Out of State: A Simple Restaurant Ash Tray and the Past Coming Alive

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I was helping a friend at an estate sale this weekend. In all the rooms of “stuff” which had been organized, one tiny item fell by the wayside. It was in the kitchen, nearly buried under newspaper which we were using to wrap glassware. It was an ashtray. A cute, little ashtray reading L’Omelette French Restaurant and Bistro, Palo Alto, California. I don’t smoke, but I wanted it for my bar. There was another ash tray in a different room with the history items bearing the nation’s capital, but it was kind of bland. It had a brown rim and was murky. L’Omelette’s popped with red, white, and blue. It would rest nicely on by bar in front of the absinthe and gin bottles.

The ash tray on my bar.
The ash tray on my bar.

Such a mundane item led me to do a little bit of research. I wanted to see if there was any information available about the restaurant this came from. Sure enough, this establishment was quite the popular spot in Palo Alto, bordering on a landmark. It opened in 1932, serving as a French bistro until the 1970’s when it changed hands and became Chez Louis. Then in 1995, after a changing local landscape (which included a boom of chain restaurants), the 63 year run of French cooking came to an end. It was demolished to make room for a Walgreen’s. The owner at the time remarked, “I would rather see it torn down than turn it over to some impersonal corporation that would turn it into another formula restaurant.” But the legacy is not lost, even today. There appears to be a dedicated group keeping its memory alive.

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Tales of celebrities, locals, and Stanford University students abound. A pre-presidential John F. Kennedy frequented the location during the 1940’s. Singer Joan Baez, Coach Bill Walsh, and the namesake founders of Hewlett-Packard all made this a regular stop at one point or another. The simple roadside hamburger stand evolved into a sprawling bistro.

I have a fascination with old restaurants and how things were done in days gone by. It’s why I have a soft-spot for certain restaurants that have seen better times. I think we can all relate, because we have all had a favorite restaurant go out of business and not be replaced by something better. Maybe it’s the historian in me. Picturing people all dressed up in what would now be a casual atmosphere, smoke filling the lounge and bar area, uniformed waiters doing their thing, and the thoughts of old cars pulling up to the curb. What you might see in an old movie. I never thought the snagging of a simple ash tray would even lead to a blog post, let alone one with so much thought and feeling. Yeah, it’s just an ash tray, but it’s part of something greater. Something that once was and never shall return.

Something else that won't return: the highest priced item on the menu being $5.35.
Something else that won’t return: the highest priced item on the menu is $5.35. And it’s a full dinner.

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