SANF — October 2009
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Street Detail
Carolyn Jung

The little town that can

Perhaps the Governator should take a revenue-generating lesson from San Mateo’s flush downtown.

Shuttered storefronts have been multiplying at an alarming rate in most downtowns, but not in San Mateo’s. In Palo Alto’s more diverse cousin (ethnically and economically) to the north, the ground-floor-retail vacancy rate hovers around an enviable 6.8 percent— compared with 13 percent in downtown San Francisco and a whopping 27 percent in nearby Redwood City.

The combination of quaint old businesses that have managed to survive and some exciting new developments (thanks in part to lower rents than you’ll find in other Peninsula towns) has injected real urban energy into San Mateo’s intimate downtown. The city even dug up $234,000 for a marketing campaign to showcase its many attractions, the highlight of which will hopefully come in 2011, when a San Francisco Ferry Building– style marketplace is slated to open. The project boasts a well-known partner in Roy Fong, owner of the Imperial Tea Court, in San Francisco and Berkeley. Surveying downtown San Mateo, he liked what he saw. “It’s centrally located between San Francisco and the South Bay, and it borders several affluent cities, like Burlingame and Hillsborough. It just has great demographics.”

GRUB it’s easy to spot Sushi Sam’s 7 —just look for the line. This barebones Japanese restaurant is a favorite of top Bay area chefs and foodies, who swoon over the pristine sushi.

Put yourself in the hands of owner osamu “Sam’’ Sugiyama and order the omakase (chef’s choice). 218 e. 3rd aVe.

You won’t be able to resist the tiny taiyaki at Sweet Breams 3 , which opened last year.

These two-inch-long, fish-shaped waffles are cooked to order with your choice of fillings, including azuki beans and nutella. These traditional Japanese confections are sold individually or by the “school’’: a dozen for $5.50. 220 2nd aVe.

Family-run Bistro Luneta 6 specializes in modern Filipino cuisine inflected with the flavors of Spain, malaysia, and China.

The adobo here stars seared sea scallops and grilled portobel - los, and the crackling skin on the deep-fried pork leg is so crisp that only the sharpest knife will penetrate it. 615 e. 3rd aVe.

Chef may Yong has cooked at Palo alto’s illustrious l’amie donia, but she picked downtown San mateo for her own restaurant because of its cheaper rent and, she says, because it attracts diners “with more diverse palates.’’ her striking seafood restaurant, Lure 2 , serves up imaginative seasonal dishes, plus a $32 nightly, three-course prix fixe. 204a 2nd aVe.

Takahashi Market 5 , family-run since 1906, stocks fresh asian produce, in addition to hawaiian products, such as instant poi and macadamia-nut cookies. The tiny counter turns out plate lunches, as well as Spam musubi (sushi made with everyone’s favorite canned lunch meat). 221 S. Claremont St. SHOPFRONTS the first suburban outpost of San Francisco’s original destination grocery store, Draeger’s 10 still offers everything for discriminating cooks.

On the first floor, you’ll find French champagnes, cheeses galore, fresh turmeric root, and individual quail eggs. On the second floor, shop for culinary gadgets and the latest cookbooks, dine at the plush Viognier restaurant, or take a class at the cooking school.

222 e. 4th aVe.

Wisnom’s 4 hardware, which dates to 1905, is like a beloved community general store. Bulk parakeet seed is shelved near fruit preserves, Weber gas grills, and more than 800 types of lightbulbs.

545 1St aVe.

Talbot’s Toyland 9 , which opened in 1953, now sells all kinds of kids’ gear, but the array of fabulous toys— such as collector dolls, model-airplane kits, and even a 31-inchtall mohair Snoopy for $895—still inspires the most love from customers young and old. 445

S. B St. Clotheshorses should head to the two-yearold J’Me Boutique 1 , where owner Jamie Sears, a former sales supervisor for Barneys Co-op in Beverly hills, can outfit you in the latest robert rodriguez ruched top or a vintage frock. Bring back the reusable shopping bag and get a 10 percent discount on fullprice purchases. 302 BaldWin aVe.

Peruse more than 1,000 titles—including rare ones published only in the United Kingdom— at M Is for Mystery

11. This mysteryonly bookstore boasts many author-signed books and holds about 200 signings each year.

86 e. 3rd aVe.

Lula Lu 8 is the only store in the United States specializing in petite lingerie. Browsing through more than 25 brands of a and aa cups—and the owner’s own line of aaa-cup bras—those who are a little less endowed will find comfort and style.

212 e. 3rd aVe.

ONLY HERE Web giants Youtube and napster both got their start in downtown San mateo. After their company was acquired by Google, the Youtube founders strolled into their favorite downtown coffee haunt, 3 Bees, bearing celebratory bottles of champagne.

Even though their office is now in San Bruno, some Youtubers still return here regularly for a cup of joe.

THE TALK it’s like salt in the wound: When the 74-year-old Bay meadows racetrack, just south of down town, was acquired by a development firm last year, locals who wanted it preserved (Seabiscuit ran to fame here) lost the battle, and the company forged ahead with plans to build houses, offices, and stores on the site. But the project has been put on hold, and the track now sits empty. “it’s heartbreaking to see it,” says linda Slocum lara, whose father, a retired jockey, once raced here. “i can’t believe it’s come to this.” WHAT IT COSTS …to rent: $2,170 for a two-bedroom, twobath apartment in a complex with a fitness center and a swimming pool, at hillsborough Plaza. 250 BaldWin aVe.

…to buy: $648,000 for a three-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath, ground-floor, end-unit condo at 111 e. 9th aVe.