Delicious destinations: Best restaurants of 2012

A Greek salad at Kristina's Restaurant in Hollister.

Whoever says South County has slim food pickings can stick to frozen dinners from Trader Joe’s.

They may be smaller than San Jose, but the cities of Gilroy, Morgan Hill and Hollister have a growing nest egg of culinary spunk.

Hundreds of ballots were cast, and the people have spoken: The following three eateries were voted the “best new restaurants” in the Dispatch’s 2012 “Best Of” contest. We suggest you treat your taste buds and patronize these gourmet locales.

The Milias Restaurant, 7397 Monterey St., Gilroy

One year and 36,000 satisfied patrons later, the soaringly successful Milias Restaurant has re-emerged as the downtown cornerstone it once was, fanning the embers of a hoped-for cultural renaissance in Gilroy.  

“There’s still a long ways to go to throw off the stigmas of downtown Gilroy being a dangerous place to go,” says Milias co-owner Ann Zyburra. “The reality is that if we want downtown to thrive, then we have to come down to it.”

Meticulously restored to its original aesthetic caliber by Zyburra and co-owner Adam Sanchez in June 2011, this nostalgic dining destination that once catered to the likes of actors Will Rogers, Clark Gable and John Wayne is an artful blend of city history and forward culinary thinking; a 1922 landmark defined by rustic elegance, Western grandeur and a touch of old-timey Hollywood class.

Run by Sanchez and Zyburra – longtime foodie enthusiasts with no professional training, save for an inherent talent of concocting deliciously edgy and experimental fare – the winning premise of this hospitality hotspot is a combination of consistently scrumptious dishes spiced with a dash of risk-taking.

“We’ll never be satisfied with what we’re doing. We’re always striving to be better,” said Sanchez.

Along with Zyburra, the two get their thrills by pushing the gourmet envelope. They always seems to be scheming up their next tasty novelty.

Specially themed diners at the Milias illuminate diners to the like of baby abalone, caviar and fine tequilas, while mouth-watering crowd pleasers like an enticing appetizer list (Crispy Sweet Onion Strings, $8; Rice Krispie Almond Chicken Wings, $11; Prosciutto Wrapped Goat Cheese $10) or six different steaks (ranging from $29 to $39) sauced with your choice of Cabernet demi-glace, cognac peppercorn, The Milias steak sauce, béarnaise or Point Reyes blue cheese butter keep Gilroyans and out-of-towners from Brooklyn, Oregon and San Francisco coming back for more.

Libation offerings are treated with equal parts discernment and inventiveness.

Seasonal specialties like the from-scratch peach margarita ($10) or the “Old Glory” (marshmallow-infused vodka and chambord, topped with a marshmallow, blueberry and raspberry) make the average Lemon Drop look like child’s play. Zyburra is dreaming up a special menu that allows customers to mix and match locally sourced herbs to create single-servings of freshly infused vodka (“garden-to-glass cocktails,” she calls it). Sanchez spent an hour on the phone wooing a general manager from the cultishly legendary, uber-underground Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery in Kentucky, scoring two impossibly elusive bottles of what Bon Appétit magazine calls “arguably the finest bourbon out there” (for $27, locals can nurse a shot of 20-year-old Pappy Van Winkle bourbon).

With their first year behind them and countless more to go, Zyburra and Sanchez have their sights set on opening at least five new restaurants between Gilroy, South County and the greater Bay Area.

Expansion aspirations aside, forming relationships with regular customers is the most rewarding part of the gig.

“All the people we’ve met – they’re like family now,” says Sanchez.

Ladera Restaurant, 7305 Monterey Street #110, Morgan Hill

From corporate business mogul to gifting Morgan Hill with its hottest new nosh nook, first-time restaurateur Dan McCranie’s sole service industry experience, surprisingly, dates back to his days as a 19-year-old pantry chef at Fat Boy’s “Bar-B-Q” in Cocoa Beach, Fla.

“Thank God I didn’t know that,” jokes McCranie, when reminded that roughly 60 percent of all restaurants go under during their first year of business.

After opening its glass doors almost 13 months ago, the upscale steakhouse with a modern ambiance and white linen tablecloths is a “gem” in Morgan Hill’s culinary fabric. Regulars flock to the buzzing happy hour for a chilled cocktail and plate of Vegetarian Eggrolls ($11), Fig Brie Puff Pastry ($9) or Spinach Crab Dip ($13), while Highway 101 travelers often wander in and leave starry-eyed after a cathartic experience devouring popular house specialties like the Pork Osso Bucco ($25; a braised prime pork shank so tender, it’s like slicing through butter).

Praised by a chorus of online reviewers for a menu that touts a holy assortment of choices galore (Truffle Mac ‘N’ Cheese! Mushroom Dusted Jumbo Scallops! Coconut Banana Cake!) Ladera “finally” fills the void for an “upscale restaurant that stays open later than 9 p.m.,” wrote one happy customer online. “This is just what downtown Morgan Hill needed.”

McCranie couldn’t be more “happy” or “pleased” with the public’s reception.

When he’s not working at his day job as the board chair of ON Semiconductor Corporation, the avid outdoor enthusiast is “out to create a landmark restaurant for South County.”

With a broad menu that offers around 52 items for lunch, 61 items for dinner and 95 wine labels, tempting guests “back and back and back to see us” is part of Ladera’s strategic formula.

“We wanted to create a place that the guests don’t come two or three times a year – but 20 or 30 times,” says McCranie.

He gives due credit to business partner and executive chef Tony Garcia; a key player McCranie hopes will stick around “for as long as we both shall live.”

“I want him to stay forever,” McCranie laughs.

Luckily for McCranie and Ladera’s faithful regulars, Garcia is a happy camper right where he is.

“I have no plans to move,” said the former proprietor of Italian restaurant Giancarlo’s in Morgan Hill.  “This is wonderful for me. I really enjoy what I’m doing.”

Kristina’s, 480 Tres Pinos Road, Hollister

Describing a vivid memory as a 10-year-old boy growing up in Tripoli, Greece, Georgos Matheos remembers admiring a 1957 Chevy as it cruised by his childhood home.

It was a symbol, perhaps, of the American dream – something Matheos carved out after emigrating in 1965 at the age of 17 to San Jose, where he wanted to “do the right thing and be successful.”

“Everything I did, I did on my own,” says the gregarious owner of Kristina’s Restaurant in Hollister.

After starting out as a dishwasher more than 40 years ago, success for Matheos is defined by hard work and straight talk and never putting up a façade. He’s a self-made businessman whose mantra is rooted on bedrock fundamentals.

“Portions. Quality. Visible prices. Be fair to the customers,” he says. “We try to do the best we can. We’re not here to get rich overnight.”

A hearty conversationalist once he gets going, Matheos communicates demonstratively with hand motions and sagacious axioms.

In Greece, “we love philosophia,” says Matheos, his voice deep and accent thick. “In Greece they say, ‘everything in moderation.’”

Kristina’s does exactly that.

After re-opening the building in January following an 18-year run as a Mexican cantina described by one online reviewer as “the worst Mexican food in Hollister by a long shot,” the reincarnated eatery now touts “a little bit of everything” (which patrons can wash down with beer, wine, or $4 screwdrivers, margaritas or mimosas).

Fare toes the line between American and Greek, with pickings from fish sandwiches ($9.95), to Greek omelets ($8.45), to beer-battered Icelandic cod ($12.95), to chicken parmesan $11.95), to 14-ounce steak sandwiches ($13.95), to traditional gyros made with pita bread, lamb, beef, tzatziki sauce, freshly diced tomatoes and onions.

Most lunch and dinner items come with authentic Greek fries (crispy and flavored with feta cheese, lemon, garlic, oregano, pepper and garlic) and a choice of soup or Greek salad. With items like the gyro priced at $7.95, chef Luis Roldan says it’s a well-rounded meal for a great deal.

“Other places I’ve been working, they don’t do that,” he pointed out.

After working at Kristina’s for 18 years and counting, veteran server Arcelia Marquez happily reports that customers are digging the menu makeover.

“People have been saying they’re really happy,” she says. “They’ve been saying this is what Hollister needed. They can get everything here.”

Numerous online reviewers validate her observations. Satisfied customers fawn over the “incredible” tzatziki sauce. Others gush that Hollister – which already “has many Mexican restaurants” – “now has another place to go that isn’t fast food.”

Even the ambiance takes a minimalist, fuss-free approach to décor. The understated dining room is simple and spared of decorative tchotchke, save for a star-studded collection of 16-by-20 portraits depicting the likes of Sophia Loren, Clint Eastwood, Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean.

Now a successful investor deeply rooted in Hollister since 1984, Matheos never lost sight of his guiding principles.

“Always do better. In this business, you can’t stop. Better, better, better,” he asserts. “In this business, be fair and honest and you can survive.”

Miss the Best Of 2012? Come by the office at 6400 Monterey Road to pick up your copy today.
LOCATED: 7397 Monterey Street, Gilroy
HOT-TICKET ITEM: The Milias Burger ($13), Angus Beef Sliders ($11)
OWNER’S FAVORITES: Carrot Cake ($7), Crepes with Strawberry Crème Cheese Filling ($7), Mediterranean Lamb Chops ($18)
HAPPY HOUR: 4 to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday
LOCATED: 7305 Monterey Street #110, Morgan Hill
HOT-TICKET ITEMS: Filet Mignon ($24 for 8 oz; $30 for 12 oz) Cowboy Steak Salad ($16), Coconut Banana Cake ($8)
OWNER’S FAVORITES: Any of the bone-in steaks ($40 to $48), Café Tortufo ($7, cappuccino gelato with an espresso center, covered with coffee flavored meringue)
HAPPY HOUR: 4 to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, 4 to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
LOCATED: 480 Tres Pinos Road, Hollister
HOT-TICKET ITEMS: Gyro ($7.95), 14 oz Coulotte Steak ($14.95)
STAFF FAVORITES: Greek Salad ($9.95), French Dip ($9.95), Pork Chops ($9.95)
HOURS: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week; breakfast served from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

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