Best WiFi hotspots in Menlo Park

by Chris Gulker on June 18, 2009

We headed out this morning with our iPhone and trusty, if ancient, G4 Mac laptop with the goal of rating downtown Menlo’s WiFi hotspots. The 12-inch Mac is wonderfully portable but numbers iffy WiFi connectivity among its sins. This is the perfect machine to test hotspots: if this Mac can connect, anything should be able to grab the same signal. We then headed out to test Menlo’s (advertised) WiFi hotspots.

Signature Cafe (inside the Safeway – yes, a supermarket with WiFi), Middle and El Camino. Inside the store the signal strength is excellent and stable. Login is easy – launch a browser, click ‘Agree’ on the terms of service (TOS) page, and you’re in, both on  the laptop as well as the iPhone. At 11:20 on a Thursday, there were plenty of seats. Coffee is from a Starbucks stand, while the adjacent deli provides sandwiches, salads and soup. Hot tip: the WiFi extends to the outside seating under the arches in front.

Café Borrone in the Menlo Center, Santa Cruz and El Camino. The always-packed Cafe Borrone offers no WiFi, but neighbors Kepler’s Books (south end) and Knickerbockers Tobacconists (north end) have hotspots. As of this writing, Kepler’s network was open, but not very stable in the café, while Knickerbockers was asking for a password.  Hot tip: Turkey works on baguette for $8, but don’t count on a connection.

Le Boulanger, Crane and Santa Cruz. This bakery-cum-coffee shop offers a completely open hotspot free of browser pages, logins or other bother. This popular downtown fast-lunch stop has booths in the west end of the building (where signal strength is best) and often resembles a startup incubator in the afternoon with each booth occupied by a covey of cellphone- and laptop-toting entrepreneurs. We once saw a group who’d brought their own router for a tabletop subnetwork, all cheerfully tolerated byLe Boulanger staff. Hot tip: Cheapest rent in Menlo Park – coffee is $1.80 a cup but you can also catch the signal from the two public benches in front.

Starbucks, Santa Cruz and Curtis.  Supposedly offering free WiFi to AT&T customers, I never succeeded in getting either the iPhone or laptop connected, despite jumping through dozens of AT&T browser-page hoops on both devices. At one point I was promised a text message with a personal connection link. My (lousy) cup of coffee had gone very cold, and still no text, or connectivity arrived. Hot tip: Go to Peet’s.

Ann’s Coffee Shop, 772 Santa Cruz, near Chestnut. More than 60 years in the same spot (and with the same menu for the 20 years I’ve lived here) this Menlo landmark has recently added WiFi – though not all the staff know it (despite the sign in the window). My iPhone grabbed the open connection right away, but it took a little nudging of Ann’s DHCP server to get the laptop connected. The signal is good, and stable near the front of the shop. Hot tip: Home-made pies – try the rhubarb.

Peet’s Coffea and Tea, Santa Cruz and University. When you buy something at Peet’s, you can request a WiFi access code. You then launch a browser on whatever device you wish to connect, type in the code, agree to the TOS and are granted 2 hours free access. The signal varies from spot to spot and is not particularly stable – people moving in the room seem to knock the signal down and occasionally off. I find it tricky to type the long, cryptic code on the iPhone. Hot tip: Best coffee in town, not the best WiFi experience.

Our Menlo WiFi hotspot rating: Signature Cafe (Safeway), Le Boulanger and Ann’s are all good, Peet’s is OK, Borrone doesn’t even try and Starbucks is useless. Borrone and Le Boulanger have the best food, Peet’s has the best coffee
View Menlo Park Wi-Fi Hotspots in a larger map

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