If you’re looking for an off-kilter weekend, this might be your ticket. Heading east on I-80, just before the massive Carquinez Bridge, take the turn-off to Crockett. You’ll quickly pass the Dead Fish café, downtown Crockett and then drive for what seems like forever along a narrow, twisting two-lane road that passes through a hilly countryside with no houses, no buildings, some trees and a few cows. Suddenly, down in a hollow, you’ll spot a two-story brick schoolhouse. That’s Port Costa.
On first impression, Port Costa has a lot in common with small towns in Appalachia. Things like hillside houses with peeling paint; yard debris and old cars and trucks parked in front. Occasionally you’ll see a faded American flag. Eventually you’ll wind up at the place where you’ve booked your weekend stay, the Burlington Hotel. At first it will look abandoned. Yet stay the course, this might be just what the doctor ordered.
Built in 1883, the three-story Burlington Hotel (some say is haunted) features rooms named for women who were friends and family of the current owners. Here’s a tip: Go for “Ethyl,” she’s on the second floor and has a sunny sitting area and plenty of room. She’s one of the Burlington’s five rooms that feature a private bath; the hotel’s other 14 rooms have bathrooms “down the hall.” Don’t let the Burlington’s peeling exterior paint, or the garish wallpaper inside (which is also peeling off) dismay you, you’ll be fine. Many before you have survived, even thrived after their weekend at the Burlington.
Here’s the backstory: The northern border of Port Costa is the gapping Carquinez Strait, which is fed by the nearby Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. So it’s understandable that following the Civil War, the town was a major West Coast wheat shipping port. Three- and four-masted schooners tied up at its busy wharfs and the original route of the Transcontinental Railroad roared along its waterfront. In the early 1880s, Benicia—just across the strait from Port Costa—was California’s state capital for nearly two years. But over time, steamships, trucks and bridges left Port Costa with little but a storied past.
Today, Port Costa is using that colorful history to great advantage. Please note that unless special arrangements are made, the hotel only operates Thursdays through Sundays and, even then, it does not open before 4 pm. If you want to come earlier, start your adventure by taking a hike in the Carquinez Strait Shoreline Park. It’s nearly 1,500-acres of rolling hills, none over 750-feet high, that offers views of Mt Tam to the west and Mount Diablo to the east; great shots of the Sacramento River Delta to the north; and numerous wooded ravines and gnarly Eucalyptus groves that are sure to activate your inner Ansel Adams.
If shopping is your sport, directly across Canyon Lake Drive from the Burlington Hotel is Theatre of Dreams. Only it’s not a theatre. It’s a one-of-a-kind shop that sells one-of-a-kind stuff like limited edition, handmade books; shadow boxes and ribbons, and papers like you’ve never before seen. All merchandise is handmade by the one-of-a-kind Wendy Addison, a local artist who uses vintage sheet music, Victorian lace and whatever else she can put her hands to create magical pieces you simply can’t live without. One problem: Theatre of Dreams is only open occasionally, by appointment or on Saturdays from 11 am to 5 pm. Yet Wendy must be doing something right; she’s operated this way for the past 27 years.
Regarding dinner, there’s not much to talk about. A trip to Port Costa would be wasted without dining at the Bull Valley Roadhouse (open 5 to 10 p.m., Thursday – Sunday). Like much of its surroundings, it is old and, from the outside, save for a large golden bull hanging above the front door, a bit dilapidated. But once inside, the Roadhouse is warm, friendly; even romantic. The oak-appointed bar serves cocktails of every type and pours a strong drink without prodding. Its menu, curated by the folks from the Embarcadero’s Slanted Door, is one reason it consistently makes the Chronicle’s list of Bay Area’s Top 100 Restaurants. Favorites include Smoked Llano Pork Chop, Slow Cooked Salmon and Crispy Buttermilk Chicken. Fair warning: If a nearby diner leans your way and whispers, “Try the chocolate chip cookie for dessert,” take their advice. These hand-size morsels are soft, warm, chewy with crisp edges and sweet but not too sweet. You’ll become pleasantly addicted.
Nightcap anyone? Why not? And again, as with most things in Port Costa, the answer lays across Canyon Lake Drive from the Burlington with the quirky Warehouse Café. Don’t let the ramshackle entry area fool you. Matter of fact, it actually is an old warehouse, a granary; one that’s so big a life-sized stuffed polar bear almost gets lost in the place. And on Saturday nights, big is better. By nine, the place is packed with leather-clad bikers and their leather-clad ladies; folks you’d likely see at Burning Man (fully dressed, of course) and a slew of locals who seem to gather around either the pool table or the jukebox. Want a beer? The Warehouse Café has 250 names to choose from; and they’re served in Mason jars.
No worry about driving home tipsy—just walk back across the street. Your room key will get you into the Burlington Hotel. You’re feeling like a local now and Sunday is another day for Port Costa’s version of fun.
Breakfast begins at eight in a room adjacent to the Burlington’s lobby; it’s a space that hasn’t seen a carpenter, painter or paperhanger in who knows how long. Contrasted with the lobby, the high-ceilinged café space is spotless and the morning sun seems to pour in. But Eggs Benedict at the Ritz it is not. However, the freshest, tastiest, squeezed-by-the-glass orange juice is available for $4. And it’s a tall glass. Next comes a brewed-before-your-eyes cup of coffee along with a slice of freshly baked pound cake served with the hotel owner’s—he’s a beekeeper—private reserve of honey. Want more? Don’t miss a saucer of the finest pre-fried bacon strips ever to ever engage your taste buds. Everything served with served up with smiles and tidbits of local interest provided by that morning’s barista. Viola! You are ready for the day.
So why not stick around? Maybe take a hike along Carquinez Strait Scenic footpath? Or take the 608 Freeway bridge and check out Benicia? Around two on Sunday afternoons the deck of the Warehouse Café, which overlooks Carquinez Strait, starts filling up with Harley-types, colorful locals and probably many of the “new best friends” you’ve met over the weekend. Besides, as a blues band warms up; the afternoon sun glints off the Burlington’s front windows; and the smell of hickory smoke gushes from a big black barbeque; it’s hardly the time to head for home. So stop thinking about leaving Port Costa. Who knows when you’ll return? And it’s only a short drive back to Marin.