Phyllis Filiberti Butler
Author / Journalist / Editor
San Francisco Chronicle Sunday December 9, 2001
From - Tue Dec 11 12:33:42 2001
Los Gatos' small-town holiday charms

Carriage rides, parade, lights add to the town's homey Christmas spirit
Phyllis Butler, Special to The Chronicle Sunday, December 9, 2001

Los Gatos

When my friend Patricia and I were ready for a few days in the mountains - or at least the foothills - to chase away Sept. 11 madness and dot-com doldrums, we headed for Los Gatos, nestled among the Santa Cruz Mountains' pines, redwoods and madrones only a little over an hour from San Francisco.

Nearly a thousand feet above the Santa Clara Valley floor, once home to the mountain lions that gave it its name and the black bears that Mountain Charley wrestled, Los Gatos has always attracted adventurers, artists, millionaires and movie stars.

This is where Joan Fontaine and Olivia DeHaviland grew up and Yehudi Menuhin played his first fiddle. John Steinbeck wrote his greatest proletarian novels ("Grapes of Wrath," "Of Mice and Men" and "In Dubious Battle") while living in the nearby hills from 1936 to 1940. Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio spent their 1959 honeymoon in a Hollywood-style bungalow just off the old toll road to Santa Cruz (now known as Santa Cruz Avenue for nine downtown blocks and as Highway 17, or sometimes Old Santa Cruz Highway, beyond).

Los Gatos is at its best in early winter, when the night air is crisp and afternoons are still warm. And a week ago, the annual children's' Christmas Parade kicked off the town's transformation into a holiday village, bringing festive decorations and carolers.

One of the most delightful holiday traditions is the horse-drawn carriages, festooned with bells and colored ribbons, that carry passengers from the Town Plaza through the Almond Grove district's beautiful historic homes and along downtown's festively decorated North Santa Cruz Avenue.

It was a glorious day when we checked into the Toll House hotel, an old- world, European-style inn on Santa Cruz Avenue. From our balcony overlooking the wooded peaks, we saw cyclers and runners ramble through the Town Plaza across the street, now dominated by a gaily decorated Christmas tree. The original tollgate stood nearby until the 1960s; the Toll House marks where the first one-room inn sat - and later, until the late 1960s, the Los Gatos Hotel, whose saloon was a favorite of Steinbeck.

We wandered down Santa Cruz Avenue to Old Town for a late lunch at the popular California Cafe. It's one of several restaurants in a 1923 school building designed in the style of Mission San Juan Capistrano. Remodeled in the 1960s, Old Town was one of the state's first historic renovations for commercial use and now also houses a Borders bookstore and a couple of boutiques.

But Old Town -isn't the really old part of town. That lies across Highway 17 on East Main Street, connected by a causeway across the old creek bed. The original Los Gatos was called Forbestown during the 1850s - for James Alexander Forbes, an educated Scotsman who landed on the whaler Fanny in 1831 and became British vice-consul while California was still under Mexican rule.

In 1850, Forbes built a stone flour mill on Los Gatos Creek. The creek and rancho through which it ran took the name Los Gatos from the mountain lions who roamed the hills. Somehow surviving storms, fires and earthquakes, the old stone mill annex still stands in a gully off Church Avenue, across from the Civic Center. Today it's the Forbes Mill History Museum, which was installing a holiday show, "Toys From the Past," when we arrived.

With a bevy of bikers pedaling ahead of us, we crossed the small metal bridge over Highway 17 to 151-acre Vasona Lake County Park. Thr bridge also marks the midpoint in the Los Gatos Creek Trail, a wooded waterway hikers and bicyclers can follow nearly 14 miles from south of Los Gatos, through Campbell and on to San Jose.

Adjacent to Vasona Park, Oak Meadow Park has an old-fashioned carousel and the Billy Jones Wildcat Railroad, which has been winding through the woods and canyons since the earlyh 1960s. Local lore claims that the Ohlone knew of this "place of the wildcats" from ancient times, and that the notorious renegade Indian Yoscolo used its canyons as a hideout in the early 1830s.

A few blocks from the Toll House, at the other end of Santa Cruz Avenue, is the nighttime action. It was too early for the wildly popular Mountain Charley's Saloon, so we headed back to the hotel bar to kibitz as two men played chess by the fireplace. Later, we drove over to Villa Montalvo for a concert in the former Phelan mansion, a century-old Mediterranean villa 10 minutes away along the tree-lined old Los Gatos-Saratoga Road.

Next day we indulged my passion for antiques. Los Gatos and neighboring Saratoga are two of the best antiquing spots in the valley. My favorite is the Opera House Studios in the old Ford's Opera House, the only proper opera house in the foothills when it was built in 1904. Now it houses five dealers selling everything from jewelry and French art glass to furniture. Just down Main Street is the equally choice Antiquarian in the fine old Fretwell building. For more contemporary tastes, Santa Cruz Avenue is lined with boutiques, art galleries and crafts shops.

We turned up College Avenue, admiring the area's picturesque brick wall and grand homes dating from the 1870s, and passed the Tapestry Bistro, in a century-old house, and the reconstructed old Soda Works building. The avenue is named for the nearby Sacred Heart Jesuit College, where Oakland mayor and former Gov. Jerry Brown was educated. (It is no longer a seminary.) We were just in time for a tour of the old Novitiate winery, now Mirassou Champagne Cellars. A mile or so farther up, on Bear Creek Road, are two other wineries on former Jesuit property: David Bruce and Byington, both open daily for tastings.

We made the mistake of trying to get into the little French restaurant Pigalle on Santa Cruz Avenue for dinner without reservations. With only eight tables, Pigalle is nearly always booked on weekends. So we went back to the Toll House and had a fine dinner in the hotel's Clock Tower dining room: a salad with caramelized walnuts and rack of lamb, accompanied by a Chardonnay from David Bruce Winery.

Before heading home the next morning, we indulged in the Toll House's grand champagne brunch and took one more walk to the Town Plaza, which was being prepared for the arrival of its huge Christmas tree. We -couldn't resist congratulating ourselves on living less than an hour from Los Gatos' small- town holiday charms.

If you go:

GETTING THERE: Los Gatos is about 50 miles south of San Francisco on Highway 101 or Interstate 280 to Highway 85; exit Winchester South (which becomes Santa Cruz Avenue).

WHERE TO STAY: Toll House Hotel, 140 S. Santa Cruz Ave., Los Gatos; phone: (800) 238-6111 or (408) 395-7070; Web: Balconies, fireplaces, spa, continental breakfast. Published rates start at $195 double; holiday weekend special (through Jan. 15), $109. Other weekend promotions, $109-$149.

WHERE TO EAT: California Cafe, 50 University Ave.; (408) 354-8118. Former President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore dined here in the mid-'90s while fund-raising in nearby estates. Seasonal California cuisine, $14-27. Pigalle, 27 N. Santa Cruz Ave.; (408) 395-7924. Small bistro with traditional French country food. $24 and up. The Chart House, 115 N. Santa Cruz Ave.; (408) 354-1737. Longtime favorite specializing in seafood, housed in a lovely old Victorian residence. $15-$22.

WHAT TO DO: Villa Montalvo, 15400 Montalvo Road, Saratoga; (408) 961-5800. Performing arts within 175-acre county park. Special Yuletide show, "The Elves & the Shoemaker," Saturday 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. $16 adults; $8 children. Vasona Lake County Park, 333 Blossom Hill Blvd; (408) 356-2729. Along the Los Gatos Creek trail, which runs from Lexington Reservoir, 2 miles south of Los Gatos, to San Jose. Oak Meadow Park, adjacent to Vasona Park off Blossom Hill Boulevard. Site of the original Los Gatos Rancho's Hernandez adobe has an old- fashioned carousel and the Billy Jones Wildcat Railroad. Christmas carriage rides, Town Plaza, South Santa Cruz Avenue and West Main Street; Thurs.-Sat. 5- l0 p.m., Sundays from 3 p.m., through Dec. 23. Reservations advised; call Chamber of Commerce (below) for information. $10.

NIGHTLIFE: Mountain Charley's, 15 N. Santa Cruz Ave. (upstairs); (408) 395- 8880. "It rocks." Wed.-Sun., 7 p.m.-2 a.m. Los Gatos Bar & Grill, 15 N. Santa Cruz Ave.; (408) 399-5424. Food, pool tables, jukebox. The Cats, 17533 Santa Cruz Hwy.; (408) 354-4020. Funky old roadhouse atmosphere.

WINERIES: David Bruce Winery, 21439 Bear Creek Road; (408) 354-4214. Byington Winery, 21850 Bear Creek Road; (408) 354-1111. Mirassou Champagne Cellars, 300 College Ave.; (408) 395-3790.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Los Gatos Chamber of Commerce, 349 N. Santa Cruz Ave.;

(408) 354-9300; Los Gatos Museums; (408) 395-7375.

Phyllis Butler is a freelance writer in Menlo Park and author of "Old Santa Clara Valley - A Guide to Historic Buildings."