Silicon Valley Business Journal – by Becky Bergman

When Tim Stannard wants to find out how Silicon Valley’s economy is doing, The Village Pub owner looks no farther than his Woodside restaurant for clues.

Recent table-hopping tells Stannard — whose Mediterranean-inspired restaurant is a popular gathering spot for valley heavy-hitters — that deal-making is in vogue again six years after the tech bubble burst. “Last week, we had an executive book two tables for the same night a few hours apart,” says Stannard.

“It’s been a few years since we’ve seen people book three tables in one night for back-to-back meetings,” says Stannard. “The two-table deal is making a comeback so maybe we’ll see three tables again.”

For years, the stereotype was that cash-strapped, wanna-be CEOs with dreams of fetching millions of dollars for the next big company deal went to homey Buck’s of Woodside, where they wooed investors with ideas drawn on the back of a napkin. That might have worked for Hotmail execs. Local legend has it that the company’s founders scored funding while dining at table 15.

But today’s power players, who slave longer hours holding corporate meetings, analyzing quarterly reports and pouring over financial statements, have an appetite for a new style of deal-making that harkens back to the days of meat-eaters in dark backrooms. Upscale eateries around the valley have noticed an uptick in private dining room reservations.

Stannard says he gets more calls from local companies for his restaurant’s three private dining rooms. “We have one executive who reserved our private boardroom for meetings every third Thursday throughout 2007,” he says. “We have definitely seen a trend in private boardroom dining. There are more meetings and more deals going on.”

Restaurateur J.C. Chen, who opened Alexander’s Steakhouse in Cupertino in May 2005, has also noticed a sharp rise in the number of companies that request his private dining rooms. When Nvidia Inc. hosted a small convention in February at its Santa Clara headquarters, execs used more than half the space at Alexander’s Steakhouse for its dinner meetings, where they unveiled several new products and closed key deals.

CEOs from Apple Inc., Cisco Systems Inc., Oracle Corp., Yahoo Inc., Google Inc., YouTube, Craigslist, eBay Inc., Sun Microsystems Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co. and National Semiconductor Corp. are among the corporate celebrities that regularly rub elbows at The Village Pub and Alexander’s Steakhouse.

Of course, Buck’s owner James MacNiven, who frequently dines at The Village Pub nearby, says the valley dealmakers he sees during dinner hours in upscale restaurants look familiar.

“The people I see at the pub are the same ones I see in the morning and they are there talking shop,” says MacNiven. “The people here work hard and play hard.”

Hungry execs face more choices today when it comes to dining and deal making, according to local business leaders. And it has little to do with whether they want their prime rib rare or well done. The challenge centers around how the company manages its corporate dollars: Should execs impress potential clients and sales prospects by treating them to a gourmet meal or show business partners and investors how frugal they are by lunching at a roadside cafe?

There is certainly nothing cheap about the price of a Kobe steak, which is as inflated as the average C-level pay package. At Alexander’s Steakhouse, the imported beef goes for $100 or more. If anyone is nervous about dining expenses, it hardly shows.

The National Restaurant Association projects the overall U.S. food-service industry will increase 5 percent this year, to $537 billion while California figures are likely to shoot past the $51 billion mark.