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Getting to Know the Delta, One Weird Bar at a Time
Jay Barmann | Photo: Courtesy Justin Sullivan and Getty | April 2, 2014
The Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta is a vast and complex labyrinth that would take years to explore—or you could just hit the bars. Here, the Delta's five most fascinating watering holes.
Al the Wop’s
The 80-year-old biker bar and restaurant was the first business opened by a non-Chinese person (yes, an Italian guy named Al) in a long-ago-bustling, middle-of-nowhere Chinatown called Locke. For lunch, you want steak, served with toast, wax peppers, and peanut butter on the side—a custom introduced by Depression-era farmers who would bring in their own condiments. Ask the bartender to teach you the drinking game that has led to untold dollar bills being tossed and tacked onto the ceiling. Then walk Locke: It was built in 1915 to house 600 Chinese farmworkers and is now a half-abandoned, chipped paint–shingled time capsule, a Chinese-inflected Old West ghost town.
13943 Main St., Locke; locketown.com/als.htm
An explosion of animal heads stares back at you at this bar and restaurant, which doubles as the personal museum of one crazy taxidermy enthusiast. Late owner Bill Foster went on a 25-year hunting spree starting in the 1930s and brought home some 300 specimens, including an enormous, very rare African elephant that dominates the rear dining room. Foster’s also serves as the clubhouse for residents of Rio Vista, one of the Delta’s biggest towns—a stroll down its main drag, untouched since the 1950s, is very Back to the Future.
143 Main St., Rio Vista; fostersbighorn.com
One of the only Delta bars that’s actually worth trekking to solely for the food, this ramshackle roadhouse just outside Walnut Grove is still owned and run by the family that opened it four generations and 100 years ago. The ceiling of the front bar is lined with trucker caps that, allegedly, piled up over the years after being left behind by farmers who drank too many lunchtime beers. Guy Fieri once touted the minestrone soup on his show, but we prefer the weekend prime rib or linguine with clams on Thursday’s Italian Night.
14743 Walnut Grove–Thornton Rd., Walnut Grove; giustis.com
The Lighthouse Restaurant and Bar
Located on the Delta Loop, a collection of trailer and RV park “resorts” and marinas on low-key Brannan Island, the Lighthouse is a rollicking, boat-up booze stop in the summer and a mellow hangout for chummy retirees in the winter. It’s the kind of place where one of those machines dispenses Fireball shots—and where you should probably just stick to tequila and french fries. Nonetheless, it’s an airy spot with a water view, a small dance floor, outdoor seating, and the vibe of a low-rent country club where everybody knows your name (and your karaoke song).
151 Brannan Island Rd., Isleton; thedeltalighthouse.com
Rogelio’s Dine and Sleep Inn
With its dark-stained siding and overhanging upper-level porch, Rogelio’s looks from the outside like an old-timey saloon—but inside it gets way weirder. The front of the building is split between a basement rec room–style dive bar and a windowless Chinese restaurant. At the back of the building is a casino and card room that livens up with poker games on weekend nights, and upstairs is a small inn. The restaurant menu is, in fact, three-quarters Mexican and one-quarter Chinese, with one off-menu favorite being the carnitas chow mein—it’s odd, for sure, but better than it sounds. Rogelio’s sits in the middle of downtown Isleton (population 804), which plays host to a big crawdad festival every June.
34 Main St., Isleton, rogelios.net
Originally published in the April Issue of San Francisco.