100 Things We Love About Walnut Creek, From A to Z
We look back on Walnut Creek’s history and offer a list of 100 things we love about our centennial city.
The memories I have of growing up in Walnut Creek in the 1970s are warm and fuzzy.
I remember buying baseball cards at Woolworth’s in Broadway Plaza and going to see Star Wars at the Festival Cinemas 5.
These memories are precious but distant, as Woolworth’s and the Festival are long gone. Today’s city is far more cosmopolitan than the place where I grew up. But as the shopping gets more chic and the dining gets finer, Walnut Creek still feels like home.
Maybe it’s all that open space, which isn’t going to disappear, ever.
To celebrate the city’s centennial, I talked to many longtime residents to understand what life was like in Walnut Creek at different points in its first century.
The same year World War I broke out, Walnut Creek was established as a tiny town with dirt roads and scarce electricity. Soon, cars replaced horsedrawn carriages, shopping centers and supermarkets were built, baby boomers settled down, and then—voilà—an Apple Store appeared on Main Street.
I think the reason Walnut Creek is such a special place is that it has always been charming and has always been changing. Here’s to the next 100 years!
Seventeen synchronized swimmers who trained in the Aquanuts (#2) at Heather Farm and Larkey parks have gone to the Olympics, with five members of the 1996 team winning the gold. aquanuts.org.
Did you know that there are giant cement arrows (#4) affixed to the hills along Acalanes Ridge Open Space? Walnut Creek Mayor Kristina Lawson loves hiking with her family to see the arrows, which were installed in 1924 to help postal planes navigate the country.
The acclaimed Diablo Ballet (#6) company’s 21st season kicks off with A Swingin’ Holiday on November 14–15 at Del Valle Theatre. Young dancers have been training at Lareen Fender’s Ballet School (#7) since 1976. diabloballet.org, theballetschool.org.
That red, white, and blue pole outside DiMaggio’s Barber Shop (#8) on Main isn’t the original—some punks stole it about 15 years ago—but those barber chairs inside have been there since the shop opened in 1958. dimaggiosbarbershop.com.
View plein art paintings and mixed-media interpretations of this place we call home in Walnut Creek Turns 100, a free exhibition at the Bedford (#9) through November 16. bedfordgallery.org.
Actor Jim Belushi (#10) filmed scenes from The Principal at Northgate High in 1987. Not John, but we’ll take it.
Step back in time to the historic ranch (#12) of early pioneer Frank Borges, and see what life was like before Walnut Creek became a city.
Butterfly Habitat Gardens
These gardens (#14), currently under renovation, are between the Iron Horse Trail and the softball field at Civic Park. More than 25 species of butterflies flutter near 130 species of California native plants.
Time Capsule: 1914
Potholes Were Always a Problem
“The big issue in the first year of Walnut Creek’s incorporation was that the main street through town was a mud hole whenever it rained; incorporation was required to bring in enough tax revenue to pave or cover Main Street. That took seven years to do.
Walnut Creek became a city in 1914, and the population at that time was 500.” –Nancy Seligman, docent, Walnut Creek Historical Society
Center Repertory Company
Performing arts powerhouse Center Rep (#15) takes on the twisty-turny Deathtrap in October and A Christmas Carol in December. The company’s Young Rep (#16) program has trained many onstage as well as behind-the-scenes stars. centerrep.org.
Civic Arts Education
Want to fuse glass? Learn loom weaving? These are a few of the nearly 700 courses offered through the Civic Arts Education program (#19), which turns 50 this year. walnut-creek.org/cae/.
The Hollywood legend (#20) shot Sporting Blood in 1931 at the former horse-training track where Heather Farm Park exists today.
The city paved over downtown's waterways after serious floods in the 1950s, but the creeks are still there. You can stroll along an appreciation trail (#21) on Bonanza Street, check out the creek from the small bridge in Civic Park, or dine creek-side at Maria Maria.
Cruising the Creek
Up until the late 1970s, Walnut Creek was the cruising capital (#22) of Contra Costa, as teens piled into cars to circle the city from 9 p.m. until midnight every weekend.
Time Capsule: 1920
The Original Wine Country
“In the first two decades of Walnut Creek’s history as a city, this became a very popular area for growing grapes for wine because of the ideal conditions. There were vineyards everywhere.
Before there was a Walnut Festival, there was a Grape Carnival, and prizes were given for the area’s best wines, walnuts, olive oil, and grape juice.
In the 1920s, Prohibition came along, and grape growing was no longer viable.” –Sheila Rogstad, Historian, Walnut Creek Historical Society
Where else would you be reading this list but Diablo (#23)? We’ve loved our hillside home on Camino Diablo since we moved here in 1987, after spending most of our primary decade in charming Concord (#humblebrag).
Every town needs a good dive bar, where locals can shoot pool, drink beer, and sing along to the jukebox. Artie’s Countrywood Lounge (#26) is that place, unless you are more of a Greenery-goer (#27), which means you like karaoke more than pool.
This city’s only fenced-in pooch park (#28) opened in 2008 at Heather Farm Park. It’s an acre where you and Fido can move and shake and get your leash off.
Time Capsule: 1936
“My parents married in 1936 and built our house in Walnut Creek that year. They did a hell of a job building the house because I still live in it.
Walnut Creek was wonderful. There were orchards all the way down Walnut Boulevard. Where Walnut Creek Intermediate is today was a beautiful orchard, with a cornfield. We had ponies and horses and bicycles, and it felt like you could ride forever.” –Barney Howard longtime resident of Walnut Creek
Legendary actor-director Clint Eastwood (#29) filmed scenes from his 1999 thriller, True Crime, at the former Contra Costa Times building on Shadelands Drive.
Famed developer Joseph Eichler built the region’s first subdivision in 1951, in the Rancho San Miguel neighborhood (#30). The original homes were moderately priced starter homes for middle-class families. They are now highly desirable dwellings that sell for way over asking price.
“I love how many different ethnic markets (#31) Walnut Creek has. Just this week, I went to a Middle Eastern market over by BevMo, an Asian market on Main Street, and an East Indian store in Newell Plaza,” says longtime Walnut Creek resident Jo Howard. “I used to have to go into Berkeley, but not anymore.”
Time Capsule: 1946
The Greatest Generation Settles Down
“Robert Noble Burgess was my grandfather; he spent the first half of the 20th century as a developer, land speculator, and builder. He was quite a guy. He made—and lost—a lot of money.
My grandfather built the dam in 1909 that created the lake around the area known as Lakewood. [This area] was once seen as a spot for summer homes for families from San Francisco, but in the second half of the 1940s, many soldiers who had been stationed in California before shipping out for World War II decided to stay in Walnut Creek, rather than return to Des Moines or Chicago or Topeka.” –Jim Moore Alamo resident
George’s Giant Hamburger
The dining scene has gone decidely upscale, but George’s Giant Hamburger (#35) on Newell has always served fresh ground burgers at a fair price. georgesgianthamburger.com.
In the early days, nearly everyone in town got around by horse. Now, the hub of horseback riding is the Castle Rock section of Mount Diablo, where Castle Rock Arabians (#37), North Gait Equestrian Center (#38), and North Peak Riding Academy (#39) offer lessons.
Human Genome Project
»All the secrets of human-genome mapping and DNA sequencing are being unraveled at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Human Genome Project (#40) in Shadelands Park.
Lick for lick, you can’t beat the small-batch flavors of Lottie’s Creamery (#41). Looking for bigger portions? Try the massive "Kitchen Sink" sundae (#42)—eight different flavors of ice cream, eight different toppings, whipped cream, and more—at the San Francisco Creamery Co. lottiescreamery.com, sanfranciscocreameryco.com.
Iron Horse Regional Trail
This former train route stopped carrying passengers in the 1930s and shut down for good in the ’70s, then transformed into a 55-mile trail (#44) that runs through town for bikers, joggers, walkers, and baby strollers.
Time Capsule: 1955
Gray Suits and Greyhound Buses
“As a very young boy in the mid–1950s, I remember driving with my mom in the family car to pick up my dad from the Greyhound bus stop at the corner of Locust and Mount Diablo.
I would try to find him amongst the businessmen: There were hundreds and hundreds of men in fedora hats and gray and blue suits taking buses from Oakland and San Francisco to Walnut Creek to come home after work.
I still get a nice feeling when I think about seeing my dad at that bus stop.” –Steve Cattolica Walnut Creek resident from 1951–1979
John Muir Medical Center
Originally opened in 1965 as a 150-bed hospital, John Muir Medical Center (#46) is one of the nation’s top hospitals eight years running, according to U.S. News and World Report. johnmuirhealth.com.
Julia Morgan Home
The famed architect designed a beautiful adobe-style dwelling (#47) in the Lakewood neighborhood, in the 1940s.
Ross (#48), who starred in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Graduate, and The Stepford Wives, was raised in Walnut Creek and was a member of Las Lomas High’s third graduating class in 1954.
Knight Stage 3
This intimate 133-seat theater (#50) in the Lesher Center brings audiences close to the action. The name is a sequel of sorts to the former Civic Arts Stage 2 playhouse, which was located where Skipolini’s Pizza is now, before the Lesher Center was built. lesherartscenter.org.
Go to the west side of this charming 13-acre park (#51), then stand atop the sloping grass hill and take in that view. You’re welcome.
Lesher Speaker Series
Walnut Creek resident Steve Lesher organized the series (#53) in honor of his late grandfather, Dean Lesher. The series has welcomed everyone from Brockovich to Woodward and Bernstein over the past decade. lesherspeakerseries.org.
Lindsay Wildlife Museum
Bald eagles, bobcats, and snakes, oh my! Lindsay Wildlife Museum (#54) serves as a wonderland for children and a hospital for injured animals. Founder Alexander Lindsay, a local businessman, started teaching neighborhood kids about nature in the mid–1950s. Lindsay died at the age of 44, but the museum that bears his name will turn 50 next year. wildlife-museum.org.
Time Capsule: 1967
Where to Buy SGT. Pepper
“My parents, Louis and Estera Roseman, owned Music Town in Broadway Plaza. In the shop’s original location, we had listening booths so you could hear a record before buying it. We were the last record store in the Bay Area to have those listening booths.
It was an eclectic store. Everyone in town would come and hang out there, and my parents would special order anything: international records, classical, pop, jazz—if my parents could find it in a catalog, they would order it.
Music Town was selling Elvis records on 78s when Elvis was still at Sun Records. And when The Beatles' records came out, this is where everyone in town came to get them.” –Stevie Roseman music producer and Danville resident
Harpo Marx (#55), the quietest of the legendary comedy brothers, was on hand for the opening of Broadway Plaza (#56) in 1951. Marx used the giant prop scissors intended for the grand opening ribbon to try to cut the garter off a woman on-stage.
Just as Diablo was going to press, we found out that the 2015 Miss America pageant winner is Las Lomas High grad Kira Kazantsev (#57). Our apologies to the wonderful Walnut Creek Model Railroad Society, which would have had this space.
Northgate High Time Capsule
Sometime in the late 1970s, a group of students from Northgate High buried a time capsule (#58) on the school campus, hoping their important artifacts would be dug up and enjoyed by a future generation. Problem: No one remembers exactly where it was buried, and recent efforts to dig it up have been for naught.
Øl Beercafe and Bottle Shop
We’re not sure if that letter in the name of this beer bar (#59) on Giammona Drive goes in the O’s, but with more than 200 bottles from all over the world, we’ll give it the benefit of the doubt. beer-shop.org.
Acalanes Ridge. Howe Homestead Park. Lime Ridge. Shell Ridge. Sugarloaf. These five parks (#61–#65) account for an astonishing 2,760 acres of beautiful open space for hiking, jogging, and exploring the great outdoors.
Time Capsule: 1974
Wide Open Spaces
“A 1974 bond issue, which passed with more than 70 percent of the vote, led to 1,800 acres of open space being purchased by the city.
This was incredible forward thinking by the city leaders and by the voters.
The benefits are obvious to this day because Walnut Creek has one of the largest municipal land holdings of open space in Northern California. There’s no charge; you can come and have a wonderful day in the countryside.” –Gwen Regalia Walnut Creek City Council from 1987–2008
President Clinton enjoyed a sandwich from Genova deli (#67) on a trip through the area in 1996. genovadeli.net.
President Ford dedicated Liberty Bell Plaza (#68)—now known as that space outside Il Fornaio and H&M—in 1976. Ford’s presidential predecessor, Richard Nixon, also visited during his vice presidency in the late 1950s.
Main Street’s famed Prima (#69), a perennial Diablo Food Award winner, was one of the city’s most prolific fine-dining game changers more than 30 years ago. Prima started as a small wine shop—it still runs the shop next to the restaurant—and like a fine wine has gotten better with age. primawine.com.
Walnut Creek has an active quilting community thanks to the folks at Thimble Creek Quilt Shop (#70), which opened as a storefront in 1994. Now an online shop run by Roxie and Joe Wood, Thimble Creek hosts regular patchwork parties and quilting retreats. thimblecreek.com.
Time Capsule: 1985
Parks and Recreation
“In the 1970s, the city opened a summer playground program at every elementary school in Walnut Creek and Rudgear Park. It gave moms a chance to run errands or just have a little break in the day.
By the 1980s we were hearing from citizens that they needed a longer period of supervised time than two hours. Demographics had changed, and there were far more households with two working parents—or a working single parent—who wanted a full-day program. We launched our day camp program at three schools in Walnut Creek, and it was instantly popular.
In addition to the thousands of children who have gone through these programs, we also hired teens to work as recreation leaders. For many teens in the area, their first real jobs were working for the City of Walnut Creek.”
—Leo Harrod, Walnut Creek Recreation Manager, retiring in June 2015 after 33 years working for the City of Walnut Creek.
Sponsored by the city's downtown association, April’s annual Restaurant Week (#71) invites diners to try more than two dozen of the city’s eateries, which offer special three-course prix fixe meals at lunch and dinner for $10–$40. walnutcreekrestaurantweek.com.
Richard, the Ambiguously Gendered Vulture
The turkey vulture (#72), who spends her days in an outdoor cage at Lindsay Wildlife Museum, was thought to be male until she laid an egg in the 1980s.
Sip sake and snack on sushi at Sasa (#75), developer Brian Hirahara’s beautifully restored brick building. The spot once housed Lawrence’s Meat Market and is now filled with contemporary Japanese cuisine. sasawc.com.
Party like its 1929 all the time at Spoontonic Lounge (#76), a watering hole that’s so off the radar that it seems like it's trying to hide. Just go to 2580 North Main, then find the basement of the Indian restaurant. It’s facing the freeway. Trust us. It’s there.
Stars to the Rescue
Animal Rescue Foundation’s annual benefit concert (#77) is the best chance to spot a celebrity in town. Stars to the Rescue kicks off each New Year by bringing in famous entertainers for a Saturday night show in January. Past performers include John Fogerty, Emmylou Harris, Carlos Santana, and Robin Williams. arf.net.
This elaborate music box (#78) from the 1800s is beautifully preserved at the Shadelands Ranch Museum (#79) on Ygnacio Valley Road. Ask a docent to spin one of the giant steel discs, then marvel at the tones. walnutcreekhistory.info.
Ever notice the strong sulfuric smell on Ygnacio Valley Road near John Muir Medical Center? It’s caused by an underground spring (#80) that used to attract visitors searching for a health tonic.
Time Capsule: 1990
The New Arts Center
“Prior to the opening of the Lesher Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek had a very active community theater scene in the old Nuthouse building. Then, after so much work, the Lesher Center was built. We had a black-tie gala on October 4, 1990, and Bob Hope and Diahann Carroll and Vic Damone and Joel Grey were all there for the opening.
At some point during the evening, I had to go across the street to deal with the searchlight at Growers Square. I looked across at this beautiful center and realized: Nothing will ever be the same again. From this day forward, we will always be moving forward.” – Scott Denison, general manager, Lesher Center for the Arts
We love our trees (#85). A lot. Scott’s Seafood and Va de Vi built restaurants around them. When PG&E threatened to chop up downtown, Walnut Creek Mayor Kristina Lawson said, “Not so fast.” The newest trees on the scene are in the Centennial Grove at Heather Farm Park (#86). walnutcreek100.com.
Walnut Creek has always been Contra Costa County’s cosmopolitan shopping epicenter—even back when fancy meant two-story Capwell’s. Now, it means stores like Daskalos (#87), Davidson & Licht (#88), Neiman Marcus (#89), Nordstrom (#90), and Tiffany and Co. (#91), and showrooms for Bentley (#92) and Tesla (#93).
Va de Vi’s Patio
Babbling fountain. Brick walkway. Old oak tree. It’s not just the tasty small plates and incredible wine list that make Va de Vi (#95) one of the most pleasant spots to eat at the Creek. vadevi.com.
The Facebook page “I Survived Walnut Creek, CA, During the Early and Late ‘70s” (#96) is a treasure trove of nostalgia about growing up in Walnut Creek. Forgot what the giant ice-cream cone on top of Lommel’s Creamery looked like? Someone posted a picture.
Time Capsule: 2010
The New Library
“We broke ground on the new Walnut Creek Library in 2008. My grandfather gave the land for the first library in Walnut Creek, which opened in 1915, so I felt a historical connection to the idea of a library in the city. ¶ But the pride from seeing it [open on July 17, 2010] came from working with a group of really good people, who raised $6.5 million and gave their time to make the library happen for this community.” –Jim Moore Walnut Creek Library Foundation
The charming, award-winning Shadowbrook Winery (#97), on the northeast side of the city, created a Bordeaux blend of eight varietals to celebrate the city’s centennial. The Centennial Blend magnums sell for $100 each, and half the proceeds go to the Walnut Creek Historical Society. shadowbrookwinery.com.
This high-definition screening room (#98) at the Century 14 downtown is as state of the art as movie going gets. It’s a high-tech upgrade of the city’s original Ramona Theatre, which showed its first talkie in 1930.
The Walnut Creek Yacht Club (#99) is a locally owned seafood lover’s heaven. Look for the restaurant’s Maine lobster specials in January priced at just $20.15—a perfect way to ring in the New Year. wcyc.net.
These Latin dance classes are a few of many inexpensive exercise options at the city’s Tice Valley Community Gym (#100).
Time Capsule: 2014
The Future is Now
“This is a transformative time in the city of Walnut Creek. The biggest thing we will see is a new residential population coming to the downtown area, in the numerous condominium developments under construction. Walnut Creek will offer a much more urban experience, as these new residents will be able to walk from their homes to the shops and restaurants, to enjoy the parks, and experience the arts. It's going to be an exciting next hundred years.”
– Kristina Lawson, mayor, City of Walnut Creek