Los Altos’ go-to spot for children’s birthday parties, postgame celebrations and the late-night crowd is no more. After 38 years of operation, The Boardwalk closed its doors June 4.
The family-run restaurant didn’t go quietly, however – patrons packed the place on its last night of operation. The standing-room-only crowd enjoyed free pizza as it bid farewell to The Boardwalk, located at 4940 El Camino Real.
Members of the Tougas family, which opened the establishment in 1975, said they didn’t want The Boardwalk to close. But the Jakes Restaurant Group – founded by original owners Bernie and Doris Tougas – couldn’t agree to a lease extension with property owners RKT Group after six months of negotiations.
The Los Altos City Council in May unanimously approved plans by the RKT Group to expand the building by 3,679 square feet, including 915 square feet fronting El Camino Real.
Michele LaBarbera, the Tougas’ daughter, termed the establishment’s last day in Los Altos “a celebration.” She added that she wasn’t surprised by the turnout on the restaurant’s final day, noting that she’d seen a steady stream of customers since her family announced its intentions five days earlier.
“It’s sad – there’s no doubt,” said LaBarbera, who took on a more prominent day-to-day role in the family business shortly after the death of her father, Bernie, nearly 10 years ago. “We’re leaving this great community. But we have to celebrate 38 years. How many businesses last 38 years anymore?”
LaBarbera credited her parents for succeeding in their vision to create a family-friendly restaurant when they opened for business nearly four decades ago. She praised many longtime staffers for making that vision a reality on a daily basis.
“We build these places, but they create them,” she said.
Doris Tougas, who spent the bulk of the restaurant’s last day greeting customers and friends, noted that the family hasn’t shut the door entirely on The Boardwalk. They are not opposed to reopening elsewhere. She added that the family plans to store the restaurant’s unique features – such as its stained glass – in the event a new opportunity presents itself.
“I’m very sad – we all are,” Tougas said. “It’s hard to walk away from a viable restaurant. But as the old saying goes, ‘You close one door, another one opens.’ We’re not above opening another Boardwalk. We want to stay in the area.”
Derk Brill, a former employee who started as a server at The Boardwalk 32 years ago, was among those returning for the final goodbye. Now a realtor in Palo Alto, Brill noted that he would remain grateful to Bernie Tougas because of the generosity he showed those who worked for him.
“When I started working here, (Bernie) had a pension plan for employees – no one does that in the restaurant business,” Brill said.
Bill Stoll, a longtime patron and 1983 Los Altos High graduate, said The Boardwalk would remain special to him because of the establishment’s ambience and its designation as the place where his group of childhood friends would meet.
Stoll later pointed to a booth near the restaurant’s fire exit, noting that it was the location of a heart-to-heart conversation he once had with his father – a man he conceded having trouble understanding as a young man.
“I’ll never forget it – but now this place is going to be gone,” Stoll said.
Jack Stemplinger, general manager for the family ownership group’s restaurants, recalled being hired as an entry-level employee in 1979. He worked his way up to day manager, a position he held for nine years before being promoted to his current job.
“I was just going to work there for the summer,” he said with a chuckle. “I just watched this place grow into its own over the years. … For me, this is a destination.”
Stemplinger noted that while he was pleased to see the outpouring of support from longtime friends and patrons, The Boardwalk’s closing is difficult for him to accept.
“It’s been a rough couple of days,” he said. “The time was so short. … We were really hoping to stay.”
LaBarbera, meanwhile, said she hopes that the restaurant – and her parents’ vision to create a family-friendly place for all to enjoy – won’t soon be forgotten.
“When my parents started this, they just wanted a place that wasn’t pretentious,” she said. “This is their legacy. We’re just fortunate to be a part of it.”
The Boardwalk hosts final day of operation - Photos by Ellie Van Houtte/Town Crier