Lunch is Not for Wimps at Buck’s of Woodside Restaurant

Ask anyone where all the tech power deals are done, and Buck’s of Woodside will be the answer.

From the launch of Netscape to Facebook, deals are done at this Silicon Valley venture capitalist hangout. In fact, YouTube didn’t finalize their agreement with Google here, just so that they could stay under the radar.

That alone represents what a success Buck’s has become. But after over 20 years in the business, proprietor Jamis MacNiven believes the ride has just begun.

 Though he had no real ties to technology or the media, he was nearly instantaneously successful as a CEO hotspot.

MacNiven, who is every bit as recognizable as his establishment, actually got his start in the business as a builder. He created over 20 restaurants in San Francisco, including Prego, Ciao, MacArthur Park San Francisco and the Hard Rock San Francisco.

Though every CEO and bigwig in the book has passed through Buck’s front door, MacNiven states the only entrepreneur to never set foot in his beloved eatery was none other than Steve Jobs.

It might seem odd that the restaurateur would be proud of such a thing, but he has one very good reason: he was actually the now-deceased Apple cofounder’s builder.

“I was very fortunate to be able to spend almost one year working with Steve. Or, as I say it, going through the meat grinder. Picking furniture and setting up Steve Jobs’ house was not a quick ordeal: actually, it was the opposite,” he recalls.

“What was interesting about Steve is that he literally went from being just a normal client to being on the cover of Time Magazine as the ‘Golden Boy’, pictured sitting on the floor of his house. What people don’t understand about Steve is that this was how he actually lived. For over a year, his house didn’t even have a couch because he couldn’t decide which one he wanted. Even more striking, he actually slept on a floor mattress for as long as I knew him, because he couldn’t pick any furniture; it just had to be right.”

 “We became known as a spot where venture capitalists like to hang out, and cut deals. That is still the case today, and it’s what makes the restaurant so special.”

MacNiven continues fondly: “I used to think he was being ridiculous, as he couldn’t even make a decision on the couch, but I realized he viewed every small decision as a major decision.” For everyone still wondering about the status of Jobs’ interior decorating, MacNiven reports: “It was years later, but he finally got his couch.”

Flash forward ten years to 1991, which is when MacNiven officially opened Buck’s of Woodside. Though he had no real ties to technology or the media, he was nearly instantaneously successful as a CEO hotspot. The restaurant’s buzz truly started in 1992 when Bob Metcalf, who founded 3COM and Ethernet, wrote in his weekly “Info World” column that Buck’s was the new power breakfast spot for Silicon Valley.

“I thought it was really cool that I was mentioned in the press, let alone the tech press,” MacNiven remembers, adding, “Then, six months later, there was a cool mention in “The Economist” that VC power broker John Doerr had breakfast at Buck’s of Woodside weekly. Then, in 1994, there were television crews filming at Buck’s of Woodside. When Sand Hill hit its peak [in the mid-1990’s], Buck’s of Woodside became known what it is today.”

MacNiven is well aware that his restaurant has become to Silicon Valley what The Ivy is to LA or what Michael’s is to Manhattan. “We became known as a spot where venture capitalists like to hang out, and cut deals. That is still the case today, and it’s what makes the restaurant so special. We don’t have a cult of celebrity here in the valley, and unless you actually know who these people are, they walk around anonymously. They don’t have entourages, paparazzi, etc. but they are definitely the most powerful – and richest -people in the world.”

Though he maintains that he’s a tech outsider, MacNiven has absolutely been part of the ride in his own way. He admits: “I personally saw the early meetings of Netscape between Jim Clark and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, that basically changed Silicon Valley. [Netscape] was a company that had no real revenues, no profits and didn’t have a normal business plan. But when it went public, stock was up 200% to 300% in one day. Nobody had ever seen such a thing before.”

As a man on the fringes of the technology world, MacNiven isn’t above sharing a few insider secrets. Of what he personally learned from the Netscape meetings, he shares: “What most people don’t know is that Jim Clark took Netscape public because he had to make a payment on a boat he bought!”

MacNiven had additional thoughts to share on previous Haute Living cover subject and CEO Clark, whom used to live in Woodside and was a regular customer at Buck’s. He says: “Jim wanted to build a grand house in Woodside, one that was over 25,000 square feet. He designed it, but when he went to the city to get permits, they wouldn’t let him build the house. They said the maximum height allowed was 7,500 feet. Jim was so angry that he wrote a piece in the “San Jose Mercury.” It said that he was out, and kissed everyone goodbye. That was it for Jim: we never saw him again in Woodside, or at Buck’s.”

As it should be obvious by now, MacNiven has some great Intel on the movers and shakers of Silicon Valley – and he’s well aware of the juice he could share. “Being in the hospitality business, I have seen so many great stories over the years,” he admits now, though to him, what might seem spectacular to others is commonplace for him. “So many people have accomplished so much in this area that it isn’t an interesting topic to talk about anymore – it is almost normal. Success is normal in Woodside, which is what makes this area so unique.”

What amuses the man that has seen it all? “The best are the boy billionaires,” MacNiven enthuses, explaining, “They are popping up all the time. They seem to be younger, and richer they ever before.” Yes, that would include Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who has been a patron at Buck’s, as well as Silicon Valley’s richest resident Larry Ellison (who used to live down the street).

At the end of the day, MacNiven believes he couldn’t have picked a better spot to open a restaurant than Silicon Valley, non-withstanding of the 1999 market crash. “It’s the creative center of the world. People recognize that the whole world is looking to the residents here for the next wave of innovation. The Valley is capturing a huge percentage of that innovation, which is what makes it so important and special.”

To cap our interview, we ask MacNiven whom he thinks is the most remarkable figure in ‘The Valley’. In his eyes, SpaceX founder Elon Musk is the new Steve Jobs. He is very bullish on the future of Elon, who created PayPal and the Tesla Roadster, the world’s first viable electric car, and is now launching trips to Mars. Says MacNiven: “I see him here with frequency, and if anyone is Iron Man and the future, it is definitely this guy.”

Speaking of the future, the famous proprietor is equally optimistic about his own. “It’s been a great 21 years,” he says. “I look forward to being here another 20.”