but relaxed.
As for the cuisine? Inspired by New York’s Gramercy Tavern, the partners decided to serve a four-course prix fixe menu in the dining room and à la carte favorites in the lounge. “Our menus are constantly evolving — driven by seasonal and market changes,” Kelly explains. “Thankfully, we’re blessed with a bounty of extraordinary produce rarely seen anywhere else on the planet.”
Pillowy, melt-in-your-mouth ricotta dumplings, perfectly cooked Spanish octopus and crispy Cornish game hen cooked under a brick are three of Protégé’s most popular à la carte items. The tasting menu features more luxurious ingredients, such as Dungeness crab, foie gras mousse and aged wagyu ribeye. Then there is the decadent: white truffle lasagna with porcini marmalade, aged parmesan, Madeira and freshly shaved Alba truffles — an extravagant but worthy supplement to the tasting menu. While some tasting menus don’t present the diner with options, Secviar’s offers diners two options per course in order to personalize their experience.
Like Secviar’s cuisine, Kelly’s wine list provides something for everyone. “The idea is to offer the finest wines from the world’s classic wine regions at a broad range of price points, including extraordinary values in every category,” he says. “We believe that if we take care of our guests while they’re inside our restaurant, everything else will take care of itself.”
In less than a year, Protégé has put itself on the map, thanks to the team’s cohesive understanding of hospitality. Kelly acknowledges that to keep diners coming back, they need to be engaged, respected and well-fed. The ultimate goal? To show Palo Alto a good time. “We hope to make it easy for our guests to get to what’s important: sharing delicious food and wine with family and friends.”