Only 40 minutes from San Francisco, Port Costa feels light years away in both location and era. The richly-atmospheric port town is perched on the scenic Carquinez Strait with a cozy, half-block main street filled with romantic Gold-Rush era buildings, mature shade trees, and alleyways strung with lights. The town’s bewitching allure is no accident. It’s stewarded by locals and business owners who cherish the town’s history, charm and natural beauty. Before the end of your visit, you’ll likely know a few of them by name.
The Burlington Hotel
If you live in the Bay Area, you could do Port Costa as day trip, but you’d miss its most endearing resident: The Burlington Hotel. The 1883 hotel has managed to make it this far without selling its soul to Restoration Hardware. Creaky floors, shared bathrooms (some rooms have private baths) and thrift store chic decor are not quite yuppie-friendly, and that’s what makes it so special. Its character is preserved and so pronounced, it practically speaks as you step foot into its captivating lobby. Upstairs, rooms bear names like Maude and Emma Sue in honor of the women who worked here back when it was a brothel.
Bull Valley Roadhouse
A meal at the Bull Valley Roadhouse will likely be the best food and drink you’ve had in a small town setting. Both the chef and the bar program come courtesy of The Slanted Door, which just this month won a James Beard award for Outstanding Restaurant of the Year. It’s housed in a wondrous space with rich decor that’s equal parts Gold Country Glam and Victorian Vogue. Start with an expertly-crafted cocktail in the sitting room-style lounge. The spirit selection is exceptional, referencing the Slanted Door more than its Contra Costa County peers. For dinner, ask to be seated on the atmospheric patio that calls to mind the hidden courtyards of New Orleans’ French Quarter. Portions are family-style and dishes like a slow roasted pork stew with tomatillos and chiles over cornmeal polenta belie any bias you may have about small town dining.
After dinner, grab a nightcap at Warehouse Café, a rollicking saloon and restaurant the size of Costco. The dimly-lit space is divvied up into a restaurant, bar and vintage shop (see Baron’s Boardwalk below). Pop-culture detritus permeates every wall and rafter, the most prominent being a massive polar bear encased in glass. The restaurant — whose character reminds me of a Gold Country Deetjen’s — serves lobsters plucked from a tank, steaks and an assortment of sandwiches and bar snacks. The u-shaped bar has slanted floors, 250 beers and a fun cast of characters. There’s also a handful of arcade games and a jukebox that streams a steady mix of classic country, rockabilly and The Ramones.
On your drive into town, you’ll spy a sign pointing the way to Baron’s Boardwalk, a wacky vintage store tucked into the back of Warehouse Café. If Pee-wee Herman and Vincent Price went into business together, this is the shop they’d open. The pop-culture repository sells kitschy-cool items like 50s clothes, tikis, old men’s magazines, KFC bucket lamps and a life-size Frankenstein.
The Cafe at The Burlington Hotel
Thank god for Earl. After a night at the Warehouse Café, you’ll need his tender loving skillet bacon, served in a charming cafe that could double for Donna Reed’s kitchen. He originally took the space to process his local honey which you can get drizzled over a slice of his insanely delicious cornbread. Pair it with a cup of coffee or glass of vivid fresh OJ and catch up on the town’s gossip. Friendly locals and sunny picture windows overlooking the main street equal cafe perfection.
Theatre of Dreams
After breakfast, stroll across the street to Theatre of Dreams, a dazzling storefront that sells the festive art and craft of Wendy Addison. Her exquisite work is perfectly at home in Port Costa and could serve as the decor for an elaborate children’s fête thrown by Victorian era magicians.