The summer afternoon I rode into town looking for a house in Benicia I was weary. I didn’t want to move from Southern California. Our family had relocated from Indiana and I had just adjusted to navigating the commute traffic. The Los Angeles area offered everything a former Hoosier could dream of: the ocean, the mountains, and Hollywood within my reach. I became connected with the LA fashion scene, helping produce international fashion shows and working for the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising.
In 1985, Benicia was a much different place. Downtown Benicia had store fronts that were either empty or needed attention. I remember three women’s specialty shops, a men’s store and a children’s store.
Dining included Nantucket, Washington House, Gina’s Benicia Bay, and my family’s favorite Sam’s Harbor. There were a few empty lots and the waterfront had two abandoned buildings – the Southern Pacific Depot and the infamous Lido, with the rising tide surrounding these historic landmarks.
Twenty-five years later, a renaissance has occurred in this important Northern California city known for its history and art. Lots have filled and buildings have been revitalized. New energy has brought resurgence to the town with entrepreneurs looking to fulfill the American Dream. Positive actions taken in the ‘80s and ‘90s establishing the Benicia Main Street Program and making physical improvements to the 1st Street Green, the Waterfront Promenade, and the sidewalks (well, most of the sidewalks) attracted independent business owners.
Currently, Benicia has over 35 spas and 25 restaurants, 7 women’s specialty stores, gift shops and several home furnishing businesses. Interestingly, there are more antique stores debuting on First Street, following new trends in collectibles. In the last few months five restaurants have opened or are about ready to serve.
Still in its first year, The Rellik Tavern is now firmly established, drawing visitors from surrounding communities. Rellik keeps things hopping with numerous events, including movie nights, art receptions and live music.
Lucca FR, with brick walls and bright orange accents is a draw for the lunch and dinner crowds. Creative and unusual light fixtures continue the industrial theme. The food is an interesting mix of California cuisine with a French flair. Vino Paladini is located in the Inn at Benicia Bay. Entering through the gardens you get the feeling of a villa with the wood floors and massive benches. Specializing in small plates and boutique California wines, it’s a good spot for a light bite.
Mike and Gayle’s Neighborhood Café is in full swing at its new location in Southampton Shopping Center. It was a long wait but well worth it. For those of us who missed the terrific omelets and burgers, now is the time to reconnect. FrankenBurger (in the Tannery Building) is now serving great burgers and dogs, and I hear people raving about the sweet potato fries. Soon to open Downtown are Sailor Jack’s and the Capitol Café.
As Benicia continues its changing face, I am really happy that I made the stop and stayed for the adventure 25 years ago.