Hitting the Bull’s-Eye at Bull Valley Roadhouse
BY SARAH HENRY | PHOTOS BY STACY VENTURA
Lots of Bay Area folks have never heard of Port Costa and have no clue how to get to this sleepy little northern Contra Costa County community or even where to find it on a map. Hint: Look on the southern shore of Carquinez Strait between Crockett and Martinez. The place hasn’t seen much action since the 1880s, when it thrived, briefly, as a wheat-shipping hub with a busy bordello and a rough-and-tumble saloon. In the 1970s the tiny town had a reputation as a rowdy biker hangout. Motorcyclists and cyclists are still drawn to the winding roads and rolling hills of the area, and the funky Warehouse Café is a popular watering hole on weekends.
But Port Costa has quietly become known, at least among Bay Area bon vivants, as a destination dining location. Bull Valley Roadhouse, which officially opened in November 2012, quickly earned three stars from the Chronicle and a best-new-restaurant-in-the-world nod from Condé Nast Traveler, along with 69 other establishments in New York, London, Paris, San Francisco, Sydney, and Shanghai. Not too shabby.
The roadhouse features a retro, rustic ambiance that hearkens back to the Victorian era and family-style comfort fare with a modern American seasonal spin. The food is served with understated flare and finesse, as one might expect from a place that boasts several alumni from San Francisco’s acclaimed Slanted Door. Their expertise is evident in the food and drink menus as well as the front-of-house service. But when a place is a good half-hour drive from the twin eating meccas of Berkeley and Oakland, it’s going to need to dish up some seriously delicious grub, offer warm and welcoming service, and provide a memorable dining experience to convince city slickers to make the trip. Happily, Bull Valley does all three.
Restaurant owners and partners in life Earl Flewellen and Samuel Spurrier are urban transplants. Flewellen, a former art director and graphic designer, moved to Crockett with Spurrier, a former senior waiter at Slanted Door, for a change of pace. Flewellen wanted to go back to working with his hands and return to a childhood fascination with keeping bees. Spurrier imagined a life of country leisure, reading novels, and lounging in the sun.
Once Flewellen found a home for his hives, though, things got busy. Flewellen began extracting his honey in a former retail space at the Burlington Hotel, which is located next to the restaurant. The hotel is a rundown gem with old-world charm and plenty of potential in need of a major makeover. To help support his bee hobby, Flewellen began serving coffee in a makeshift café in the hotel. The modest enterprise quickly caught on with locals, and the hotel owner asked Flewellen and Spurrier to help run the hotel as a community project. “We brought on linen service and housecleaning, we built the lobby, and we continue to remodel and paint as we can,” says Flewellen, who explains that they get to direct how profits from the business are used to fix the hotel in an arrangement with the owner. “It’s slow work because we don’t have a lot of money, so the hotel doesn’t match the quality of the restaurant yet, but we hope it will,” he says. “We try to host people well, but it’s still a funky old hotel that got remodeled in the ’70s in a whorehouse theme, and even that stuff is looking pretty threadbare.” Still, it’s just the kind of uber–shabby chic that some might find delightful.
Townsfolk in this community of less than 200 took note of Flewellen and Spurrier’s ability to make good things happen.
“We were in the process of trying to find a way to buy the hotel as a nonprofit and take it on as a historic restoration project, but we realized we needed to get a good restaurant going in this town to bring people in,” says Flewellen. As it turned out, the then-owner of the old-school steakhouse, who runs the bar across the street, was about to put the roadhouse on the market. Flewellen and Spurrier had discussions with some residents, and a couple of them stepped forward to help finance the restaurant renovation. “In 10 days we brought 20 friends in here and we pulled everything out of the place and carried it all across the street to a storage space,” explains Flewellen. “Then we pulled up the floor, cleaned everything, painted the bar and did a little decorating, and opened with food service at the bar in a soft launch in October. It was crazy. We did this on such a shoestring, with just $120,000.”
It didn’t take much for Flewellen and Spurrier to convince their friend David Williams to come on board as a co-owner and the restaurant’s chef. Williams brought a cooking style that is elegant and hearty and has the standard Bay Area SLO (seasonable, local, organic) pedigree. But this isn’t fussy or gussied-up food. Williams, who worked as the assistant general manager for the Slanted Door empire and previously cooked at Dottie’s True Blue Café in San Francisco, collaborated on the menu with Justine Kelly, Slanted Door’s chef de cuisine. “She brought my cooking to a new level,” says Williams. “I like to think of flavors as a whole, and she does, too, but she also prizes each little ingredient and what it brings to the table. It’s fun to build a dish and then an entire menu thinking about each individual ingredient that goes into it.” Case in point: aged balsamic used on lamb dishes that adds a refreshing palate counterpoint to the earthy richness of the meat.
For starters, diners might order crispy fried green beans, roasted Padrón peppers, or a dish of mussels that have been steamed in a broth worth dunking bread into and topped with fries and chile aioli. The buttermilk fried chicken, another signature dish, is accompanied by a buttermilk biscuit, savoy cabbage slaw, and the night this diner ate there, a nicely spiced kumquat jelly. Williams and his crew aren’t afraid to use seasoning or salt to enhance flavors. And each plate is designed for sharing. Sides include garlic-laden red chard or a creamy summer squash gratin with jalapeño and shallots. Entrées might feature whole fish in parchment or a slow-roasted pork stew with tomatillos.
Both drinks and dessert showcase Flewellen’s wildflower honey. The pound cake comes with a generous sprinkling of strawberries and a dollop of whipped cream. And the bar’s pre-Prohibition-era libations include the Bee’s Knees with gin, lemon, and honey. The Pimm’s No. 4 Cup features English Harbor rum, vermouth, bitters, and ginger ale in a tall glass dotted with berries and cucumber slices. This writer’s preferred pre-dinner cocktail: the Vieux Nouveau, with Beefeater gin, pink grapefruit, elderflower, and lemon. House-made sodas include a peach shrub, elderflower spritzer, and ginger limeade. Erik Adkins, Slanted Door’s bar manager, helped develop the cocktail list at Bull Valley, and Tamir Ben-Shalom, who also hails from Slanted Door, Pizzaiolo, and Acme Bar, now runs the bar.
Bull Valley began serving brunch on Father’s Day weekend, offering items like fried chicken with cheddar waffle and honey butter as well as baked egg, cream, arugula, and toast. And there’s a braised pork hash over polenta with a poached egg, queso fresco, and sour cream. Come hungry or, better yet, take a hike along the bluffs of the nearby Carquinez Strait Regional Shoreline first to work up an appetite.
The restaurant crew couldn’t be more delighted with its early success, though they’ve had their share of newbie challenges. “Getting organic food out here was hard at first,” notes Williams. “Vendors just don’t know where we are, so they assume we’re far and out of the way, until they make the drive out here.” They got lucky right when they opened. Full Belly Farm had a party at the warehouse, stayed at the hotel, and met with the restaurant owners. They were the first farm to deliver there. “It was harder to get the delivery people to come than the customers,” adds Flewellen, though that is changing as word spreads.
And word is spreading. “I had this gut instinct that this place is special and if we did a beautiful job, whatever we did, people would come,” says Flewellen. He was right. ♣
Bull Valley Roadhouse: 14 Canyon Lake Dr, Port Costa, California, 510.787.1135, bullvalleyroadhouse.com
Sarah Henry is a writer, reporter, and storyteller. Her stories about people, places, politics, news, and culture through the lens of food and farming have appeared in The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, The Atlantic, Edible San Francisco, Edible East Bay, Edible Marin & Wine Country, and Best Food Writing. sarahhenrywrites.com
Recipes from Bull Valley Roadhouse