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Why Port Costa Should Be Your Next Getaway

By Virginia Miller
June 25, 2014
Photo by: Virginia Miller

At the end of a long, winding road along the Carquinez Straight awaits quirky, charming Port Costa, a lesser-known town with stellar food, cocktails and an unforgettable dive bar. With a population of barely 200, the town was once a booming grain port and train ferry stop for Contra Costa County. You exit I80 just before you hit the Carquinez Bridge and keep driving a few short but slow, winding miles east through golden-brown hills until you reach the end of the road and hit active train tracks along the water (pictured above). There's just a handful of businesses — meaning less than 10 — along one road, including the enchanting Theatre of Dreams, a shop full of Victorian-inspired paper goods, shadow puppets, letterpress and the like.

The town is a destination — and a residence — for the biking community. There are motorcycles everywhere, which reach peak mass on Sunday, although Saturday's droves are impressive as well. Locals dish about their vintage bikes and features in motorcycle magazines over a pint at divey-magical Warehouse Café, the ultimate dive bar and restaurant, which is worth a drive in and of itself.

Recently, a handful of residents, with their creative, unusual businesses, are turning this wisp of a town into a destination. We spent a recent weekend here and felt as if we'd been hundreds of miles from the city, though it's merely a 45-minute drive away. The pace is slow and enveloping. Locals of many stripes and ages began talking to us the moment we wandered in. We were even invited to see home antiques collections (the town's other key passion besides biking). On top of that, we enjoyed a meal and cocktails of metropolitan quality, all while staying in a quirky hotel that many claim is haunted. If Savannah met a sprinkling of New Orleans and California's Old West-Gold Country, it might feel a bit like Port Costa. Here are a few of our favorite moments and tastes from this one-of-a-kind treasure of a strip.

  • Photo by: Virginia Miller

    Bull Valley Roadhouse is equal parts big city-quality dinner spot (Thursday-Sunday), weekend brunch haunt and classic cocktail destination. Owners Earl Flewellen and Samuel Spurrier — both with Southern roots — took over the the place in 2013, partnering with executive chef and co-owner David Williams (formerly of Slanted Door) and chef de cuisine Matt Brown. Pictured is the elegant saloonlike bar, lined with Victorian couches and chandeliers, ideal for lingering over cocktails and bites. Look for a golden bull slung over the door of a stone building that was built in 1897. You're in the right place. 

  • Photo by: Virginia Miller

    Erik Adkins, who oversees all of Charles Phan restaurant bars in the The Slanted Door Group, consulted on Bull Valley's cocktails. At $11 a pop, each drink seems to take tips from pre-Prohibition-era drinks as well as a California sensibility of plenty of local produce and herbs.

    Highlights often feature local spirits, like the refreshing Apple Daiquiri combining El Dorado three-year white rum, lime and Angostura bitters with Marian Farms apple brandy infused with local Jonagold apples. Pictured is a gorgeous Pimm’s No. 4 Cup mixing English Harbour rum, a blend of vermouths and bitters, ginger ale, lemon and cucumber with a range of fruit and herbs, including robust summer cherries.

  • Photo by: Virginia Miller

    Bull Valley's food is upscale, sometimes pricey American comfort food. There are many standouts on the menu, including dry-rubbed St. Louis-style pork ribs ($18), a farro, cucumber and arugula salad enlivened with Calabrian peppers, bottarga and citrus vinaigrette, crispy buttermilk fried chicken and a biscuit ($27; pictured), and whole-fish specials of the day, like chile-pepper cod ($29), oven-roasted in parchment with zucchini, sweet chile peppers and dill.

  • Photo by: Virginia Miller

    On Bull Valley's idyllic back patio, save room for dessert, like feathery-soft ice cream made with Flewellen's wildflower honey or dreamy after-dinner cocktails, such as the Venezuelan Chocolate Flip, combining tart Plymouth Sloe Gin and Pampero Rum with a whole egg and nutmeg.

  • Photo by: Virginia Miller

    One of our favorite Bull Valley dishes is saffron risotto ($28), cheesy with Parmesan, fresh with fava beans, fiddlehead ferns, asparagus and parsley. Sheer comfort.

  • Photo by: Virginia Miller

    The Warehouse Café alone is worth a visit to Port Costa. For those who love quirky spaces, antiques, dive bars or all of the above, this place is for you. In fact, this is one of the best dive bars we've visited anywhere in the world. Imagine a giant, real polar bear — stuffed decades ago by an intrepid hunter — towering over you as you play pool. Here you can also dine on barbecue in dim wood booths under a series of dusty Marilyn Monroe paintings. The giant bar is littered with quirky lamps, animal heads and playful vintage signs. There's a surprising menu of hundreds of international beers served in mason jars along with hilariously atrocious cocktails like a Sex on the Beach or a Sand in My Ass. Yes, that is one of the chalkboard cocktail specials, and it's heavy on the peach schnapps.

  • Photo by: Virginia Miller

    The Warehouse Café is housed in a former grain warehouse built in 1879. It's a local's favorite for Maine lobster dinners — fresh from the live tank — beers, vintage games in the back leading to "Baron's Boardwalk," a vintage shop full of clothing, home decor items and tiki paraphernalia. On Sunday afternoons, live bands play occasionally to crowds around rickety picnic tables on the outside patio facing the water.

  • Photo by: Virginia Miller

    The paint is chipping, the building looks cracked and faded, but the Burlington Hotel is packed with quirky charm. This unique hotel is for those who appreciate an overnight with personality and history. Owners of next door's Bull Valley Roadhouse, Earl Flewellen and Samuel Spurrier, also own Burlington and have slowly been renovating and upgrading it. Note: the lobby doesn't open until 4 PM most days so arrive accordingly. If you arrive earlier, head across the street to the Warehouse Café for a drink until they open up.

  • Photo by: Virginia Miller

    With only 19 rooms ($75-$140) and as the one lodging option around, it's wise to book ahead on the weekends. Also note that only four of the rooms have their own private bathroom — the rest share bathrooms on both the second and third floors where all rooms are located. Rooms are cheekily named after supposed women who worked in the house a century ago, when it is reported to have been a brothel. For example, the four rooms with private baths are named Ethyl and Ivy ($115), Victoria and Wilma ($90). Note that the rooms are pleasantly old and rickety, yet simultaneously graced with antiques and hospitable touches, such as a vase of fresh roses and a pitcher of chilled water and wine goblets.

  • Photo by: Virginia Miller

    Motorcycles...and honey? A couple years ago, Flewellen raised funds on Kickstarter to launch his 30-hive apiary on a Port Costa plot. At harvest time, the Burlington Hotel's owner let him rent the hotel's abandoned kitchen where he and Spurrier began serving pour-over coffee, hand-ground in a 1920's Hobart machine, and baked goods to cover the rent. After a guest-induced fire last year, the owner almost closed the hotel, but Flewellen and Spurrier thankfully took over. Flewellen is still producing his honey, sold at the cafe with a couple other East Bay favorites, like Blue Chair Fruit jams. Customers pull up on their bikes all weekend long.

  • Photo by: Virginia Miller

    Flewellen's breakfasts are served only Saturday and Sunday, 9 AM-2 PM, in the cafe. The aroma of bacon and pour-over coffee, made to order, drifts through the hotel, while locals and visitors stream in all day for fluffy pound cake, dense cornbread, biscuits or rotating baked goods, served with the honey. Don't miss fresh-squeezed orange juice and fatty-good bacon.

  • Photo by: Virginia Miller

    Here's the fatty bacon standing at the ready on the cafe's vintage stove. The aroma of coffee and bacon fill the hotel with homey smells as one awakes in the morning.

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Places Mentioned

Bull Valley Roadhouse

American • Port Costa

Food- Decor- Service- CostM
 
 
 
 
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