Summer Camp: Building A Sisterhood

Posted on February 14, 2017 by  
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Summer camp may seem to provide two opposing choices: Kids can spend those sunny weeks shut up inside, drilling in academic skills to stay in shape for the school year, or they can kick back entirely, drop pencils for water guns and take a break from learning altogether.

At local all-girls’ camps, participants are encouraged to pick and choose the activities they’ve seen fall by the wayside during the school year. “It’s an opportunity to make choices,” said Polly Caddes, director of Casti Camp at Castilleja School in Palo Alto.

During the hubbub of the school year, kids who shuttle from rigorous school days to sports practice to piano lessons can be “so programmed they don’t really have a choice,” Caddes said.

In their two weeks at Casti Camp, girls in grades 2-6 (or 7-9 in the Campers in Leadership Training program) select five classes from a vast array of options, encompassing everything from poetry writing to piñata crafting and geodesic dome construction. The play-based offerings balance brains, brawn and heart, and all are geared toward the girls’ expressed interests, embracing femininity without limiting girls to stereotypical pursuits.

And, critically, campers can make choices about their own experience – on the third day of camp, if a girl’s classes aren’t the right fit, she can elect to transfer. This moment provides an opportunity for growth in and of itself.

“You get these little girls who stand in front of you saying, I want to make a switch, and they’re so shy, but they run out of there excited and run to their new class,” Caddes said.

The chance to speak up for themselves and act independently sparks new confidence in campers. “You see growth in that regard throughout the two weeks,” Caddes noted. “On change day, they’re a little nervous or intimidated to speak to these adults who are lined up with computers, but by the end of those two weeks they’re zipping around Castilleja’s paths and fields, looking self-directed and purposeful.”

To be a camper at Casti is to be immersed in a noncompetitive, intergenerational world of girls. Many attendees return year after year, bringing together a diverse group of girls from different area schools. Their college-age counselors – sometimes former campers or Castilleja alumnae themselves – are mentors who wear many hats, whether gathering girls in the morning to sing traditional camp

songs, reading chapter books aloud beneath the trees during the daily reading time, lifeguarding at the pool or teaching the classes they themselves have designed. “It’s inspiring to the young girls: Wow, these older girls can do so many things,” Caddes said.

So inspiring, in fact, that some make the leap from one role to another – last summer, two former Casti campers who met at the camp and maintained a friendship for years, despite attending different area schools, celebrated their first year together returning as counselors.

Across town at Athena Camp, whose several locations include one at Gardner Bullis School in Los Altos Hills, campers ages 4-14 blend sports with social-emotional learning. When choosing from among Athena’s offerings, which range from the usual soccer and volleyball to yoga and self-defense, girls are encouraged to break out of the “specialize early” mindset and sample something new.

And, crucially, the love of sports and athleticism is decoupled from raw competition. While campers may be skilled athletes, their ability to be a supportive team member and effective communicator matters, too.

“We’re teaching girls how to compete and leave it on the field,” said Abi Ryan, founder of Athena Camp and a longtime tennis player and coach. “And we don’t emphasize competition at all up until fifth grade,” rare though that may be in the pressure-cooker of Silicon Valley childhood.

Each day is a balance of athletic, creative and character-building activities; at any given time, a camper is equally likely to be dribbling down the basketball court, hard at work on an art project focused on inner beauty, or deep in a facilitated discussion about airbrushed models or how to use social media to create positive change.

Athena coaches – mostly college-aged student athletes – are role models who not only pass along how a love of the game has benefited them, but also can speak to their own experience with the issues campers face, whether it’s body image, conflict resolution with teammates or how to be a graceful winner.

And the fact that this is a camp by girls, for girls, and about girls? That matters, Ryan said. It’s not just that girls may feel more empowered to try new sports and be themselves in an environment designed just for them – though campers’ feedback bears that out, she said – it’s also about going into high school knowing what it feels like to build a positive team with other girls.

“In our culture, girls can be so mean to each other,” Ryan said. “We’re having girls learn to support each other and create a sisterhood of respect, having girls be on each other’s side.” If preteens already know what it feels like to be supported by other girls, she said, they’re more able to re-create that dynamic during a challenging adolescence.

For girls who want to break a sweat and build character a little farther afield, the San Francisco-based GirlVentures offers summer outdoor adventure programs for campers in grades 6-11 who are ready to strike out beyond the Bay Area. GirlVentures leads small-group outdoor expeditions throughout the summer.

Younger girls may hike beneath the towering redwoods of Big Basin, then strap on a helmet to go rock climbing, while middle schoolers splash in kayaks through Tomales Bay and sleep under the stars. By 11th grade, expeditions ascend to the Sierra, the girls equipped with the fortitude and technical skills to attempt a summit of 14,000-foot Mount Langley.

“The challenges and opportunities provided by being outdoors are incomparable,” said Taara Hoffman, executive director of GirlVentures.

When facing challenges, kids have a comfort zone, a learning zone and a panic zone, according to Hoffman.

“Our goal is to help girls expand their comfort zone,” she explained, which happens when girls beat obstacles they didn’t think they could and learn to trust their own self-efficacy.

Now entering its 20th year, GirlVentures was founded by two Bay Area women who met at the Harvard School of Education, where they found a common interest in the transition that girls made in adolescence and the problem of inner courage – how girls gain it, and how and why it may be threatened as they enter young adulthood.

Campers from homes as far apart as Palo Alto and Petaluma form friendships on the expeditions, and a deliberate commitment to accessibility makes it an especially diverse group. GirlVentures offers an extensive library of everything from technical gear to basics that some families don’t stock – no long johns? No problem. Because the program also provides all transportation and food, and offers both scholarships and sliding-scale fees, it’s open to girls who otherwise might feel shut out from such an expedition.

After the intense bonding experience of two weeks in the wilderness, Hoffman said, girls form a strong sense of community, learning “how to be allies to one another, and find their individual and collective strengths.”

One key element that strengthens that bond, Hoffman said, is that the expeditions are single-sex. “They appreciate being in an environment where they say they can be themselves,” she noted, “where they don’t feel the typical pressure to adhere to stereotypes when they’re around boys, of what a girl can and should act like.”

And whether they’re rappelling down cliffs or having a quiet moment looking over a sprawling vista of treetops, there’s time for self-reflection. In this environment, Hoffman said, “they don’t have to pay attention to the exterior as much as they normally do. They can focus more on their inner characteristics.”

Another critical element? No phones. No iPods. No personal electronics whatsoever, for the entire trip. Girls even eschew GPS to learn good old map-and-compass navigation. And, believe it or not, they come to appreciate it.

For more information on Casti Camp, visit
For more information on Athena Camps, visit
For more information on GirlVentures, visit


New VTA Transit Plan Underway

Posted on February 8, 2017 by  
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A worst-case scenario for the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) is having to pay $160 per hour for the operation of a 40-foot bus with no riders.

With an emphasis on cost effectiveness and providing service where it’s most needed, the VTA has produced a draft plan for adding and, in some cases, eliminating bus routes throughout Santa Clara County.

The new plan accommodates the arrival of Milpitas and Berryessa BART stations, scheduled to open at the end of the year, and adds more bus routes at 15-minute intervals throughout the heart of San Jose. VTA plans a frequent (every 15 minutes with limited stops) light-rail line from BART to the Castro Street station in Mountain View.

“By the end of the year, there will be thousands more coming through on BART,” said VTA spokeswoman Stacey Hendler Ross. “We had to figure out how to accommodate these people and get them to the employment centers.”

The bus routes aren’t changing for Los Altos. However, VTA is running at 30-minute intervals to and from Foothill College during weekday commute times. In Mountain View, Line 40 loops north of Highway 101 to access the Google campus, bridging Shoreline Boulevard and Charleston Road. Plans also show Line 51 along Grant Road accessing St. Francis and Mountain View high schools, with regular 60-minute intervals bumped up to 30 minutes during peak use times.

Lines 522 and 22 along El Camino Real continue with lines at 15-minute or under intervals. There’s no trace of the controversial bus-only lane for El Camino that generated vocal opposition and fears of gridlock.

Adam Burger, VTA senior transportation planner, said the new draft plan, open to public comment through Feb. 20, balances “best use of public funds versus the needs of seniors and students and people who rely on transit.”

Los Altos City Councilwoman Jeannie Bruins, who was appointed chairwoman of the VTA board in December, said the endgame is a plan that doesn’t increase costs while providing more service. “This one’s going to get us more ridership,” she said.

VTA officials plan to bring a final proposal before the board by their April 6 meeting, followed by implementation. Plan completion is targeted by the end of 2018.

For more information, visit:


Clean Energy Choice Coming to Los Altos

Posted on February 1, 2017 by  
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Los Altos, Los Altos Hills and Mountain View are set to join nine other communities in Santa Clara County in the switch from PG&E-supplied electricity to a new Community Choice Aggregator in April.

Local homeowners, renters and businesses will receive notices in the mail about the new energy provider – Silicon Valley Clean Energy (SVCEA) – in coming months. Los Altos City Councilwoman Jeannie Bruins served a key role in the formation of SVCEA last March.

“We recognized that this was the single most effective action we could take to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and make significant progress in meeting our Climate Action Plan goal,” she said.

The plan will offer customers two service options: GreenStart comprises a 50 percent renewable and 50 percent hydroelectric energy blend, and GreenPrime offers 100 percent renewable energy that is greenhouse gas-free. GreenStart, the default option, is estimated to be slightly less expensive than previous PG&E service. Customers can choose GreenPrime, which will be slightly more expensive, or opt out of the Community Choice Aggregator and continue to receive their energy from PG&E. That option would give customers a 30 percent renewable and 60 percent carbon-free energy combination.

No matter which option customers select, PG&E will provide their electricity infrastructure and billing services. The undergrounding of electricity infrastructure will continue apace.

According to Don Bray, SVCEA account manager, little will change on the customer side. “Your energy bill will continue to come from PG&E,” he said. “If the power goes out, you still call PG&E.”

Bray estimated that a PG&E energy bill of $198.13 would be $197.27 with GreenStart. The same level of energy consumption would run $204.33 with GreenPrime. “Price renewables have come down significantly,” he said. “Co-op buying is really efficient, with significantly less overhead than PG&E.”

Bray also pointed to the publicly owned nature of SVCEA, which holds public meetings twice a month and posts its minutes and documents online. “If you don’t like your rate,” he said, “go down to Cupertino Community Hall on a Wednesday night and make yourself heard.”

The city of Los Altos has embraced SVCEA. At its Jan. 10 council meeting, the Los Altos City Council voted to use the GreenPrime option for municipal operations. According to a staff report, city officials expect communitywide emissions from electicity to decrease by more than 90 percent once the entire city is under SVCEA service by the end of the year.

SVCEA will begin by launching in municipal accounts, small and medium commercial properties and 20 percent of residences in April. It will expand into large commercial uses in July and hit 100 percent of residences opting into the system by October. Users with solar grids are treated slightly differently by the system and will receive notices outlining how the rate schedule will treat them.

Bruce Karney, president of the community group Carbon Free Mountain View, said his group “was very excited by the decision that was made, and we look forward to its implementation.”


Los Altos Library Reading Buddies

Posted on January 31, 2017 by  
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Carter’s preferred snack is freeze-dried liver, “Clifford the Big Red Dog” is his favorite book and eating is featured prominently on his list of daily activities. Torrey likes bananas, “Henry and Mudge” stories and dressing up. Desi’s jam is bacon, “Madeline Finn and the Library Dog” and napping in the sunshine.

As profiled on their respective promotional bookmarks, each four-legged Reading Buddies participant boasts a distinct personality. But it’s the canines’ ability to listen without interrupting that consistently attracts the program’s two-legged participants – struggling readers who gain confidence by reading aloud to therapy animals. Saturday marked the post-holiday return of the free monthly drop-in sessions at the Los Altos main library.

“It is a wonderful program because all the volunteers, they bring their dogs,” said Jean Nei, acting children’s library supervisor at the main branch. “The children, especially the young readers, love to come to the library to read to the dogs.”

Here’s how it works: Children are paired with a volunteer and read aloud to that volunteer’s trained therapy pet. No one corrects pronunciation or becomes impatient awaiting the completion of a sentence. Some pets even cock their heads as if following the storyline.

The program is a popular Los Altos Library offering, drawing approximately 10-15 readers each month, Nei said. Some of the young participants don’t own pets, and the opportunity to read to a friendly furry ear is a novelty.

Certified Animal Behaviorist Julie Bond co-founded Reading Buddies in 2009 with Patty Guthrie, past vice president of Furry Friends Pet Assisted Therapy Services. The San Jose-based organization dispatches volunteers and their pets to libraries, retirement homes and hospitals, as well as to high school and college campuses during exam times.

Furry Friends pays monthly visits to more than 60 facilities throughout Santa Clara, San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties, including Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford, The Forum Senior Living Retirement Home and De Anza College. While dogs and cats are the most common therapy animals, rabbits, guinea pigs, miniature horses and even llamas have put in appearances as well. All human and animal volunteers are evaluated and trained.

Three of Bond’s own dogs – all collies – have participated in Reading Buddies; Desi, a 6-year-old male Rough Collie, is her latest program companion. His claim to fame is actually his roommate Ozzie, a direct descendant of Lassie from the classic television series, according to his bookmark.

The effects of Reading Buddies’ low-stress environment are evident during follow-up sessions and through reports from students’ schools, Bond said. “This increases their fluency, and it increases their confidence,” she said. “It helps them speak up in class.”

Volunteer Reading Buddies publicist Maddie Elkin, 14, learned about the program a few years ago when she assisted with ushering participants from the library lobby to their assigned dog or cat within the Orchard Room. Afterward, she listened as the children read.

Reading Buddies meets 2:30 p.m. the fourth Saturday of each month at the Los Altos main library, 13 S. San Antonio Road. For more information, visit


Water District Keeps Reduction Target

Posted on January 28, 2017 by  
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The Santa Clara Valley Water District Board of Directors voted Jan. 24 to continue its call for water-use reductions of 20 percent compared with 2013 water-consumption levels.

In 2016, Santa Clara County used 28 percent less water than in 2013. While statewide and local conditions have improved significantly, the board members emphasized that dry conditions could return, and the community’s water savings achievements should be continued.

At its Tuesday meeting, after the Town Crier’s press deadline, board members planned to issue a new resolution for a continued limit on watering ornamental landscapes to no more than three days per week. Officials said the district would drop its prior call for retail water agencies, local municipalities and Santa Clara County to implement mandatory measures, as needed, to achieve the 20 percent water-use reduction target.

The water district does not have the authority to enforce mandatory water-use restrictions on the customers of each local water provider. Since 2014, the board’s resolutions have instead requested that water providers implement their own mandatory water restrictions to reach the target. By dropping the “mandatory” language now, board members expect that local water providers will not use drought surcharges or penalties to motivate customers to meet the 20 percent goal.

Certain activities that waste potable water are permanently prohibited by the State Water Resources Control Board, including hosing off sidewalks, driveways and other hardscapes; washing automobiles with hoses not equipped with a shut-off nozzle; using nonrecirculated water in a fountain or other decorative water feature; watering lawns in a manner that causes runoff or within 48 hours after measurable precipitation; and irrigating ornamental turf on public street medians.


California Indian Feast Exhibition

Posted on January 11, 2017 by  
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Acorn Mush Basket“Seaweed, Salmon and Manzanita Cider: A California Indian Feast,” a statewide traveling exhibition from the Grace Hudson Museum and Exhibit Envoy, is scheduled to open Saturday and run through April 16 at the Los Altos History Museum, 51 S. San Antonio Road.

The exhibition will feature historical and contemporary photographs, artifacts, food specimens, memoirs and recipes. Based on a compendium of Native American cuisine by Margaret Dubin and Sara-Larus Tolley, the display showcases foods important in the lives of Native Californians.

Sherrie Smith-Ferri, director of the Grace Hudson Museum in Ukiah, curated the exhibition in consultation with her aunt, Kathleen Rose Smith, a California Indian artist and a member of the Coast Miwok and Dry Creek Pomo tribes.

Smith-Ferri noted how much fun it was to put the exhibition together. “It brought back lots of good memories of getting together with the family to spend time at the coast harvesting abalone, mussels and seaweed, or going to pick berries,” she said. “And of course, it brings back recollections of some great meals eaten together.”

The exhibition contains harvesting instructions and recipes for foods such as huckleberry bread, pine nut soup, rose hip syrup and roasted barnacles. Related programs for children are scheduled 10 a.m. to noon Saturday (“Animals and Fish as Food”) and Feb. 11 (“Native Plants as Food”).

Museum hours are noon to 4 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays. Admission is free. For more information visit:


Outpost Of A Legendary Family

Posted on January 8, 2017 by  
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101 Main St Los AltosOne could be forgiven for thinking the Sassoon Building at 101 Main St. got its name because it is seemingly always occupied by salons – and now Brownhome Designs.

But the ranch-style office building can lay claim to a far more auspicious history than one named after shampoo entrepreneur Vidal Sassoon. It was built by Edward Sassoon, who took out a full-page advertisement when he opened the doors in 1954. Los Altos’ new office building was the latest node in a three-continent family empire that began in 19th-century Baghdad and spanned from London to Shanghai.

Sassoon came to San Francisco Nov. 15, 1932, on the SS President Hoover. The 36-year-old immigrant was accompanied by his wife, Flora, and three children: Meyer, Celia (“Sally”) and Janet.

In some ways, it was a typical migration story: Sassoon listed his profession as “fruit merchant” and found opportunity south of San Francisco in the famed “Valley of Heart’s Delight.”

In other ways, the Sassoons were racing against time. They were a Jewish family in Indonesia and part of Surabaya’s tiny Jewish community. The Japanese empire was expanding at the time of their exodus – their armies had just occupied Manchuria – and the Sassoons must have been nervous about the future. A decade later, Japanese troops entered Indonesia.

The Sassoons were also not a typical Jewish Californian family. Edward was born in Calcutta, India. His great-grandfather was born in what is now Iraq and treasurer to the pasha of Baghdad before decamping to Bombay.

The Sassoon family quickly became fabulously wealthy by triangulating among British bankers and Asian merchants (Vidal Sassoon, raised in a London tenement, is of no relation). They were philanthropists and builders. The Sassoon Docks host Mumbai’s raucous fish market. The Sassoon House in Shanghai, now the Peace Hotel, is an art deco masterpiece on the Bund.

Compared to such monuments, Los Altos’ one-story Sassoon Building may not seem like much. By the time it was built, national independence movements in India, Indonesia and China had pushed multinational families like the Sassoons out of their family homes. Even before the war began, the Sassoons may have seen where it was headed. In 1940, Edward filed a petition for naturalization for his family.

While the Sassoons lived in the West Portal neighborhood in San Francisco, Edward’s fruit business kept him in the orchards of the South Bay. Before it was discontinued in 1962, the Vasona Branch of the Southern Pacific Railroad transported apricots and other fruits to the busy San Francisco piers. An office on Main Street helped Edward keep tabs on the annual crop back in the day when the city was full of orchards and not multi-million-dollar homes.

Edward Sassoon passed away in 1969. His wife, Flora, lived until 2003, succumbing to an illness at the age of 101. The Sassoon children were raised in San Francisco. Janet, the youngest, became a prima ballerina for the San Francisco Ballet and a world-renowned ballet teacher. Judging by the naturalization paperwork, Janet has her father’s high cheekbones.

“I’m from a different part of the world, and as a ballerina I looked different from everyone,” she said in a 2014 interview. “As I grew older, I realized that was to my great advantage.”

The one-story Sassoon Building may not be the most remarkable-looking building in downtown Los Altos, but it reminds passersby that a global story stretching from the Ottoman Empire to the docks of Shanghai is stitched together on Main Street.


Local Rotarians Bring Aid To Haiti

Posted on January 3, 2017 by  
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Los Altos RotariansAfter the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, most of the local infrastructure was destroyed, leaving the capital city Port-au-Prince and surrounding communities in rubble and more than 150,000 dead. Humanitarian volunteers poured in with aid, including two Rotary Club of Los Altos members, Allan Varni and Bud Oliver.

Varni and Oliver’s goal was to form connections with local Rotarians and nongovernmental organizations to raise funds to rebuild a school that had been completely destroyed. The quake hit in the late afternoon, so the school’s students were not in class.

The school originally was built under the auspices of a Haitian grassroots organization, Society of Providence United for Economic Development (SOPUDEP), founded to provide education for children and adults, support children’s and women’s rights and create economic opportunities for the community.

Many American high schools sent volunteer students during winter and spring breaks to help rebuild the school, including Los Altos High School, led by teacher Seth Donnelly. International architects designed the new school to withstand earthquakes.

Varni and Oliver represented the Los Altos Rotary Endowment Fund’s World Community Service Fund, which provided building materials, desks, books, school supplies and software, along with e-readers from a local partner, the Los Altos-based Books for Haiti. Google Inc., Apple Inc. and other companies matched contributions and donated supplies.

With help from many sources, the SOPUDEP School is now up and running, filled with hundreds of students who look forward to a better future.  Varni described the Haitians as being in “good spirits,” with a strong commitment to continue the work of rebuilding.


Local Muralist Tells A Story

Posted on January 1, 2017 by  
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Morgan Bricca

Earlier this year, new color bloomed on two Los Altos campuses – public art projects commissioned by school communities to mark ends and new beginnings.

At Covington School, the graduating class sponsored a mural celebrating reading and the California landscape. At Egan Junior High, the PTA launched a mural to honor Principal Brenda Dyckman’s 23 years of service. Both murals stem from Los Altos resident Morgan Bricca, who has left her mark on schools, civic buildings, shops and local homes around the region. Through her business “Murals by Morgan,” she has created hundreds of site-specific works of art.

Bricca’s son, an Egan student, had already introduced her to the student culture at the junior high. In meeting with Dyckman, she built a growing sense of the “schoolwide reason to have fun,” ranging from dances to dunk tanks and pancake breakfasts.

Bricca set out to create a mural for students that also resonated with the “grownups” calling the shots. She shared five widely different designs with Dyckman, expecting that a Viking ship on a lake might win out. But the principal chose the wildest – a bright splash of color that Dyckman told Bricca “reflected the explosion of emotion in the early teen years.”
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New Businesses For Downtown

Posted on December 28, 2016 by  
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242 State St Los AltosDowntown Los Altos is expecting a boost from a host of new businesses in the new year. An investment firm and a new child’s play company opened their doors in the waning weeks of 2016. Several restaurants and a wine-tasting room plan to start serving customers in 2017.

Ignition Partners held its office-warming party in late October and has already made several deals from its new space on First Street. The venture capital firm moved from Palo Alto and recently led a $20 million investment round in Accompany, a virtual personal assistant app. According to Crunchbase, Ignition Partners has raised more than $1 billion since it was founded in 2000.

Kiwi Crate moved back to Los Altos to open a shop in time for holiday gift-giving. Founded out of a Los Altos garage, the company had been renting warehouse space in Mountain View to stock its Science, Technology, Engineering and Math-focused children’s toy packages, or crates. Sandra Oh Lin began selling below the rainbow-colored facade on State Street in December.

Los Altos Research Center, a startup that aims to create a new way to securely communicate and shop, has rented a storefront at 359 State St. Company officials said they are not yet ready to open to the public, but they have begun a private beta test three months after a launch event in mid-September.

Several restaurants are planning first-quarter 2017 openings. Morsey’s is a new cafe focused on introducing Californians to buffalo milk. Long cherished in Italy, south Asia and the Mediterranean for its taste and low cholesterol, the buffalo milk will be processed near the Morseys’ own dairy farm in the Davis area before making its way to 134 Main St., the space previously occupied by Main Street Cafe & Books for a decade.

Byington Winery plans to open a tasting room at 366 Main St., the former site of Therapy. Showcasing wines from their vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Byington representatives hope to sell memberships as well as wines up and down the Peninsula.

Andrew Welch plans to open ASA at 242 State St., the modern steel-and-glass space which won an award this year for its Olson Kundig-designed guillotine window.

Welch aims to build off the success of The Basin, his Saratoga restaurant featuring French and Italian dishes, by focusing on sustainability and an “honest” approach.

The scaffolding is finally off Hiroshi, the new Japanese restaurant at 328 Main St., former home to Dean’s Designs. The facade’s rusted-metal sheets stand out in the “village” feel of downtown. The restaurant promises high-end Japanese cuisine.


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