How Buck's of Woodside became the 'Cheers' of Silicon Valley

In the past two decades the restaurant Buck's of Woodside has been an anchor of Silicon Valley. While known for it's wacky decor, it's also known as a breeding ground for tech companies.

Image: Jason Hiner/TechRepublic

Jamis MacNiven has witnessed some of the most monumental moments in the history of technology. From the first demos of PayPal to the incorporation of Hotmail, MacNiven has been there; and he didn't have to leave work to do so.

MacNiven is the proprietor of the restaurant Buck's of Woodside, a storied destination for so many of the movers and shakers in Silicon Valley. Back in 1991, he, "kicked the doors open and hoped for the best." From that point on it has been a wild ride.

Buck's is known for its wild decor. Model planes hang from the ceiling and a giant Statue of Liberty model holds an ice cream cone high above diners heads when they walk in. In essence, it's an eccentric place.

Eccentric as it may be, it is also the place for a power lunch in the Valley.

Located about several miles west of downtown Palo Alto, or roughly 32 miles southeast of downtown San Francisco, Buck's isn't decidedly close to any one particular startup nest in California. But, it is less than four miles from one important Silicon Valley destination -- Sand Hill Road, where many of the most influential venture capitalists in the Valley have their offices.

"Buck's is one of the only restaurants that's near the venture capital world. So, if you're raising money on Sand Hill road, it's not too far of a drive," said Robert Scoble, the startup liaison officer at Rackspace.

MacNiven was no stranger to technology before opening Buck's. In fact, he claims he even worked for Apple's Steve Jobs in the 1970s as home remodeler. That was actually his second job ever as a general contractor.

The inside of Buck's restaurant in Woodside, California.
Image: Jason Hiner/TechRepublic

At Buck's, the early 1990s saw many conversations around hardware such as 30 pound cell phones and the newest fax machines, but everything changed in 1995.

"By 94' we'd seen three TV crews, by '95 we'd seen 150 TV crews, because that's when Netscape launched and that changed everything," MacNiven said. "We were fortunate enough to have been the place where they had a lot of their foundational early meetings and that was pretty exciting, because once we all had access to a convenient browser the world changed."

Once word got out that some of Silicon Valley's top minds were holding court at Buck's, it naturally became one of the go-to spots for entrepreneurs in the area.

Buck's eventually became a sort of test bed for media and technology plays. MacNiven claims that it was one of the first restaurants to become a wireless hotspot. It was also one of the first stops for Tesla Motors when it's founders were trying to raise money.

MacNiven recalls a time when Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning pulled up in front of the restaurant in a bright yellow Tesla prototype. They both lived in Woodside at the time and were offering chunks of equity in the company for $50,000. One of today's fastest growing companies in the world was raising capital outside of this very restaurant.

MacNiven saw the Dot Com bubble and its subsequent bust, and he also played host to the rebuilding of the Valley in the years since. He even organized downhill races between venture capital firms for charity. Buck's, and MacNiven himself, have definitely become a fixture in the Valley.

Still, when asked to describe the restaurant, MacNiven said, "We're just a local joint."

He describes it in a Cheers-esque fashion, as a place where people come to see other people as much as they come to get fed. The restaurants sees about 800 people on an average day, including regulars who MacNiven has seen throughout the years.

In the morning, especially, there is a lot of table hopping and hand shaking. "It's like Facebook with real faces," MacNiven said.

Buck's owner Jamis MacNiven arm wrestles Mike Tyson.
Image: Jamis MacNiven/Buck's of Woodside

Much of that entrepreneurial curiosity permeates other aspects of the restaurant. Children are encouraged to get up from their seat and go on "treasure hunts" around the restaurant, exploring all of the nooks and crannies that hold the unique items and pieces of history that MacNiven has collected over the years. A practice that MacNiven is sure hasn't gained him any popularity among other dining establishments.

When it comes to the vibrancy and unique experience that folks can expect at Buck's, MacNiven said he credits it to his employees and customers, citing the fact that his average server has been there for 10 years and there isn't much, if any, turnover.

"We actually sell food, but we sell engagement too," MacNiven said.

There's no secret reason behind Buck's becoming a stalwart of the Valley. There's also no guarantee that a meeting at Buck's will produce the next big thing. In fact, MacNiven said that most of the time it's hard to even realize which ideas will blow up, because most of the ideas just wash away.

While it may not guarantee a flood of capital, being at a place like Buck's can provide another type of fuel for your startup.

"I don't know that it plays a role in a big deal, what it does is play a role in belief," Scoble said.

A big part of starting a company is believing you can do it. And, a big part of believing that you can accomplish what you set out to do with your company is having people around you who are chasing the same dream.

Buck's is a place where people can chase Silicon Valley dreams together.

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