The denizens of Palo Alto , especially those who live near the university and downtown (sometimes called the Faculty Ghetto by locals who can’t afford the area), like their food. They like it ethnic sometimes, expensive sometimes, but always delicious.
An historic favorite often associated with Stanford is Sundance the Steakhouse (1921 El Camino Real, 650/321-6798, http://sundancethesteakhouse.com , lunch Mon.–Fri. 11:30 a.m.–2 p.m., dinner Mon.–Thurs. 5–10 p.m., Fri.–Sat. 5–10:30 p.m., Sun. 5–9 p.m., $19–36). This place reeks of “old boys’ club” from the moment you walk in the door. Dimly lit even for a restaurant, Sundance’s interior features dark wood, dark booths, black-and-white prints, and antique sporting equipment.
The food tends toward—you guessed it—steak. You can order a big cut of beef complete with traditional sides, or opt for a more interesting California-style seafood preparation. The salads and starters are tempting, but if you want to save room for dessert you might need to split an entrée with a dinner companion.
For something a little bit different and a whole lot more reasonably priced, pack in with the locals at Zao Noodles (261 University Ave., 650/328-1988, www.zaonoodle.com , $10–15). This pan-Asian noodle house shows off its popularity with bright colors and close-packed tables. Zao serves spicy, reasonably healthy noodle and rice bowls containing all manner of ingredients, plus curries, pad Thai, summer rolls, and more. You can choose from vegetarian, seafood, or meat dishes here. Be sure to pay attention to the little chile pepper markers—when Zao claims a dish is spicy, they mean it! Despite the number of folks who come to Zao, especially on weekend nights, the service is consistently fast and the servers do an amazing job of navigating the warren of tables.
Though it’s not as near to the sea as some other parts of the Bay Area, Palo Alto  is home to one of the most venerable seafood institutions: Scott’s Seafood Grill & Bar (855 El Camino Real, #1, 650/323-1555, www.scottsseafood.com , Mon. 7 a.m.–9 p.m., Tues.–Fri. 7 a.m.–9:30 p.m., Sat. 9 a.m.–9:30 p.m., Sun. 9 a.m.–9 p.m., $18–30). Scott’s sits right across the street from Stanford Stadium in one of the last surviving “Town and Country Villages” in the Silicon Valley . This elegant white-tablecloth restaurant has a large window-lined dining room, and a bar on the other side.
While you can wear casual clothes to Scott’s, a dinner here is also a great excuse to dress up a bit. At breakfast and lunch, Scott’s caters to the business set—many power lunches take place over salmon and sole here. The seafood at Scott’s runs to a good variety of fish done up in fine preparations, often with exotic sauces. The wine list is worth perusing, with its fine California vintages and European wines.
Even the ultra-multicultural and sometimes snooty town of Palo Alto  has its local favorite down-home diner. The Palo Alto Creamery (566 Emerson St., 650/323-3131, www.paloaltocreamery.com , Mon.–Fri. noon–9 p.m., Sat. 9 a.m.–midnight, Sun. 8 a.m.–10 p.m., $8–15) has all the old kitschy decor to make diners believe that they’ve really entered some sort of time warp and a genuine 1950s soda shop. Red vinyl, shiny chrome, a black-and-white checked floor, a long counter, and funky booths help complete the total picture. The food runs to burgers, sandwiches, and American classic entrées.
But what you really come to the creamery for is the house-made ice cream. Whether you order an extra-thick shake with your burger or wait for a sundae for dessert, don’t skip this all-important Creamery staple. Just be aware that the Creamery gets crowded, especially on weekends. Locals know it’s open pretty late and can often fill the place to the brim for an after-show meal.