Los Gatos restaurant steaming along after 40 years

Forget the rumors that are flying around, says Paul Matulich, who started Steamer’s Grillhouse in 1979 with his brother Mark and sister Linda.

“We’re not closing, that’s for sure,” Matulich says. “We’ve had way too much fun for 40 years to stop now! We’re going strong. I still love what I do. The community has been very supportive. Things are in a positive forward motion.”

He’s working on a new lease agreement, and has already begun upgrades to the restaurant, which moved to its present location on University Avenue in 1999. New floors are already underway, and new upholstery is in the works.

“Everything costs money, money, money,” Matulich says, adding that he wants to add an oyster bar like in the old days. He’s also planning “Tribute Thursdays,” which will kick in once the remodeling is done, and will feature dishes from the original cafe menu, like calamari steak.

While he plans to update the menu going forward, some of the iconic items like the linguini with prawns, mushrooms and crab in garlic lemon butter sauce will not be leaving anytime soon. “I put two kids through college on that linguini,” Matulich chuckles.

Are his kids at all interested in the business? “Heck no, it’s not for everybody,” he admits. “It requires a certain kind of mentality to want to put out the same beautifully plated dish over and over. My son worked here as a busboy and constantly commented on how he couldn’t do what I do in the kitchen.  He said it takes too much work. It takes such commitment.”

His daughter, who now works at Yelp, was a cocktail waitress and hostess at the restaurant while attending the University of Santa Clara and loved it. But again, restaurant life is not for everyone.

“It was hard to find help back in 1979 when we first opened, and it’s even harder now,” Matulich says. “The labor market is so tight and so competitive. And the kids who live here in Los Gatos don’t need summer jobs to make money, so the pool is even smaller. We are paying way above minimum wage, and our workers have to commute. We’re lucky to have the staff we do, and many of them have been here over 20 years with us.”

The labor market is so tight, in fact, that he gets calls all the time from construction companies looking for day labor. That used to be the model: People would work construction during the day and in a restaurant at night.

How did those rumors of demise get started? Well, there were a lot of vacancies downtown and rents were rising, and the rumor mill began churning. Matulich admits he was getting offers from other cities to open a second location, but he didn’t want to dilute the brand. Plus, he feels like he needs to be present to guarantee that consistency and quality that people have come to expect over 40 years. So he took out ads in the local papers saying, “We’re are not closing!” He says he thinks it helped a little, but once people start talking in a small town, it’s hard to put the genie back in the bottle.

He emphasizes that he intends to continue keeping a lot of people employed, since a lot of people depend on this business being here.

Matulich reflects back to how Steamer’s started, as a humble café with 12 tables and eight seats at the oyster bar. He was involved in opening the Courtside property at that time, and had been involved in the original opening crew at Sundance in Palo Alto. As he rattles off the names of half a dozen restaurant entrepreneurs with whom he worked in the business and all the places they opened, it becomes apparent that this is truly his passion and his life’s work.

At the time he leveraged the Courtside crew to help him launch Steamer’s, his brother was working at a Sheraton in Hawaii and his sister was managing a tasting room outside Gilroy. He thought they could all be part of something together, and thus Steamer’s was born. Ever since, his sister has been running the office and doing the bookkeeping, plus handling all the activities they participate in, like Jazz on the Plazz.

The Matulich family grew up near Salinas. “My mother was Italian, right off the boat. She may have been born on the boat! My father was Croatian and a butcher, so he taught us all about meat, and we were surrounded by agriculture. We grew up cooking all our lives. We got to know all the produce farmers, Foxy Lettuce, all those guys. We all went to Palma High.”

He tells the story of the early days of Steamer’s Cafe. “My family was involved in liquor distribution, and the year we opened, one of the Mondavis came by and said, ‘You should do a wine bar! It’s a new concept that’s big. Open a bunch of Italian wines and people will buy wine by the glass.’ At the time, people were still drinking things like Mateus and Lancer, and we were very successful with imports. In fact, we became the No. 1 seller of Soave Bolla in California.”

After the first year, they did so well that they were rated by Barrons as the No. 1 grossing restaurant in the country per square foot. “I had no idea this had happened until a Japanese guy came into the restaurant and told me that was the reason he was here,” Matulich says. “He really thought this concept could take off in Japan. In fact, some people in Scottsdale opened a place called Steamer’s, using our logo and menu!”

The restaurant met with great success, in part because of the great cocktails; Matulich loves to bartend. “We have our own special glassware blown in Mexico by a buddy of mine,” he says. “Our margarita glasses are really cool; people like stuff like that. I’ve even had people asking about the colors I use on my walls; they want to duplicate them in their own homes.”

That brings to mind when he was demolishing the old cafe to move into larger quarters. “People came to me and said, ‘I want table such and such because that’s where I got engaged.’ I had a guy buy my entire bar for his house. The emotional connection of people to the place was amazing. Now I have the kids and even grandkids of people who used to work here coming back to visit. There’s no way I can be this old!”

One thing that never gets old, though, is coming up with new dishes or new twists on existing ones. Pasta and pizza have long been among Matulich’s favorites to make.

In fact, Matulich went to San Francisco’s North Beach to take classes from Tony Gemignani of Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, and has been certified by one of the four schools in Italy that award certificates to proficient makers of pizza: He might frame that certificate at some point. He imports flour directly from Italy and has perfected the recipe, after many years of honing. He even took some classes from Tom McNaughton of Flour + Water in the Mission in San Francisco, who went to Bologna to study pasta making from the ladies there, and then opened a pasta lab.

Pizza is an art he continues to pursue. “There are so many variations of dough types!” he says. “We learned about St. Louis, Detroit, New York and of course, Chicago deep dish. I like keeping up with what’s going on. I still have the same pasta machine from Italy I bought in 1982; they have to fabricate parts for it over there.”

Some things just keep on keeping on. Count Steamer’s among them. The restaurant is located at 31 University Ave, Los Gatos. For hours, menus and reservations, visit http://steamers-restaurant.com.