The idea for chef Scott Nishiyama’s debut restaurant can be traced to pop-up dinners he hosted in his living room in 2017. Two years later, he snagged the keys to a former bakery in Palo Alto. Then came the pandemic, a drawn-out construction process, and staffing delays. On September 3, 2022, Nishiyama finally opened doors to Ethel’s Fancy, a Californian restaurant with Japanese and Hawaiian influences.
Nishiyama was raised on a second-generation flower farm in Maui. He often visited the mainland to see his grandmother Ethel, one of the restaurant’s namesakes (Ethel also happens to be his mother’s name), in a tiny Oregon town. He studied chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he fell in love with cooking for his fraternity. He attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, before working as a fine-dining chef in MICHELIN-starred kitchens including Daniel, The French Laundry, and Chez TJ.
But that was a decade ago. Since then, Nishiyama settled in Millbrae, California, with his family. He worked as a private chef before starting his own pop-up. Ethel’s Fancy was born as a dinner gathering for a dozen people in his living room. Today, it’s bloomed into Nishiyama’s first solo restaurant project, and he’s paying homage to his roots, dipping into his heritage rather than the classic French foundation he was trained in. “It was always small plates and sharing,” says Nishiyama, describing his culinary sensibilities. “The food definitely evolved. I found my voice, I guess—more Japanese and Hawaiian influence.”
At Ethel’s Fancy, diners can dig into a shareable menu of comforting dishes with whimsical twists, ranging from small “morsels” to meatier “considerables.” Kick off with Miyagi oysters and Bloody Mary foam, toasted coconut fritters layered with nigiri-like wagyu, and griddled milk bread with brown butter. The crispy corn tempura, topped with a cool and creamy bay shrimp salad, is a throwback to a dish Nishiyama once cooked at Yoshi’s, the acclaimed jazz venue in Oakland.
For the main course, you can’t go wrong with grilled ribeye or steamed cod. But the runaway hit may be a dish that is especially reflective of Nishiyama’s multicultural roots: A slab of pork ribs, braised until tender then fried and brushed with Japanese curry. Desserts, such as almond cookie soft-serve ice cream and pop tarts filled with coconut and kinako (roasted soybean flour), are nostalgic and playful.
Expect strong cocktails, wine, sake, and beer. General manager Jon Sloane, armed with a decade of sommelier experience from MICHELIN-starred Quince, curated the drinks. Highlights include a martini infused with rose and a sake cocktail brightened with finger lime and yuzu. A milk punch will soon be added to the beverage list.
Palo Alto locals may hold fond memories of this space on leafy and quiet Waverley Street—it once housed The Prolific Oven. The beloved bakery was owned by the Chan family for nearly four decades and served countless wedding and birthday cakes.
With its black counters and tiled floors, the space was long overdue for an overhaul. Architect Brett McMullen stripped it down to the studs, ripped out a low ceiling, and filled the rafters with light. Designer Jon de la Cruz, responsible for Che Fico and Leo’s Oyster Bar, brought warm cedar woods, teal paint, and terrazzo counters flecked with confetti-like blues and golds.
At Ethel’s Fancy, diners can sit on a handful of sidewalk tables, belly up to the bar, or grab a perch at the communal table; there’s also a dining room and a more secluded private area. But the hottest seats in the house are at the chef’s counter, with views of the lively open kitchen. “The vision is fun [and] energetic,” Nishiyama says of this exceptionally personal project. “Not too serious, but refined.”
Ethel’s Fancy is open Tuesday through Thursday from 5 pm to 9 pm, and Friday and Saturday from 5 pm to 9:30 pm.