Words by Trevor Felch
After each customer’s first bite of the signature dish at Menlo Park’s Namesake Cheesecake, there seems to always be a subtle “aha!” epiphany moment. “I didn’t know cheesecake could taste like that!”
In a sea of dense cheesecakes, the one from Cherith Spicer’s charming shop is smooth and tangy—a Ferrari-cruising-down-the-highway kind of dessert.
Besides the glorious first bite, guests often have one other sudden moment of realization that pulls together the Peninsula’s historic past and its current cheesecake virtuoso.
Namesake Cheesecake might be a lovely bakery name that rhymes, but its real purpose is to pay homage. Cherith is named after Cherith Lorraine Rickey, a dear family friend and neighbor. Longtime Peninsula diners certainly know Rickey and her husband John’s restaurants, including Dinah’s Shack, Rick’s Swiss Chalet and Rickey’s Hyatt. A stalwart dessert at those restaurants was a particular cheesecake: Cherith Lorraine Rickey’s cheesecake.
However, as is the case with so many precious traditions from prior generations, this cheesecake recipe was never written down or virtually shared at all. At least that was the case until Cherith was the lucky—and only—recipient of the secrets of this cheesecake.
“She looked at me and said, ‘Eight crackers,’” Cherith recalls on an unusually balmy autumn afternoon at her shop about how she slowly but surely learned the recipe while Rickey’s memory sadly was fading. “I promised her. I said, ‘Someday in my life I could do something with this recipe. I don’t know what, when or how. But I promise you, I will make this come back to life.’”
Now Cherith’s been serving the cheesecake for over a decade to the likes of Jane Goodall, Clint Eastwood, several beloved nearby restaurants (Sundance the Steakhouse, Osteria and the Stanford Park Hotel, to name a few) and a very devoted following of local enthusiasts.
Even if Cherith might be a leading cheesecake expert now, she didn’t start baking by way of culinary school or even, in her parents’ opinion, baking pretty much anywhere.
“I joked with my parents and said, ‘I’m going to open up a bakery.’ And then my parents were like, ‘Do you even know how to bake?!’” Cherith credits the Carrubas family—known for local restaurants like Osteria and Caffe Riace—for providing pivotal support. “They really took me under their wing and showed me the ropes on how to get started. It was because of them that I ended up finding this location.”
Initially a skeptic due to her lack of baking experience, Cherith’s father Don also jumped in to help when she launched Namesake Cheesecake in 2012. Although retired now from making deliveries, today at age 92, he still bikes from Palo Alto to the shop to assist his daughter and her small team.
“It’s been fun,” Cherith reflects. “It’s been fun not only challenging myself, but also really trying to keep myself on my toes. Everything is a learning experience for me.”
Cherith clearly learned the cheesecake intricacies from Rickey and now has command of this tricky recipe that relies as much on an elegant, delicate texture as it does on flavor:
“Our cheesecake has three layers and each individual layer has to have a bake and chill process. It’s very different from other styles where you kind of just mix it all in one bowl, throw it in a pan, bake it and take it out. This is why it takes us two days to make it. It has a big chill process and that’s what makes it so good. We also don’t bake with eggs, which is very uncommon.”
Before Namesake Cheesecake, the Palo Alto High School graduate spent several years in Los Angeles and co-opened one of that area’s leading craft beer bars before the genre became the massive trend it is today. Cherith came back to the Peninsula to be closer to her parents. Of course, 2020 posed challenges for the shop, but Cherith took the opportunity to reimagine both her business and the space. Cheesecake is certainly still the headliner, but Namesake Cheesecake goes far beyond dessert nowadays.
“Let’s figure that out!” exclaims Spicer, when asked how to describe the shop, leaning back in a chair and nearly hitting some ornate glassware sitting atop an armoire display of bracelets and earrings. “It’s like a boutique—an eclectic, sort of one-stop shop where everything is local, women-owned, has a good story, gift basket-oriented with constant new arrivals. It’s a little array of everything—and cheesecake.”
After hearing a “general store” suggestion, Cherith pauses and adds, “A general store—with sparkle!”
At this time of year, the shop looks particularly festive with every kind of stocking stuffer, plus a cheesecake holiday candy topping offering, which is quite fitting because Rickey’s cheesecake was always served at the Christmas parties Cherith’s family would attend. “Everything just goes back to family,” she notes. “My parents were best friends with them, so we were over at their house all the time.”
Indeed, arguably the most rewarding thing about Namesake Cheesecake for Cherith is seeing families create their own traditions with this historic cheesecake.
“I like the personal part,” she smiles, as she describes regulars serving up Namesake for engagements and weddings, followed by baby showers: “I’m just watching all these chapters of everyone and that’s what I love.”