Words by Elaine Wu
Spend some time with restaurateur Steve Ugur and one thing becomes abundantly clear: he was destined to run a restaurant. Or in his case, two. Aside from his award-winning eatery Pausa in San Mateo, Steve is also the founder and co-owner of Palo Alto’s latest culinary topic of conversation: Sekoya (a play on the word “sequoia”). Located on California Avenue, it’s a stylish contemporary lounge, bar and restaurant with a full menu for lunch and dinner.
Steve grew up in the culinary world, watching his father, Hamdi Ugur, own and operate four different restaurants in the Bay Area. As he helped out in the kitchen as well as the front of the house, Steve witnessed first-hand his dad’s dedication and hard work. “You observe a lot of things you like and don’t like while working in restaurants. You see good and bad habits and then you analyze them,” Steve recalls. “I understood the restaurant business and realized I was good at it.”
Later, traveling to France as a young adult, Steve studied the art of wine as well as butchering and curing meats, further developing his passion for the culinary arts. By the time he was in his early twenties, he skipped college (against his mother’s wishes) and set out to open his own restaurant. “Do I go to college and spend all that money on education only to fall back into the restaurant business?” he asked himself. “I decided to go all-in on restaurants.”
In the spring of 2021, Steve and his uncle, co-owner Sean Ugur, bounced around the idea of opening a new place in Palo Alto. After the world being in isolation for so long, they figured a more communal vibe would be a welcome change for the community. “The purpose of the lounge was to create a more social gathering space,” says Steve. “People can come in and relax, enjoy good cocktails and share good food.”
When entering Sekoya, you feel like you’ve been transported to the hottest new joint in New York or Los Angeles with its bold orange swivel chairs and plush velvet couches that surround large communal tables. Living up to its name’s twist on California’s towering forests, Sekoya features tree slab dining tables and plates patterned with rippling tree rings. And because this is the heart of Silicon Valley, there’s space for large parties to accommodate business teams wanting something more than on-campus cafeteria fare. “You can come into the lounge for appetizers and bubbles, come in with co-workers and do a multi-course dinner, sit at the bar for a couple of cocktails or have a casual dinner outside,” Steve welcomes. “It’s a very versatile space. We don’t want to be one-dimensional.”
But despite the hip, contemporary vibe, Steve wants Sekoya to be a comfortable, welcoming space for everyone. “When people see a place like this, they love the design and the atmosphere, but we don’t want people to feel like we’re being pretentious,” he says. “Some restaurants make you feel like you’re being judged when you walk in. I don’t want to do that. How the guest feels is the most important thing.”
Steve’s years of working in restaurants has helped him hone in on details that many other eateries miss. That includes everything from spacing out courses correctly to avoiding shortcuts when it comes to the food. “What we do is not easy—there’s so much competition,” he notes. “But the reason why we do the small things is because most restaurants don’t. When our guests dine here and then dine somewhere else, the small things we do will stand out that much more.”
Sekoya’s menu is a true fusion of flavors inspired by Japan, Spain, France and the U.S., among others. The dishes are always fresh, seasonal and can be ordered no matter where you sit in the restaurant. Starters range from burrata with toybox cherry tomato confit to kona kampachi crudo; plates and entrees include lamb tartare, Mt. Lassen trout and hanger steak. There’s also “Amber Hour” at the Bar & Lounge (5-6PM Monday through Thursday and 4-6PM Fridays and Saturdays) with featured cocktails, Hibachi Grill skewers and kitchen specialities like popcorn beef chicharron, double-fried tempura mushrooms and a dry-aged smash burger.
Steve is proud of the innovative menu: “Our Parker House rolls are made every day in-house and proofed for 24 hours. The beef tongue is slow-cooked for three hours, skewered and finished on the grill. And people are surprised by our combination of chicken liver mousse with banana bread doughnuts.”
Sekoya may be thoroughly modern and sophisticated, but the way Steve runs it is firmly rooted in old-school ideals. His formula of hard work and attention to detail is his secret to success. “I don’t think I’d be able to do this if I didn’t enjoy the restaurant business,” he shares. “I enjoy the instant gratification that you see from the guests, building a team, educating the staff. That for me is what a labor of love means.”