The Return of Restaurant O in the South Bay

A lot of people attempt comebacks. Few have rebounded from the brink quite like Chef Justin Perez.

It’s been a long three years since Perez, a chef known for his bold and sassy creations, was forced to shutter his popular Restaurant O in Campbell.

The ensuing time was not kind, verging on the plot of a crazy Adam Sandler film, in which anything that could go insanely wrong, surely did. Only in real life, there was no laughter — just tears, anger, frustration and mayhem.

In 2005, the chef was relaxing with his family at their San Jose home, when a hysterical woman came running up, screaming that her husband was going to kill her. Perez and his family took her in and called police. This tale of a good Samaritan soon turned horrific, though, when Perez’s house was later fire-bombed and bricks hurled through his front windows. The husband’s brother was later convicted of those crimes, but not before Perez’s wife and their young children were deeply traumatized.

A year later, with his life back to normal again, Perez renovated his restaurant, doing all the work, himself, with the help of a few friends, only to discover that his landlord intended to sell the property for a senior living development instead. On top of that, Perez says he soon discovered that his best friend, who was his former director of operations, had allegedly embezzled about $750,000 from the restaurant.

Perez was adrift with no restaurant, as well as the IRS on his back for business and payroll taxes that his director of operations never paid. He still had his Restaurant O Catering company, which had moved to Los Gatos. But there was no escaping that he was in dire trouble financially and professionally.

Yet, he survived. He climbed his way out of that morass and is embarking on a dream once more — opening a new Restaurant O in the iconic Wilson’s Jewel Bakery site, 1285 Homestead Road in Santa Clara.

The shuttered bakery, which was in business for nearly nine decades, is a location Perez is intimately familiar with. As a young boy, he and his mother would trek from their Sunnyvale house to buy cookies and cakes from Wilson’s every week.

“I grew up going here. It was a ritual for me,” Perez, 39, says. “In the beginning, Wilson’s was the top dog. We want to put the quality back into this spot.”

He calls the demographics a dream, what with the site’s proximity to Santa Clara University, the Santa Clara Courthouse, and middle-income residents. It also provides a central point for his catering business.

Indeed, the huge site — 10,000 square feet on the street level, plus a 3,000-square-foot basement — was far too large for most other businesses to consider. But because Perez plans to operate both a restaurant and his catering company out of the locale, it proved a perfect fit for him.

Landlord, Barry Swenson, has been adding improvements to the site since last summer, including tearing out the humongous old bakery ovens that had to be dismantled from the inside out. A new roof has been added, mold has been obliterated, and the building has been shored up to withstand earthquakes.

The new restaurant, which will be open for lunch on weekdays and for dinner nightly, is slowly taking shape with a 4,000-square foot kitchen, and three dining rooms with a total of 150 seats.

The menu will be New American with global influences, similar to the old Restaurant O, but at a more pocket-friendly price point so that no alcoholic drinks top $10 a glass and a couple can enjoy dinner for about a $45 tab for food.

“We’re not trying to be a Manresa or Plumed Horse,” says Perez, who will be executive chef and founder of the restaurant with Owner Chris Flippen. “We want it to be a place you can come in jeans with the kids, but also have a special date with wine-pairings.”

A wood-burning oven will turn out specialty pizzas; buffalo, turkey and sirloin burgers will be ground in-house; and Blackridge Vineyards will create a special “O” red blend just for the restaurant. And of course, look for Perez’s inspired and unique ingredient pairings in dishes, half of which will change seasonally.

The front entrance will remain in the same spot for the restaurant; there will be a back entrance for the catering company. Diners will enter and immediately see a huge glass-front wine room large enough to hold 2,000 bottles. To the right will be the main dining room. To the left will be the bar, which Perez and Flippen promise will have a quite intriguing focal point for the restaurant — lighting that will change color weekly (perhaps green one day and red another time) and be visible from the street once large windows are installed.

If the permitting process goes according to plan, Perez hopes to open the restaurant in October. If that process lags, he will most likely open at the end of January 2011 instead.

That is, if he can come up with all the funds necessary. He needs about $150,000 more to make it all a reality.

It hasn’t been his financial woes stemming from the embezzlement that have stalled those efforts. Instead, it’s been — what else — the sluggish economy, which has made getting loans impossible.

So Perez and Flippen have turned to some creative ways to raise the money needed for the restaurant. A friend who owns a construction company is helping with the transformation of the site. Perez also has bartered his culinary talents for about $200,000 in electrical and lighting services.

Recently, he’s also been hosting fund-raising wine-pairing dinners. The first one, attended by a lot of loyal customers, netted him $11,000. The next one, June 26 at Regale Winery in Los Gatos will feature five courses, plus an intermezzo, with dishes such as ostrich and caramelized fennel house-made sausage with black cherry tamarind sauce; and “Deconstructed Bulgogi-style” short rib lettuce wraps with crisp wonton, Manchego cheese, and spicy sarsaparilla dipping sauce.

Minimum contribution for the dinner is $500 per person or $900 per couple or $3,500 for a table for eight. Attendees will receive a Restaurant O gift card valued at 50 percent of their contribution. All funds will go toward building the restaurant.  Those interested should call (408) 354-3131 or contact jennifer@restaurant-o.com

Perez plans on hosting other future fund-raising dinners with varying ticket prices. For updated information, check the Restaurant O Catering Web site regularly.

After so many travails, Perez says he finally feels like his life has turned around.

“Everything here has been meant to be,” he says. “Every potential obstacle has worked out, unlike at other places we looked at. I just feel like this is going to happen. Call it karma, or I paid my dues, or whatever. I just feel that this is it.”

More: My 2008 Q&A with Justin Perez

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Date: Wednesday, 9. June 2010 5:25
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25 comments

  1. 1

    He’s like a phoenix, rising from the ashes.

    I recall a very fond meal at Restaurant O before it closed the second time. (Short ribs, in particular, come to mind.) If that meal was an indicator of what’s to come in Perez’s third incarnation, I imagine he’ll enjoy success once more.

  2. 2

    What an incredible story. Best of luck to Chef Perez!

  3. 3

    Very interesting restaurant story! Hope the chef will have successes!

  4. 4

    I hope there’s a special place in hell for the asshole who firebombed their house.

  5. 5

    I wish the best of the luck to Perez with his restaurant after this hard episode for him.

    All the best,

    Gera

  6. 6

    how exciting! i hope they raise the money quickly and are able to get the new place open! i can’t wait to try it.

  7. 7

    Nice read. Good people like the Perez family need to finish first.

  8. 8

    Gosh, if I lived in the area I would defintely check out his new place or one of his fund-raisers. This guy needs a break! (BTW, I wondered if he considered applying for Top Chef? He could try for the $100,000 cash prize.)

  9. 9

    He is a fighter for sure..and deserves all the support he can get. I hope his ex-op man is in jail!?

    Great of you to post this Carolyn. :)

  10. 10

    Yes, the abusive husband AND his brother were convicted and both are behind bars right now — a huge relief to the Perez family, as you can well imagine.

  11. 11

    It’s so good to see Justin getting back in the restaurant biz. His food has always been adventurous without crossing over the line into the bizarre. Flavor is always first and foremost. I wish him luck.

  12. 12

    We used to live in Campbell and enjoyed Restaurant O many times. And having lived in this area for decades, I can’t even tell you how many Wilson cakes I’ve eaten (it used to be THE place to go for those birthday cakes at any office in the area). Looking forward to the new restaurant in a familiar space.

  13. 13

    He sounds amazing and I look trying his food, but I’d go first just to show support for someone who has thrived through all of this. The food sounds like a wonderful bonus!

  14. 14

    Wow, what an inspiring story. Most others would have totally cracked but he bounced back with such grace and strength. I hope he will raise all the funds he needs!

  15. 15

    Chef Perez is a survivor! You always find the best stories, Foodgal. Thank you.

  16. 16

    As someone who lives in the neighborhood, we are sorely in need of decent restaurants. I wish the chef much luck and promise to be a loyal patron if the establishment lives up to this article!

  17. 17

    This is the kind of never-say-die spirit and attitude I admire and respect. Good luck to Chef Justin Perez.

    Thanks for recommending good and worthwhile eats around the Bay Area and SF. SF is under-explored by me…so I need to get that back when I return. :D

  18. 18

    Goodness!!! What a story! I feel terrible for his little kids…to be tramautized like that at such a young age! But good for Chef Perez to fight on and pursue his dreams and happiness. I wish him all the best!
    What an inspiring story!

  19. 19

    Wow, what a return and you weren’t kidding, he has been through the wars! Good on him and I admire people that can bounce back :)

  20. 20

    Wonderful story and support of our local chefs remains through this blog.
    Justin is remarkable.

  21. 21

    Absolutely story. Makes me feel good that I have something to look forward to as I embark on my next journey.

  22. 22

    Sorry, that was supposed to be “absolutely GREAT story”. :-)

  23. 23

    Much success to Chef Justin Perez, the comeback kid!

  24. 24

    Yea his food is divine. But Perez is a selfish, womanizing asshole and karma bit him in the ass big time. He blazed a path of destruction on his very own…he totally deserved it. However, everybody deserves a second chance.

  25. 25

    mr. perez its great that your using the old wilsons bakery site ,i used to frequent the bakery quite often but alas it is but a memory. i just finished the article on you and your future restaraunt site and i am currently seeking employment and wish to work for you . i have very little experience in the business but wish apply myself as maybe a bar back or other, if this is a possibility please contact me via email or you can call me at 408-990-6093. thank you and best wishes.

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