That’s One Big Box of Salt

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Like many, many others in the area, I watched the construction of what became Johnston’s Saltbox with great anticipation. Lengthy opening-day delays seemed to only whet appetites even further. Finally, the restaurant opened to the public on April 3.

I had mixed feelings about going there on opening day: the first days of any restaurant can be uneven, as employees learn their roles and as management tunes the operation to best meet demand. But my wife convinced me to go, so we called some friends and the four of us headed over to the former site of White Oaks Hardware (1696 Laurel St., San Carlos) for lunch.

As I had expected, that day was crowded. We knew that the Saltbox opened at 11:30 so we got there right at opening. Even so, there was a line. Clearly, there was a pent-up demand for this place!

Lunch at Johnston’s Saltbox is not like dinner or brunch there: unlike those other meals, at lunch you order at the bar and then take a seat. The line was long when we got there, and we quickly learned that it is a no-no at the Saltbox to sit down before ordering lunch. But the line moved relatively quickly, and we soon found ourselves sitting outside in their delightful patio, enjoying our iced teas while we waited for our food. The patio is right up against the small parking lot, with wooden slats overhead to cut the glare and help keep the area a bit cooler. Excitement was in the air as we waited for our food to arrive.

That first day it took a while for our food to finally be delivered, but it was most definitely worth the wait. I ordered the “grassfed burger” and quickly realized that this may well be the best burger around. My wife also loved her salad—so much so, in fact, that she ended up calling another friend and having lunch there again the following day.

Johnston’s Saltbox serves brunch on both Saturday and Sunday (instead of lunch, which is only served Tuesday through Friday). A week or so later my wife and I had the opportunity to have brunch at the Saltbox, and we were not disappointed. I had the “House-made Bacon Hash”, which consisted of diced potatoes, bacon, onion, and spinach topped with poached eggs. Delicious! We also just had to try the cranberry scones (I love scones!) and they also were great. As befitting a brunch you can also order things like salad, a sandwich, and even a proper entree (that day, local petrale sole on potatoes and fava beans, topped with capers and hollandaise sauce). The day we had brunch was busy, too, and although we could have sat outside with little delay, we chose to wait for an inside table so that we could take a good look at the decor. Unlike at lunch, there is a hostess who seats you. But while you are waiting you can sit outside at a couple of long, high-topped tables and enjoy a drink. Although this might be a problem during the rainy season, given the sunny weather we were having at the time this is an ideal way to pass the time while waiting for a table.

Unlike many restaurants, Johnston’s Saltbox doesn’t take reservations, and doesn’t really encourage large groups. This is a small, intimate place. But the decor is clean and green: like the food, the restaurant’s interior is made up of simple materials put together with a high degree of craftsmanship.

When some friends of ours wanted to go out to dinner with us, Johnston’s Saltbox came immediately to mind. Knowing how popular the place is, we arranged to pick them up at 5:15pm in order to get to the restaurant by 5:30. If you check their hours you’ll note that the restaurant doesn’t begin to serve until 5:30. As we learned, that can be a bit deceptive, however. Although they begin serving entrees at 5:30, such is the popularity of the place that they actually open the doors closer to 5:00. Once seated, you can order a drink and peruse the menu. You won’t receive your food until 5:30, but from experience I can highly recommend arriving there either on the early side (no later than 5:30) or on the late side (7:45 or so; they close at 9:00pm). They don’t take reservations, and because the restaurant is small, they quickly fill the entire restaurant by around 6:00pm. Once filled, guests have to wait until the first diners have completed their meals; this means that there are no empty tables until almost 7:00pm. But don’t let that deter you: this place is worth it. Just go early, or go later. And note that they are closed on Mondays, and don’t do dinner on Sundays.

The menu at the Saltbox is a simple one. Food occupies just one side of one page (the other side is for wines; they have a nice wine list). The entrees aren’t fancy: just organic, locally sourced ingredients that are properly cooked to create simple but extremely tasty dishes. Don’t expect fancy sauces and dishes with names you cannot pronounce: pot roast, roasted chicken, caesar salad are the kinds of things you’ll find on their menu. And a lot of the produce comes right from their own garden, which, cleverly, is on the roof! Here is a picture of a friend of ours, who was having lunch with my wife, checking out their rooftop garden:

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In the above picture the proprietor, Sean Johnston, is behind her on the right. He seems to be a great guy, constantly wandering the restaurant checking on guests and helping out. You can’t miss him: he’s extremely tall and has a wonderful Irish accent (he’s from Northern Ireland). Unlike Sean, his wife, Jennifer, is a local girl (from San Carlos). She’s the chef.

The night we had dinner there, we began with wine (we had arrived before 5:30, so we couldn’t actually order yet). As it turns out, we each had a glass of something different, and we each were very pleased with our choices. My wife, who is starting to explore different types of wine, asked for a tasting of an unfamiliar vintage, and she was accommodated with no trouble. She loved what she tasted, and immediately ordered a glass.

When it came time to order, we all had different entrees—although, in an odd coincidence, each entree contained some form of chicken. I ordered the Spring Pappardelle Pasta and added chicken (you can have it with or without). My wife ordered the Roast Chicken, which was served on a bed of “shallot mashers”. One of our friends ordered the Cobb Salad, with the optional chicken added on. His wife ordered the Kale Salad, again with the chicken add-on. Three of us also tried the heavenly mushroom and asparagus soup. And just for fun we had one order of the homemade potato chips, which were great. Finally, we finished with a couple of really nice desserts: I just loved my lemon tart.

Jennifer changes the menu frequently, so these dishes may not all be on your menu. Here are some photos of one day’s menus, to give you a better idea of what you can expect, food-wise:

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Johnston’s Saltbox is a wonderful addition to our local food scene. I expect that my wife and I will be there often, at least when we aren’t trying out some of the other new restaurants that are popping up.

Before I close this post, I thought I’d toss in an update on the “Loop” gas station/market/eating place that is being built on El Camino at 5th Ave (previously mentioned in my post Dining High and Low). I managed to visit the one in Santa Clara, on Great America Parkway (near 237):

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From the outside it looks pretty much like any other gas station/mini mart. If you simply pay at the pump and never go inside, you wouldn’t realize that there was anything special about it. But go inside and indeed there is something a bit different here. Not radically different, but start looking and you’ll see things you don’t see in a typical mini-mart. For instance, they have a salad bar with soups. You can get pizza and hot dogs, but somewhat more sophisticated entrees as well. There are places to sit, so you can put together a full, balanced meal and then sit and eat it—in a gas station!

The Loop has an extensive wine collection, and a separate, refrigerated room just for beer. And then there is the signage. The sign above the restrooms, for instance, says “Way to Go.” They sure do seem to have a sense of humor…

Whether or not I’ll ever take advantage of this place remains to be seen: I do drive by on my way to Menlo Park or Palo Alto from time-to-time, so I could see myself buying gas from them. And if I’m buying gas, it would be a logical next step to head inside and see what’s what. Although I don’t typically buy the kind of stuff you find in a normal gas station mini-mart, the Loop does offer a different class of fare. So maybe…

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