By far, one of the most popular posts on this blog site is The Monk’s Retreat, which was published nearly nine years ago on August 17, 2014. The post tells the story of an encounter I had near the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue with a Buddhist monk in saffron robes.
The monk was soliciting donations for a new temple and would not take no for an answer. Understand that I’m saying this as someone who spent two weeks canvassing on the sidewalks of Manhattan for Greenpeace and recall one guy in particular who got in my face and yelled, “Fuck Greenpeace!” So I am used to aggressive behavior. I did not expect it from a Buddhist monk.
I won’t get into the details of that interaction except to recommend that you check out the post, which is quite funny. I did not think so at the time. However, what continues to spur interest from readers today is the opening in which I mention a restaurant by the name of “The Monk’s Retreat.” I did so in passing to set the stage for the Buddhist monk story. After all this time, I have received so many comments about the post that I feel obliged to return to the restaurant.
The Monk’s Retreat was a popular, wine & fondue-style restaurant nestled in the El Paseo de Saratoga shopping center in San Jose, California. It served such things as sandwiches, quiche, salads, and entrées. During my first move to California in 1980, I would go there frequently with my uncle and his wife. It had good food, low prices, and friendly service. It fit the bill, since I was twenty-three and living in a tent in my uncle’s backyard, playing the alto recorder and pouring wine in the tasting room at nearby Paul Masson winery in an effort to make money and get back on the road (see Living 360°).
The main attraction of The Monk’s Retreat and the reason for its name was the exhibit of a hooded monk in the basement where wine was stored (see photos). Think of a Cistercian or Benedictine monastery in 11th-12th century France. I remember people, especially those new to the restaurant, checking out the monk and remarking how much they liked it. The restaurant actually had become something of a local tourist attraction.
The owners, a married couple, had created not just an enjoyable environment for employees, many of whom were students, but they supported them whenever they could financially, with rent, and even helping with college. In addition, the couple taught the staff not just about the business but a little bit about wine. One former employee recalls being introduced to Gewürztraminer. Todd Frederick remembers the manager leading a trip to Domaine Chandon winery in Yountville where the staff were presented with bottles of wine.
Another student waiter attests to “[m]any happy Friday and Saturday nights serving fondue while duos and trios of young people entertained the diners singing and playing acoustic guitars. Those might have been the best years of my life.”
The Monk’s Retreat operated at a time when there still existed pockets of pre-silicon California. Neighbors knew each other, kids grew up together, and much of the Bay Area consisted of grassy suburban towns and local associations (see The Birches of Silicon Valley). When I moved to the area I remember passing a sign on Highway 101 showing San Jose’s population at 202,000. Macintosh was simply an apple then. In time, I moved into my first apartment a block away from my uncle’s place. It bordered apricot and plum orchards.
The orchards are long gone, of course. The neighborhoods have filled with successive generations of new Californians from around the globe. In 1996 The Monk’s Retreat was demolished. Another employee recounts seeing what he describes as “the sad spectacle of the wood-sided, multi-level ‘walking mall’…ground up into a giant pile of dirt…[o]nly to watch it get replaced by the pastel fake stucco ‘Generic Mall 2000’ that it is today.”
However, the memory of those days lingers, as does the memory of an independently owned and operated family restaurant unique to El Paseo. It seems fitting to remember it on a day devoted to memory.
“I still miss The Monk’s Retreat,” an employee adds reflectively. “That place was awesome.”
Image credits: Mateus Campos Felipe; David Tip; Hartmut Tobies; Todd Frederick. Editorial credits: George Avalos, “San Jose’s Big El Paseo de Saratoga Mall is Bought by Busy Developer,” The Mercury News (January 10, 2019); MrJest on Disqus.
For more, go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance, which promotes “alternatives to software, culture, and hardware monopolies.” This post is dedicated to Todd Frederick, former and loyal employee of The Monk’s Retreat in San Jose, California.