Buck's of Woodside: Where unicorns are born (and there's weird stuff in the drinking water).
"Woodside is a typical small town in the USA," says Buck's of Woodside restaurant owner, Jamis MacNiven. "One church, one school, five restaurants, 150 realtors and 11 billionaires."
He's not really joking either.
I can't remember when or how I first heard of Buck's restaurant. But I was certain I had to add it to my 'Silicon Valley' itinerary last time I was down that way.
It turned out I had some spare time between commitments at Stanford University, and returning to San Francisco. It was on the way, just a 15 minute-drive via the much-storied Sand Hill Road -- home to the biggest density of tech billionaires and venture capitalists in the world.
So I planned to head out early, do some writing at Buck's, followed by lunch. Perfect.
To me the most surprising thing about Silicon Valley is just how low-key it is -- it doesn't feel like the global centre of anything -- and you're soon into some beautiful rolling wooded hills. Very rural. Then there's a left-hand turn into Woodside, with it's bucolic cottages and horse paddocks.
Buck's looks very non-descript from the outside -- cowboy-lettering signage on a single-storey shop front.
But step inside and it's a visual assault. An Aladdin's cave of crap framed on the wall, hanging from the ceiling, flying through the air. Quirky. Like a toy shop for adults (no, not those kind of toys). One item that catches my eye is a roughly hacked together sports shoe prototype with a sign "Nike Prototype c. 1980. Stolen from Nike by a friend."
So what's great about this place?
Not really sure. But it's now part of the Valley's legend. Jamis opened it in 1991. THe following year, Bob Metcalfe -- the inventor of Ethernet, and founder of 3Com -- mentioned the diner in an interview. THe following year John Doerr, partner at Kleiner Perkins, started having power breakfast meetings there with Netscape. A TV crew picked up on it. The following year 150 TV crews dropped by to pick up stories.
"In 1995, everything broke open like the Wizard of Oz," Jamis tells me, as he sits down next to me in the booth. "Like going from black-and-white to colour." He's referring to the explosion of the valley, and the digital disruption of the world with Netscape and the internet (Millennials, please google Netscape.)
And Buck's grew into being the place to do a deal. Over the years, companies like PayPal , Tesla, and Go Pro came into being over their famous onion soup, oven-roasted baby artichokes, and lobster quesadilla salad.
"This has been Ground Zero for a lot of things in Silicon Valley," says Jamis, with pride but nonchalance, almost like he couldn't give a, um, buck. "It's where the venture funds meet the entrepreneurs."
You see, Jamis has led a very full and colourful life, and this is just one ring of the larger circus to him.
He was born in Japan, the son of a "failed missionary" he says, claiming they only converted two people on all of Hokkaido in five years.
He asks after my accent, correctly identifying trace elements of Rhodesian (Zimbabwean): "I was married to a Rhodesian for 43 years," he says. He regales me with stories of his travels, which reflect the quirky spirit of the man. "I travelled to ghost cities in Inner Mongolia. You heard about them?" he asks, peering through his spectacles at me. "And to the Gates of Hell in Uzbekistan ... there's an oil well fire they haven't been able to cap for decades so they set up a resort next to it." Bizarre! But that's what you expect around here, as a main course.
He orders a round of coffees, and we get chatting more. How he loves flying airships. He's even written a book about it, called California From 500 Feet, following the coastline in his airship like some latter-day Baron Von Munchausen. (Millenials look all of those things up.)
Yes, he's one of those people for whom life is clearly a non-stop series of accidents and adventures but you somehow end up in a great place anyway. Maybe I shouldn't be so surprised -- after all he was a student activist from UC Berkeley in the 60s, and al that went with that.
I am engrossed. "Oh, and I remodelled Steve Jobs' house for a year before he kicked me off the job," he says, with a chuckle at the memory. "We used to hang out there all the time, in fact his girlfriend named my son. But after that we had nothing to do with each other -- we'd just look away. So I was pretending not to know the most famous guy of the 20th century."
"Turns out building is a skill -- who woulda thought it?" he laughs. "I thought, If I can just sell that's good enough."
"I got better at building and selling, especially to banks and other companies who just cared about image. But they all went to jail. Everyone I built for either became a billionaire or went to jail."
I could've gladly stayed there all afternoon lapping up his stories. I couldn't give too much of a hoot about the big Silicon Valley names and stories (he's good friends with Kevin Kelly, the founder of Wired, and Mel gibson is a frequent guest) but I was far more enthralled by his own tales of derring-do, told with a mischievous sparkle in the eye.
Before I left, he insisted on giving me a hard-cover copy of his book, duly signed. I went to Buck's hoping to breathe the rarified air, get some inspiration for my writing (I wrote a foreword for one of my books there, not published yet), and feel what mixing with the power brokers of Silicon Valley feels like.
Truth be told, I couldn't tell who were the billionaires and who were the creativity consultants. But I do know one thing for sure -- if Steve Jobs had walked in, I wouldn't have pretended not to know him.