Over dinner the other night, we were confronted by the craziest outbreak of dot-com mania yet -- the menu. Akamai Chicken Pineapple Fried Rice? Inktomi Asia Burger? Business 2.0 Bok Choy?
Yep. It's not exactly New York's Carnegie Deli, which honors the Great White Way with monster sandwiches like "The Egg and Oy!" (chicken salad and boiled egg), "Fifty Ways to Love Your Liver (try chopped!)," "Nova on Sunday" or the "Woody Allen" ("lotsa corned beef, plus lotsa pastrami"). But the new Venture Frogs Restaurant, tucked into a corner of what was once an ornately tiled Cadillac showroom in San Francisco, may be the only place where tourists can actually bite into Silicon Valley culture.
"Each menu item pays tribute to a company that we believe has helped shape the Internet start-up world to what it is today," says the reverential menu -- written by a pair of Netheads who sold their first start-up to Microsoft for $250 million in 1998. Tony Hsieh, 26, and Alfred Lin, 27, two of the founders of LinkExchange, left Microsoft to start Venture Frogs, an investment firm and Internet incubator.
But how did these two high-tech entrepreneurs go from investing in Net start-ups like BBQ.com to serving up pan-Asian plates? "We run an incubator in the building," says Hsieh. "We wanted to provide a place for all the people working at the incubator to eat -- so they would basically never have to leave the building, and would work all the time," he jokes. He and Lin also live in the building, which now houses a movie megaplex, a gym, offices and apartments. "It's now pretty much its own little world in this building." They eat in the restaurant almost every day, but you won't find them wielding paring knives; they've delegated the daily operations to food service professionals, and Hsieh's parents.
The entrepreneurs have plans to hold a monthly dot-com mixer, but the noisy Van Ness Avenue location is a long way from South Park -- and just down the street from the Hard Rock Cafe. In fact, with its bar made of crushed bottles, computer chips and motherboard fragments, Venture Frogs has more of a theme park appeal than any of the pricey bistros trying to lighten the wallets of the dot-com set. You can just hear some wide-eyed Silicon Valley pilgrim eagerly ordering the eBay Eggplant, Cisco Chicken Salad and the Softbank Satay -- and dreaming of the day he finds his own start-up on the menu.
The Microsoft Minced Chicken in Lettuce is, the waitress told us, the most popular dish. We tried it, but actually found the WebTV Korean Pancake much tastier. Apparently, there's no correlation between the company's performance and the quality of the dish. (Though this would be a great idea for an amusement park -- we'd love to take our chances on the Amazon Roller Coaster, the Toysmart DropZone and the Microsoft It's a Small World Cruise.)
Hseih says that alliteration was one of the guiding factors in names like Sequoia Springrolls and Palm Pad Thai, but that there wasn't much rhyme or reason to naming the Little Dragon Dumplings after Excite or the oysters on the half shell after Kleiner Perkins. Only the true Net biz trivia buffs will get the references to Perkins Coie Pork Chops, named after a law firm, or the Series A Soy Beans, Series B Peanuts and Series C Roasted Peas, honoring rounds of investment, of course.
Like any new Internet company, the Venture Frogs Restaurant has a grand mission statement, and in this case it's printed right on the menu: "The mission of the Venture Frogs Restaurant today is to embrace and embody the Internet start-up culture as reflected in the restaurant's cuisine, design and attitude: fresh, modern, upbeat, informal and fun."
Despite the menu's sycophantic tribute to Internet greats, the food's not bad. Gotta love those Wilson Sonsini Dry-Fried Beans! But there's nothing less appetizing than finding an ad on your dinner table. Open your white linen napkin and you'll find chopsticks sheathed in the standard white paper, printed with the URL of Zappos.com. Never heard of it? We hadn't, but it declares itself to be "the Web's most popular shoe store!" Fortunately, the disposable wrapper is the only place we spotted those creeping dot-com ads -- unless you count the fact that the Zappos.com Crhme Brulie only made it onto the menu because it's one of the firms funded by the Venture Frogs.
Of course, Hseih says, in the month since the place opened, several companies have already tried to buy placement as menu items. The Venture Frogs haven't agreed to such a deal yet, but they'll consider it "if there's enough demand." Coming soon to your plate: the sponsored meal.