Adventures on El Camino: The Van's

My birthday was on Monday, a day both my wife and I have off together, so we decided to go somewhere special for lunch––a place that we had both been dying to try, but never seemed to find the time to actually visit. After such a great experience at Joe's of Westlake a few weeks back, and then the shock of learning it was about to close next month, the two of us went scrambling to see if we could find a similar hangout with that same old-school style. We loved the nostalgia, and the historic Peninsula feel of Joe's, but we knew that magic wouldn't be with us much longer. Where else could we go to capture that steakhouse atmosphere, a place where old timers would be lining the bar at all hours, drinking Bloody Maries and vodka martinis? We thought we might know of such a place, but we needed to check it out. The Van's on the Hill in Belmont was the spot.

There's a storied history to the building set back off El Camino, high upon the perch. It was an old speakeasy during prohibition, a place for gamblers and back-door dealers. Built in 1915 as part of the Japanese Exhibition in San Francisco to commemorate the opening of the Panama Canal, it's one of the few buildings left standing from that exposition (along with the Palace of Fine Arts and the Japanese Tea Garden). Operating through the 1930s as an illicit den for no-good, the saloon was finally turned into an Italian restaurant in 1945. It became known as Van's in 1973, and it's been packed with Peninsula loyalists ever since. We went for lunch at 11:30 on a Monday thinking we would be the only people there. Ha! The bar was full of old men right at opening, already getting their drink on.

The menu at The Van's is quite spectacular, as is the view. You can see the city off in the distance, the San Mateo bridge, and much of the Peninsula from the panoramic windows. You can get Oysters Rockefeller, a wedge salad with a hard boiled egg, and any kind of steak dish you can imagine. I started with a big, spicy Bloody Mary, a plate of fried peppers and a bowl of minestrone, before heading face-first into the official Van's Scallop Burger and a side of slaw. Yum. There's something classic going on up on the hill in Belmont. A feeling that some things won't change, at least not within those walls. You can go there, to the Van's, and rest assured that everything will be as it once was. After ten minutes of sitting in an empty dining room, the place filled up and it was a lively affair. Not an empty chair in the place –– on a Monday at 11:45.

While things might never change at Van's, I was shocked to learn that Mike Tyson had been replaced by Mr. Dream after getting home to play my new Nintendo Wii U (a gift from my wife). After Tyson's troubles in the late 80s, Nintendo cut ties with the boxer and replaced him with a white, 1950's era, Rock Hudson look-a-like who I don't care for whatsoever. There was a time when I was the best Mike Tyson's Punch Out player alive. I could go through the entire game without getting hit. Then I could go through the entire game without getting hit AND beat every boxer in the first round (except Tyson). When they changed over to Mr. Dream, however, they changed some of Tyson's patterns and it has completely thrown me off. He behaves like Tyson, but then he switches a few things and I get knocked out fast. I was so pissed.

I will beat you, however, Mr. Dream and then things will go back to the way they used to be. 007-373-5963 is the code. I will enter it, go directly to you every time, and then I will knock you out without getting hit. I will celebrate this victory with a Bloody Mary at the Van's on the Hill.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll