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A Taste Back in Time

Bull Valley Roadhouse: A retro restaurant offers elegant classics in sleepy Port Costa.


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Photography by Angela Decenzo

You might be forgiven if you start to lose your sense of time and place while eating at the new Bull Valley Roadhouse.

Located in a 100-plus-year-old building in sleepy Port Costa, hidden at the bottom of a long, winding road along the Carquinez Strait, the restaurant feels like it’s caught in a time warp.

“It’s almost like time completely stops up there; it’s like you’re completely unplugged,” says Erik Adkins, the bar manager at The Slanted Door, who helped develop the cocktail program for Bull Valley.

Adkins is one of several employees from that lauded San Francisco restaurant that owners Earl Flewellen and Samuel Spurrier enlisted to help with what can only be described as a grand (and risky) experiment: opening a Berkeley/Oakland–caliber restaurant in a town that’s about as far off the map as it gets in the East Bay.

Flewellen, a former art director in San Francisco, moved out to Crockett a few years ago with Spurrier, then a waiter at Slanted Door, with the goal of making his own honey. He found land to keep bees in downtown Port Costa—a town he had fallen in love with years before—and subsequently opened a café in the historic Burlington Hotel, assumed management of that hotel, and finally (with the backing of generous locals) decided to take over and renovate the down-on-its-luck Bull Valley Restaurant.

“I didn’t set out to do any of this; literally, one thing led to the other,” says Flewellen. “The only thing that was planned was to find a place for my honey.”  

It’s a nice story, and Bull Valley has charming ambience to boot. But to draw folks out to the East Bay’s nether regions, you need some good food—and Bull Valley’s got it. Anyone who has eaten a $20 piece of so-so fried chicken knows to be wary of places advertising souped-up comfort food. Luckily, Flewellen and his staff are well aware of the delicate balancing act between food that is “elegantly hearty” (as he describes it) as opposed to pretentiously overpriced.

The food at Bull Valley is far from pretentious. Rather, it’s inspired: Expertly executed fare from executive chef David Williams (formerly of Slanted Door) hits all the slow-food buzzwords—local, sustainable, quality ingredients—but is as hearty and comforting as the best roadside diner.

Let’s start with the fried chicken. Soaked in buttermilk, the meat is moist and tender, that delicious flavor locked in by a perfectly fried skin, which lends great crunchy texture and taste. True, the price is a double take–inducing $29, but it’s easily large enough to share. In fact, the waitstaff at Bull Valley go out of their way to point out that all entrées are meant to be shared, and the portion sizes actually back that up. If the three big pieces of chicken don’t fill you and a friend up, the side of mashed potatoes topped by sausage country gravy will almost certainly do the trick.

If the chicken is option one on the menu, then the lamb sugo pasta comes in a close second. The trattole pasta is robust enough to hold up to the sugo while its twisted corkscrew shape beautifully captures the rich, savory, slightly gamey chunks of fall-apart-tender lamb. That dollop of crème fraîche is just a decadent bonus.  

Lighter plates are also stellar, including a farm-fresh field greens salad delicately dressed with sherry vinaigrette, and flavor-packed crostini that balances creamy avocado, salty ricotta salata, and lemon-marinated parsley. The spectacular green beans—lightly fried tempura style to bring out a snappy crispness—belong in that category as well.

Still, if you’re going to make the trek, you’ve probably got more than salad and green beans on your mind. Luckily, in addition to the knockout entrées, the simple pre–Prohibition era cocktails, many flavored with Flewellen’s beloved honey, are also a draw. Knock one back at the beautiful old wooden bar, where if you squint your eyes, you can almost imagine yourself in one of those black-and-white photos on the wall.

The best part? Bull Valley isn’t some Disney World reproduction. The building was built in 1897 and restored to its original glory; those old photos are originals, not purchases from an antiques store.

“It’s not like we’re making anything up here,” says Flewellen. “This place is authentic; it just needed to be uncovered.”


 

At a Glance

What makes it special: A dining escape that will transport you back to the 1800s. The space: Simple, rustic wood, with historic black-and-white photos, pastoral landscapes, touches of nature, and Americana music playing from the speakers. When to go: Go for an early dinner. Then, grab a drink at the eclectic Warehouse Cafe bar across the street. What to order: Crispy fried green beans, duck confit salad, fried chicken, lamb sugo. For dessert, don’t miss the simple, delicious pound cake with wildflower honey and whipped cream. Bonus: Look for weekend brunch, which should be starting sometime in the spring.

Contact: 14 Canyon Lake Dr., Port Costa, (510) 787-1135, bullvalleyroadhouse.com. Hours: Dinner Thurs.–Sun. Price: Appetizers $6–$14, entrées $27–$34. Alcohol: Full bar.

 

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