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This 1880s tiny port town makes for a great day trip away from San Francisco

The Warehouse Cafe in Port Costa features taxidermy and other exotic ephemera from times gone by. | Source: Julie Makinen/The Standard

A Sunday afternoon trip back in time to a California of yesteryear is just an hour’s drive from San Francisco in the delightfully tumbledown village of Port Costa.

Tucked along the Carquinez Strait amid rolling golden hills dotted with oaks, this 19th-century hamlet feels like a Hollywood movie set of the Old West, and it’s an ideal half-day outing. Expect a creaky Victorian hotel, a quirky bar in an old warehouse (complete with a taxidermied polar bear in a giant glass cabinet), a vintage shop that’s closed more than open, and one quite-nice restaurant. This weekend, a flea market will liven up the one and only main street. 

It’s hard to believe the sleepy outpost, which has only a few hundred residents and about half a dozen active storefronts, was once one of the busiest ports on the West Coast, shipping wheat and other goods. 

Port Costa was founded in 1883 as a landing for a “railroad ferry” operated by the Central Pacific Railroad. A century and a half ago, long before bridges crossed this strait, the ferry carried entire trains across the waterway from Benicia to Port Costa, where they then rumbled on to Oakland’s port. 

The Warehouse Cafe is housed in a granary from the 1800s in Port Costa. | Source: Julie Makinen/The Standard

Trains still run along the tracks today. From the patio at the Warehouse Cafe, you’ll see the occasional Amtrak whiz by as sailboats and barges trundle up the strait. 

In 1886, businessman George W. McNear built the granary that now houses the dusty yet charming cafe. More a bar than a cafe—though prime rib dinners are on tap Fridays and Saturdays—this capacious watering hole is stuffed with a hodgepodge of old furniture and oddities, and has an active pool table and a quirky odds-and-ends shop selling T-shirts and vintage knickknacks. Warning to the ladies: The bathroom stall “doors” are, ahem, shower curtains. 

Sidle up to the four-sided bar for one of its 250 beers or a $9 cocktail in a Mason jar, served by a gent in a Panama straw skimmer hat. Outside on the patio, which is dotted with rusty machinery and mismatched furniture, you may find a classic rock band jamming out standards to an appreciative crowd of aging bikers. 

Once you’ve wet your whistle, take a peek into one of the little shops down the block. There’s a T-shirt shack “open sometimes,” according to its sign, and a shop peddling crystals and air plants. 

Curiosity cigar boxes are on sale at Theater of Dreams in Port Costa. | Source: Julie Makinen/The Standard

Another storefront, with a sign that says “Theatre of Dreams,” is an Instagram-worthy faux apothecary selling pricey paper goods and decor items that’s fun to browse, though it feels like there’s nothing really to buy. If you’re lucky, the Compulsive Peddler vintage shop on the ground floor of the Burlington Hotel across the street might be open.

The 1883 hotel, which is not currently operating as such, has apparently been the subject of much debate in the past—with a plaque on its exterior attesting to a lengthy dispute among locals over whether it had been, at some point during its history, a bordello. A plaque placed in 1999 by E Clampus Vitus (the society’s motto is Credo Quia Absurdum) aims to set the record straight, averring that its records indicate that not only was the establishment a bordello, but also “a highly ranked” one among the California bordellos of the era, with a “five-star rating” for many decades in the early 1900s. 

The Burlington Hotel in Port Costa dates from the 1880s. | Source: Julie Makinen/The Standard

Down the block, there’s a field with a couple of vintage trailers and some rusty old pickup trucks that host the occasional flea market or other gathering. A large plastic dachshund head—an advertising relic from the Doggie Diner chain of the 1940s and ’50s Bay Area—looks down on the plot from atop a tree stump.

At one time, the valley where Port Costa sits was called Bull Valley, and down the block from the Warehouse Cafe is the Bull Valley Roadhouse. It’s the town’s best (and only) option for an upscale meal. 

Open for dinner Wednesday to Saturday, with longer hours on Sunday, including an all-day breakfast menu, the restaurant and bar is situated in an old sandstone structure with a shady patio on the side. If you’re lucky (or check its online calendar ahead of time), you may catch a jazz trio or bossa nova duo in the garden. 

The Bull Valley Roadhouse in Port Costa is open Wednesdays to Sundays. | Source: Julie Makinen/The Standard

The farm-to-table menu changes frequently. On a recent Sunday, it featured comfort food like fried chicken and a smoked pork chop with cheesy white corn grits, and more adventurous fare like “fries with eyes” (deep fried smelt), a beef tongue cheesesteak sandwich and pluot poke—fruit with grilled avocado, tamari-sesame dressing, cashews, cilantro and furikake.

Fans of “historical” cocktails will want to check out the bar, which leans toward bourbons and gins in original drinks as well as old-timey offerings like a Calumet Club (Four Roses bourbon, in-house Torino vermouth blend, acid phosphate, aromatic bitters) or a Vanilla Punch (François Voyer VS cognac, Giffard vanille de madagascar, lemon and Marian Farmhouse curacão).

On the way out of town, check out the Port Costa School, a classical revival building built in 1911 that operated from 1912 to 1966 and is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

If You Go

Bull Valley Roadhouse

14 Canyon Lake Drive, Port Costa


Warehouse Cafe

5 Canyon Lake Drive, Port Costa