Los Gatos, Calif., is the town you drive by but never into. By the time you’ve made it through the frantic San Jose traffic on Highway 17 and see the green highway sign to your destination — “Santa Cruz 20 / Monterey 68” — all you want is to get there.
But then, just where the highway turns from four lanes to two and begins its ascent into the Santa Cruz Mountains, you notice something bizarre on the right, just off the road, in a passing blur. Statues of two 8-foot-tall white cats sit on pedestals in front of a gated driveway and dark woods.
You zip by, wondering what that could possibly be. Maybe you’ll pull over someday and ask. We did, which led to a 24-hour exploration of the incorporated town, population 30,400 in 14 square miles.
There’s a lot happening in Los Gatos, on several levels. As in most older California towns, preservationists and developers share an ongoing “debate” over which direction the town should move, as reflected in Los Gatos’ official motto: “Small town service, community stewardship, future focus.”
“We have evolved,” allowed former Mayor Sandy Decker, a firebrand who has “been involved with the history of this town for 50 years.”
“The texture of Los Gatos is all about the architecture of the houses and commercial buildings, and we protect them,” she said. “Pushing back the developers is extremely difficult because (some town officials think of development) as tax revenue. You risk giving it all away, so we raise a hue and cry.”
The cement cat statues off Highway 17 are Los Gatos’ defining motif, and they’re echoed around town in various forms of art. Leo and Leona have guarded the entrance to Poet’s Canyon since sculptor Robert Paine crafted them in 1922 for the two original owners of the 34-acre estate, since expanded and now owned by a businessman who values his privacy.
Los Gatos shares the history of the Santa Clara Valley, once an Eden of fruit and nut orchards (and packing plants) known as the Valley of the Heart’s Delight. The railroad and the lumber industries had defining influences, as did farming and milling. Decades later so did the silicon chip, which led to its incarnation as Silicon Valley, now the world’s center for all things high-tech and, by the way, the model for an HBO comedy series.
“Los Gatos is like a getaway for the Silicon Valley folks and the gateway to wine country and the coastal towns like Santa Cruz and Carmel,” said Catherine Somers, executive director of the Los Gatos Chamber of Commerce.
For residents the dynamic is “an almost granola-type vibe,” said hairstylist Michele Mirassou, who has lived in the area for 10 years and co-owns the Taylor & Jayne Salon. “It doesn’t have a snooty attitude, like (visitors) might think it would because there’s so much money here. It’s special because it doesn’t let people come in and build high-rises. All of us who live here pretty much have views of the foothills.”
It’s more than marketing that Los Gatos’ nickname is the Gem of the Foothills. It really is a gorgeous oasis of village charm (the residents turn out en masse for special events) and sophisticated touches (the Just for Her package at The Spa is $490).
Sure, a redwood grove, park benches and gushing fountain make the Town Plaza a relaxing slice of Norman Rockwellian Americana, but the saturation of spas, salons, art galleries, wine-tasting rooms, restaurants and upscale clothing and home-goods stores is a reminder of just where you are. Clue: About 35 percent of residents have incomes of between $150,000 and $499,000, while about 12 percent make $500,000 and more. Single-family, entry-level homes go for $1.8 million, say real estate agents.
Nearby hiking trails, lakes and parks enrich the lifestyle, but our brief focus was mostly on downtown. We camped at the very sharp Toll House Hotel, situated near the three principal thoroughfares: Santa Cruz Avenue, University Avenue and Main Street. Our walkabouts revealed some discoveries, as will your own. This sampler is a good start.
1. Underappreciated must-sees are the residential neighborhoods of vintage houses, many of them among the 2,500 officially recognized “historic homes” built before 1941.
Take a walk down University Avenue and meander the side streets, or find Glenridge Drive and Tait Avenue. You’ll see prime examples of Craftsman, Victorian, adobe and Eichler architecture. The 22nd annual Historic Homes Tour in April sold out.
The Chamber of Commerce offers an excellent app for a broader self-guided walking tour of landmark buildings and historic areas. “Discover Lost Gatos” is free at the Apple App Store or Google Play.
2. Testarossa Winery now occupies the labyrinthine hilltop castle of native stone that once was the Novitiate Winery, built by Jesuits in the 1880s. It features a tasting room with an informed staff, and the Wine Bar 107. Specialties are single-vineyard pinot noirs and chardonnays. The full tour, with a wine-and-cheese pairing, is $65; other programs are available.
Testarossa Winery, 300 College Ave., 408-354-6150, testarossa.com
3. The good-times Cats Restaurant & Bar is in a funky stone-and-wood building from the 1850s. Inside the restored roadhouse are an 1896 mural, stamped-tin ceiling, beveled glasswork, hand-scraped teak floor and a museum’s worth of antiques and artifacts. Yes, those are real Wells Fargo wood stagecoach wheels out front. The rockin’ bands and the hickory-smoked pork ribs seal the deal.
Cats Restaurant & Bar, 17533 Santa Cruz Highway, 408-354-4020, thecatslosgatos.com
4. In 2015 the aging art and history museums were consolidated into the striking New Museum of Los Gatos (NUMU), a destination for 20,000 visitors yearly.
Inside, operations manager Kimberly Snyder took us through several current exhibits. Among them are “Abstracts From Life,” highlighting the Bay Area Figurative Movement; and “Radiant Light,” an emotion-provoking installation about the historic Ming Quong Home of Los Gatos, an orphanage for abandoned Chinese-American children in the 1930s and into the 1950s.
In the lobby is an entertaining Art-o-mat, one of about 100 located in art centers nationally. It’s a repurposed cigarette vending machine that dispenses original 2-by-3-inch boxes containing original art by any of 400 artists ($5). The idea originated with artist Clark Whittington of, appropriately, Winston-Salem, N.C.
NUMU, 106 E. Main St., 408-354-2646, numulosgatos.org
5. Chef David Kinch’s Manresa restaurant earned its third Michelin star in 2015, with a tasting menu that changes daily for $255. Back on Earth his casual “neighborhood bar and eatery” Bywater is an homage to his New Orleans roots. Its motto: “Be nice or leave.”
Gumbo, jambalaya and beignets are all there, but the signature is the oyster po’ boy — crisp-tender, freshly shucked, fried oysters heaped on a soft roll, dressed with shredded lettuce and cabbage, a smear of mayo and a splash of Crystal hot sauce. Who needs Michelin stars when you’re at the bar with that po’ boy and an icy honey ale, entertained by the kitchen staff doing its thing?
Bywater, 532 N. Santa Cruz Ave., 408-560-9639, thebywaterca.com
6. Since opening in August as the only brewery in town, Loma Brewing Co. has won awards and “become a hangout spot for locals and travelers,” said general manager Dan Reineke.
Easy to see why. The brewpub/sports bar is spacious and hip, with a menu of elevated pub grub (soy-glazed pork belly nachos, steamed mussels in fennel broth) and a room full of stainless-steel brewing tanks to remind you where its seven beers are made.
Bonus for Boston Red Sox fans: It’s owned by former first baseman Kevin Youkilis, who lives in nearby Monte Sereno and frequents his clubhouse.
Loma Brewing Co., 130 N. Santa Cruz Ave., 408-560-9626, lomabrew.com
7. Italian restaurant Campo de Bocce looks like a warehouse from the parking lot because four full-size bocce ball courts occupy most of the space inside. Four more courts are outside next to a manicured courtyard.
“People come in, take a bite of pizza, roll a ball and do it again,” said day manager Joe Morelli. “We get a lot of groups from Apple, eBay, Google and Netflix on weekends. They really get into it, yelling and screaming.”
More quietly, smaller groups can call a week ahead to reserve a court. Menu items are from scratch.
Campo de Bocce, 565 University Ave., 408-395-7650, campodibocce.com
8. Beyond its first-rate Latin-influenced menu, Palacio merits a look-see. The 7,300-square-foot Queen Anne Victorian house-turned-mortuary-turned-restaurant space is striking inside and out. The showcase was built in 1891 for Mary Coggeshall, an Irishwoman from Australia who lived there until her death in 1909. Local lore insists her ghost is very much in residence.
Palacio, 115 N. Santa Cruz Ave., 408-402-3811, palaciorestaurant.com
9. The Italian wine shop Enoteca La Storia is a destination for a full Italian menu and an intriguing international wine list. Hundreds of bottles of vino and more than 30 wines by the glass join 30 craft brews in a handsome environment. Bargain alert: A bottle of 2014 Terredora di Paolo Aglianico is $16.
Enoteca la Storia, 416 N. Santa Cruz Ave., 408-625-7272, enotecalastoria.com
10. Take a break from walking and all the food and wine choices with a cup of espresso and a cone of award-winning, small-batch gelato at the family-owned Dolce Spazio (since 1980). Choose from up to 16 flavors, but be smart and go with Amaretto almond.
Dolce Spazio, 221 N. Santa Cruz Ave., 408-395-1335, www.dolcespazio.com