On Meridian Avenue near Willow Glen, there is no better trifecta of history than Gunther’s Delicatessen, Three Flames Restaurant and Yum Yum Donuts. The youngest of these joints is around 42.
While other sections of Meridian Avenue still retain a degree of ancient strip-mall glory, this area takes the cake. It is the land of cobblers, coin shops and even more donuts.
San Jose is a town that stretches, so let me stretch it out even more. Since no one in their right minds would possibly walk down Meridian for a mile, I just had to. As I expected, the ghosts cleared my path and showed me the way.
According to an old issue of The Trailblazer, the quarterly bulletin of the California Pioneers of Santa Clara County, Meridian Avenue “took its name from the Mt. Diablo meridian on which it was laid out in 1852. Nathaniel Hicks and Edwin Everett asked that it be laid out, ‘on the meridian from the Alameda to Arroyo de Los Gatos.’”
There you have it. Think about that every time you hang out with Spanish-speaking roofers at Yum Yum Donuts, as I just did. The Yum Yum chain started in SoCal in 1971, but this one has existed at Meridian and Willow since about 1981. How many donut shops can say that?
Yum Yum to Three Flames is a straight shot. It doesn’t even take that long, but you won’t find one single pedestrian doing this, of course, since people in San Jose are surgically attached to their cars. No one walks anywhere.
Three Flames opened in 1980. Outside on the sidewalk, one still finds what I think is the original Carriage Square Shopping Center sign from back in the ’60s. Not too many full-dimensional strip-mall signs remain around here. It doesn’t move, but that’s OK. Lo-tech or no-tech is my motto when it comes to these things.
The interior of Three Flames is a throwback masterpiece. You walk in and the lounge is to the left, where Modesto Briseno is now doing jazz gigs on a regular basis. To the right, one enters the restaurant, where nothing would even qualify as “décor”—maybe the paintings—but since it still looks like 1980 and definitely offers good food and serious banquet possibilities, I had to raise the ghosts.
As such, one anonymous source said he saw John Cipollina of Quicksilver Messenger Service play at Three Flames 40 years ago, with the infamous San Francisco stripper Carol Doda in attendance. At one point, she was doing station IDs for Channel 36.
See? Thanks to Three Flames, San Jose was a destination. Famous people from the City actually came all the way down the peninsula to Meridian Avenue, where the cross streets have textbook suburban names like Willowbrae and Alta Glen. Of course, the ’80s were still close enough to the ’60s for people to remember John Cipollina. I wonder what Carol Doda thought. I guess we’ll never know. In any case, Three Flames is a treasure. May it never die. Try the lentil soup. I did.
Now, since we’re in the business of raising the ghosts, I shall not forget Rookies Sports Lodge, right where Straw Hat Pizza was for the previous 40 years. While sports bars and 20-minute conversations about camper shells are not my thing, I will direct anyone to the glorious framed Pat Tillman display inside Rookies. Underneath his jersey, it declares, and pardon my French: “Champion. A fucking understatement.” I cannot and would not add a thing to the Pat Tillman story. If you don’t know who he was, go look it up.
Carriage Square then gives way to Giant Plaza, named as such because the Goodwill Store used to be Giant Supermarket, going back to before I was even born. At that point, our journey leads us past the burned-down Dick’s Bakery and straight across Hamilton to Gunther’s Deli, one of the most legendary San Jose institutions of all time. No ghosts here. Gunther Meyberg opened it in 1971 and the Reuben is still San Jose’s best.
All in all, this stretch of Meridian is one of San Jose’s great suburban wasteland thoroughfares. I will keep coming back.