By Tonya Hennessey
As you pass under the golden bull, you enter a barroom straight out of California’s Gold Rush. Taxidermy abounds. A huge, rectangular mirror embellishes the majestic wooden bar, throwing off glints of light. The coatrack by the door draws your attention to the curated 19th-century photographs that hang throughout.
This hip Wednesday night pop-up, hidden in the tiny hamlet of Port Costa California, turns the fabulous Old West bar of the Bull Valley Roadhouse into The Dram Shop. Serving small plates, inventive cocktails, and a wide selection of drinks, The Dram Shop often hosts guest chefs and mixologists from around the San Francisco Bay Area. It’s always themed—you may catch Whatever Wednesday, it may be Pillage & Plunder, or perhaps Spring Equinox.
Pro tip: Check The Dram Shop Instagram feed on Wednesdays for a hint at the coming evening.
It’s a beautiful back-road drive of about 15-minutes off California’s Interstate-80. You must work just a bit to get there, adding to the culinary experience. Port Costa lies off the highway just before the Carquinez Bridge, about 40-minutes east of San Francisco. You’ll wind your way along switchbacks, stay left at the fork in the road, and finally arrive in the quaint downtown with its Victorian-era architecture.
Palate Pleasing Small Plates
The night we visited, they were serving up a classic menu of American comfort food, prepared in the farm-fresh ethos of Chef David Williams’ Roadhouse Kitchen. These generous small plates will blow your mind. The offerings manage to be both simple and decadent—my visit showcased a Melty Grilled Cheese, a Beef Patty Melt, an Albacore Tuna Melt, sweets, and more. Every Wednesday morning, the staff collaborate to create the evening’s event and define the menu from what’s already there in the kitchen.
The Melty Grilled Cheese, Gruyere and Cheddar, came out on thick-cut bread pan-fried in butter was scrumptious. A fat slice of tomato added just that bit of juice to lightly cleanse the palate. The salty richness paired perfectly with a Strubbes Flemish Red Ale. Just as Adrienne, our mixologist, promised, the second half of the sandwich was just as good reheated in a pan the next day.
My co-conspirator started with a plentiful polenta bowl, marinated in a smoky broth, made from braised vegetable scraps cut earlier in the day. Topped with a mound of caramelized onions and diced tomatoes, and sprinkled with chopped green onions, this dish was a huge hit. A glass of chilled rosé made a wonderful companion.
I’m from the U.S. Midwest, so I had to taste the seared bratwurst. It arrived with a pickled green strawberry garnish that was piquant. It’s crunchy and tart with a strong finish of ripe fruit. I enthusiastically recommend this dish.
A Host of Different Tastes
Highlighting the extensive drinks menu, Tamir, the bar manager, brought out the tastes of a Vallejo Cellars Sweet White Vermouth. It was excellent, a lightly sweet and silky treat. When asked about the bar’s wide-ranging selections, Tamir said, “The main idea is to offer a slew of different tastes from all around the world, and from different times of American cocktail culture. The drinks menu starts with pre-Prohibition cocktails, then Prohibition times to tiki and mid-modern times, maybe a sprinkle or two during the downtimes of American cocktail culture, and we will always be current with the mixology of today. Everything we pour must have a purpose.”
Adventurous Food and Drink that Won’t Break the Bank
Every Wednesday night, The Dram Shop provides an insider look at the Northern California bar and food scene in an informal and experimental environment. An introduction to the full Bull Valley Roadhouse experience, it’s also the perfect off-the-beaten-path destination for the discerning traveler looking for high-class food and beverages at a great price in a fun and inviting atmosphere. Learn more at Bull Valley Roadhouse. ~TPM
About Tonya Hennessey—Tonya is a freelance writer and non-profit professional who resides in Vallejo, part of California’s San Francisco Bay Area. 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 to the world’s varied cultures, landscapes, and, of course, food.
Tonya has traveled extensively in Europe, East and Southeast Asia, and the United States. Along with travel, she loves to cook. Hennessey, also a gardener, had a bumper crop this year of heirloom tomatoes, Japanese eggplants, and all kinds of peppers.