On your first visit to the Bull Valley Roadhouse, you may wonder if you’re on the right path as you wind along switchbacks and narrow roads. You end up transported to tiny downtown Port Costa with architecture dating from the late-19th century, California’s Gold Rush era. Nowadays the buildings house shops, bars, a hotel, and, with its shining Golden Bull hanging above the doorway, the Bull Valley Roadhouse bar and restaurant.
You can expect farm-fresh cuisine and an extensive drinks list. Reservations recommended.
Pro tip: Make a night out of it and stay at the historic Burlington Hotel next door, established in 1883. Grab a small flyer from the bar for a $20 discount at the hotel.
Location: Set between California’s Central Valley and Sonoma County farmlands and hidden off California’s Interstate-80, the Bull Valley Roadhouse sits at 14 Canyon Lake Drive, Port Costa, California.
Take the Pomona Street exit just before the Carquinez Bridge and head south through Crockett as you drive east from San Francisco, staying left at the fork in the road (or you’ll end up in Martinez!). Pull directly into the big dirt parking lot at the end of the road once you arrive.
Menu: The Bull Valley Roadhouse experience is casual fine dining, featuring farm-fresh ingredients in concert with Northern California food culture. Arrive early to experience the Wild West-style bar with its coat rack, taxidermy, old pictures, and pre-Prohibition cocktails.
Being curious about the gins, I started my adventure with a Bol’s Genever Barrel Aged martini. Beautifully mixed, it was light, smooth, and gently aromatic. My partner in crime went the opposite direction and opted for a tulsi tea, and he was not disappointed. The tea underscored the fact that everything on the menu is given careful thought. It was heavenly, tasting of a full-bodied grass, smooth and distinctive—a genuine treat.
In true farmhouse fashion, all of the dishes are made to share, from smaller to larger plates and “for the table” sides. The dinner bread comes fresh from local bakers. The mixed lettuce salad was a delight, topped with roasted beets, toasted walnuts, local Point Reyes blue cheese, and a tangy citrus vinaigrette. The salad provided a nice contrast to an appetizer of roadhouse chicken wings, which are basted in sweet ‘n’ spicy chili sauce—a sticky-finger treat.
California’s finest Tomales Bay mussels arrive from only an hour away on the coast, and if they’re not in season, they’re not on the menu. The sauce of white wine, shallots, and garlic was nice and light. Together with crispy frites and aioli, fresh chopped parsley rounds out the flavor. This dish is addictive.
Of the larger plates, my personal favorite is the slow-roasted stew of pork from the Llano Seco Ranch, made with polenta, tomatillo, and guajillo chili. Chunks of buttery pork melt in your mouth, and the rich, creamy polenta swims in a smoky broth. It’s topped with sour cream, a lime slice, and whole sprigs of spicy cilantro.
The succulent buttermilk fried chicken comes super-crisped, accompanied by two buttermilk biscuits, coleslaw, and pepper jam. It’s one of the most popular dishes on the menu.
Pairing a bottle of the Scopetone Rosso di Montalcino 2016 Sangiovese from Tuscany, a medium-bodied red, with this substantial meal turned out to be a lovely choice.
Finding space for dessert was tough, but do-able! For chocolate lovers, the clear choice is the divine E. Guittard dark chocolate pot de crème with sea salt caramel and whipped cream. The intensely flavored ice cream made with local Port Costa honey was another hit.
Thoughts: Port Costa is charming, and you could easily spend a Saturday afternoon or a lazy Sunday morning enjoying the quirkiness of its shops and restaurants.
Bull Valley Roadhouse is committed to an ethos of an efficient kitchen. Co-owner and Chef David Williams says that, “Purchasing all organic vegetables from local farms through farmers’ markets four times a week gives us the flexibility to buy just what is needed and keep it fresh. We use all of the chickens and pig we get in every week. Broth is made from bones for chicken and pork stock and the rest of the parts are cured and brined and cooked within the week.”
When you step in, you’re struck by the stunning rectangular mirror that hangs above the bar, providing a backdrop to the bottles and the drinkware. Pony up to the counter, the long communal table, or pull up a chair by the potbellied fireplace in the corner and let the late-19th century ambiance seep in.
The restaurant has an exposed wood beam ceiling and is adorned with rustic hanging decorations, with soft lighting. The service begins with a warm, wet hand towel. Dinner is served family-style on wooden tables; do come with an appetite—the portions are generous.
Another fun fact is that on Wednesday evenings, the bar is open as a pop-up called The Dram Shop. Specialty cocktails and small plates come at a refreshingly low price for the Bay Area. Name another place you can get a thick-cut bread, butter pan-fried Melty Cheese Sandwich for $7 these days.
They often feature guest chefs and mixologists, and there’s always a theme. The Dram Shop is an interesting insider hang-out for Bay Area epicureans.
Price Range: Prices are at the high moderate range. A full evening out with dinner for two, including drinks at the bar, appetizers, wine with dinner, and dessert will run about $240.
Plates of fresh bread are $4, and smaller plates range from $9 for the Roadhouse Chicken Wings to $22 for the Tomales Bay Mussels & Fries. Salads are $15. For larger plates, the Prather Ranch 13-ounce ribeye tops the list at $55, the pork chop is $45, and the salmon is $34. Buttermilk fried Chicken and slow-roasted Rancho Llano Seco pork stew both run $28.
Desserts are $5 and $6.
Bull Valley Roadhouse has a sophisticated wine list, with prices from $42-$25; pre-Prohibition Recipes start at $13, and beer begins at $4.
Guest Author Bio: Tonya Hennessey is a freelance writer and non-profit professional who resides in Vallejo, in the San Francisco Bay Area. She was raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin – Madison, she took off for a year of travel throughout Europe and Asia, a trip that awakened her awe of the world’s varied cultures, landscapes, and, of course, foods! Since then, she has traveled extensively in Europe, East and Southeast Asia, and the United States. Along with travel, she loves to cook and had a bumper crop this year of heirloom tomatoes, Japanese eggplants, and peppers.
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