History

Post image for Revisiting Round Table Pizza just shy of its 60th anniversary

Two national businesses that our town of Menlo Park spawned are still alive and well. One was incorporated in 1998 and first set-up in a garage of a newly-purchased home at 232 Santa Margarita. Now headquartered in Mountain View, Google is part of everyday life.

The other began in a California Water Service building on El Camino Real. Is 59 years long ago enough to be considered history? Only residents now 80 plus were then old enough to be legally served alcohol in 1959. Round Table Pizza opened on December 21st of that year.

Round Table’s future founder, Bill Larson (pictured top), was a sophomore attending Palo Alto High School when a night of teenage pranking occurred. While one policeman was searching for the culprits who swiped the keys he left in his patrol car’s ignition, another prankster let the air out his tires. For being that guy, Bill got expelled.

Most newspaper accounts state he was a high school dropout, but a Paly classmate of his told me what really happened. Expulsion for spirited hi-jinks seems better than being a desultory dropout. Out of school at age 17, Bill signed up to join the Navy.

Stationed overseas, Bill discovered a Japanese-style pizza dish. Returning to California after his hitch, Bill took a series of jobs driving a Coca-Cola truck, working at Safeway, and finally assisting at a San Mateo pizza place called Hambone’s Parlor & Olde British Pub, revising menus and doing promotion.

Considering himself with enough pizza knowledge, he borrowed $800 from his father, Henry, a Swedish immigrant. Bill bundled up his household furniture in a pickup truck to present to a bank as collateral for loan. Along with other loans, he purchased the vacant former California Water Service building at 1235 El Camino Real and had enough to furnish it, bare-bones style.

Before pizza paddles could be acquired, each morning he would remove the flat front door to use as a rolling table. Bill and his wife, Toni, did most of the interior work while Henry helped build the business’s tables, including a large round one for which the restaurant was named. The big overhead sign in front had PIZZA PARLO in big letters, missing the R that had to be removed for the installation of a fan required by the health inspector.

Bill  brought his developed marketing humor to his own establishment. The original menus stated that the restaurant was “south of the Park Theater and just 10,000 miles WEST of Tokyo, Japan” (though Menlo Park is only 5,000 miles to the east). The menu also proclaimed the Round Table pizza as “the World’s Greatest” and made of seven kinds of cheeses “flown to us directly from the moon.” Of course, that was before the lunar landing a decade later.

The current Round Table building was constructed a few years later at 1225, where Economy Barbers was located. What used to be 1235 was demolished and is now a parking lot. The style is [thought to be] Elizabethan Tudor but is actually modeled after the Danish look of Solvang, one of Bill’s favorite towns.

Bill Larson had sold 75% of his business in 1978 and retired the following year in 1979, wishing he hadn’t sold at all. He had nine children, most of whom worked at Round Table, including son Bob, who was cleaning tables at age 12.

Bob went to Paly freshman year but graduated from Gunn High School in 1981. In 1987, he purchased the Menlo Park Round Table, which he still owns as well as the Colorado Avenue pizza place in Palo Alto. Bob had his own kids working there as well as his wife. One rainy afternoon, Bob gave me an interview along with a display of Round Table memorabilia.

Following the earthquake of October 17, 1989, the Menlo Park restaurant was the only building around with power and became a gathering place for the community to get a warm dinner and catch the news on TV.

Employees bought the business in 1998. Henry, Bill’s father, died in 2004 at age 94. Two years later, Bill died at age 73. Five hundred and fiftean Round Table restaurants, both franchises and corporate-owned, exist in the seven Pacific Coast states, including Nevada and Arizona, as well as in Dubai, Bahrain and Mongolia, with plans to expand further into the Mideast.

In the 1960s, the Round Table was one of three illustrious Menlo Park watering holes; the other two being the Oasis, opened in 1934, and Magoo’s Pizza Parlor, where the Grateful Dead (then the Warlocks) first played on May 5, 1965. Magoo’s is now Harvest Furniture (639 Santa Cruz Avenue) and who knows what the recently-closed Oasis will become? But Round Table lives on!

The original Round Table slogan of arguably “the World’s Greatest” has evolved to “The Last Honest Pizza.” Having originated it Menlo Park almost 60 years ago, the first Round Table is still open for business, honestly.

Editor’s note: Round Tables restaurants changed to Round Table restaurants. Author Bo Crane is secretary of the Menlo Park Historical Association and this story first appeared in The Gate Post, Vol. XLIV No. 3, July-September, 2018. Photos courtesy of Bo Crane

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