Benicia is well worth exploring, partly because no one else is exploring it.
Connected to mainland East Bay by the Benicia-Martinez (George Miller, Jr. Memorial) Bridge and by Benicia Transit’s bus from the Pleasant Hill BART Station, Benicia is a quiet, historic village masked as a lower-cost commuter hub that once served as California’s third state capital.
Benicia does not translate to “upwind from Martinez oil refineries.” It was actually the favored name of Maria Felipa Benicia Carrillo de Vallejo, wife of the Mexican commandant of Alta California, Gen. Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo.
As Bear Flag Party member Dr. Robert Semple transported Vallejo as a prisoner from Sonoma to Sutter’s Fort in 1846, he eyed the picturesque site which Vallejo happened to own as a Mexican land grant. By the end of the trip, Semple co-owned the five square miles, with the condition that he would name it after Vallejo’s wife.
Semple and Thomas O. Larkin, former American Consul to Monterey, built the brick building at First and G streets as a city hall and offered it to the state, which used it as the state capitol for 13 months during 1853 and 1854. The state Treasury was located here as well, as no wooden building was deemed safe enough to house it. Restored to its finery and now a historical park, it houses the upstairs Assembly chambers and downstairs Senate chambers, with feather pens in ink wells, gentlemen’s hats on desks and brass spittoons within convenient range of every legislator’s seat.
Benicia was the first California city to incorporate, and most buildings on First Street are historic. First Street itself has been dubbed “Main Street,” a nod to Benicia’s participation as one of 40 cities in the California Main Street Program to revitalize historic towns.
At the foot of First Street is the Transcontinental Railroad Depot, built in 1879, First Street Green and the former ferry pier with an unusual view of the Benicia and Martinez bridges. Here trains transferred onto the Solano and Contra Costa ferry boats for Port Costa, where they continued trips toward San Francisco until the Southern Pacific built a bridge between Benicia and Martinez in 1930. President Taft campaigned from his train here in 1912. Captain Blyther’s seafood and steak restaurant nearby is an old-time local favorite.
Benicia is now a Mecca for artistic glass-blowing, with a few studios near or on First Street, and many others at the Old Arsenal, now a near industrial park. At First and F streets, David L. Lindsay displays his bright colored glass objects and blows glass in the back, where the oven cooks at 2,000 degrees and the air temperature hits 140 in the summer. Manager and wife Ann Lindsay says, “That’s when he makes things that don’t take any thinking.”
About a one-mile stroll or roll, First Street is loaded with informal antiques and used book stores, some of which are not open on Sunday. Yesterdaze Books at 501 First St. is the former Lido Club, a onetime hangout of Jack London.
Breakfast and lunch on the weekends are best at First Street Café, an oasis of great casual food from Acme bread and homemade scones to here-made desserts and jams. Omelets are out of sight. Dinner is equally great and under $20.
The Camellia Tearoom, once the Mona Lisa Club, is owned and overseen by local Mary Ellen Hayes, whose husband is the very Democratic and very preservationist immediate past mayor of Benicia. Mary Ellen serves true afternoon tea, sandwiches and salads, including a sampler of chicken-artichoke, Italian tuna and curry chicken. As the house cook, Mary Ellen says, “I cook by ear, and my daughter Casey bakes by formula, so we can’t be in the kitchen at the same time!” The results, though, work well together.
Other restaurants worth sampling on First Street are Victor’s Italian Restaurant, Sala Thai and its sister restaurant Petals, and Kaigan Sushi. Coffee stops include In the Company of Wolves—so named for the previous owner who kept two pet wolves in his camper, parked across the street, while tending the café—and Benicia Bay Company, whose café is in the back of the shop and features Peet’s Coffee and Joseph Schmidt truffles.
Camels do not live in the Camel barns, but they did in the 1850s and 1860s when the U.S. Army used them as pack animals, an experiment abandoned after the Civil War. The remaining camels were shipped to the Benicia Arsenal, where they were auctioned off to the public.
As home to artists such as Robert Arneson and Manuel Neri, Benicia’s Arsenal art studios now host 100 artists, Bradbury and Bradbury Art Wallpaper, the National Neon Institute, the Benicia Ballet and the Benicia Historical Museum. Benicia Glass Studios include Nourot Glass Studio, Smyers Glass and Zellique Art Glass, all close together at 675 and 701 East H Street.
If your mother, like mine, told you not to go to Benicia, try it now.
Kathleen Hill writes a series of six Hill Guides to the West Coast with her husband Gerald Hill, including “Sonoma Valley—The Secret Wine Country.”