Benicia living up to its billing by the bay

BENICIA Heading south on Interstate 680, just past the Benicia city limit sign, you’ll see a giant billboard, all blue sky and golden sunsets, touting this very city as promising “a great day by the bay.”

Don’t look to the right, where the industrial blight of an oil refinery spews brackish plumes of a sickly shade.

Don’t look to the left toward the Suisun Bay, where the mothball fleet, essentially a naval junkyard, rusts nearby on the Delta waters.

No, just keep looking – and moving – forward, off the freeway and onto its tree-shrouded streets.

Benicia gets better the closer you travel to its downtown waterfront, where boutiques and antiques shops beckon, where artists live and work in the shadow cast by hometown hero Robert Arneson, where history is steeped like so many loose-leaf bags at the popular Camellia Tea Room, where outrigger canoeists can shove off for San Pablo Bay, and where First Street at times resembles a puppy promenade.

As the billboard so vividly illustrates, Benicia is putting on the hard sell to attract tourists whose only association with the town is the $5 they plunk down for the bridge toll. It has hired a marketing firm, which has branded this town along the Carquinez Straits the “best kept little secret in the San Francisco Bay Area.” Locals are hoping that, with proper promotion, Benicia could rival house-boat-happy Sausalito or even tony Tiburon as a waterfront weekend destination.

“It’s a very quiet little place,” said Nancy Steacker, feeding bread scraps to the shorebirds at the foot of First Street one recent lunch time. “It’s right in the middle of everything, but you’re not really in anything, you know.”

That, really, is one of Benicia’s main selling points – namely, its slow pace, homey feel, lack of pretension and centralized location, easily within an hour’s drive – to the masses of stressed-out city dwellers in San Francisco, Oakland and Sacramento. And it’s doubtful, even with an influx of tourists, that the local vibe will change much, since Benicia has weathered boom-and-bust cycles before and retained its laid-back charm.

The biggest boom, of course, was that glorious 13-month period 160 years ago when Benicia served as California’s state capital, until Sacramento lured lawmakers away with promises of a bigger building and more housing, a tempting proposition since many legislators had been sleeping in saloons on First Street. Benicia also lays claim to having the first Army post in the West, where such military notables as William Tecumseh Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant served, Grant spending time in jail for drunkenly conduct that included firing cannons across the straits to Martinez.

In the early 20th century, when the fishing industry thrived, Jack London worked as an officer on the “fish patrol” and later used Benicia as a setting for stories. And, during Prohibition, Benicia was touted as the “wettest” city in Northern California, with brothels and speakeasys connected via tunnels under First Street for cannery and tannery workers looking for a good time.

Consider that era Benicia’s wild youth. It eventually settled into middle age as a reinvented haven for artists and artisans. Arneson, the noted sculptor and leader of the “funk art” movement, set up a studio on First Street, where the popular First Street Cafe now sits. Other artists followed, including feminist star Judy Chicago, who constructed her controversial masterpiece, “The Dinner Party,” while living there in the 1970s.

Some of that mid-century bohemian artistic vibe lives on just east of downtown at the Arsenal, a re-purposed military encampment where scores of artists now have live-work spaces and hold twice-yearly open-studio weekends.

But these days, the nexus of activity clearly can be found on First Street, which has been designated by preservationists as a “California Main Street Community.”

As if heralding its ambitions, Benicia immediately hits you with a small but glorious city park at the head of the street. No less than 37 types of trees – an arborist’s delight, ranging from crape myrtle to deodar cedar, coast redwood to Canary Island date palm, black acacia to Aleppo pine – are represented in a swath of green punctuated by a Victorian gazebo.

It’s best to park there and stroll the 11-block stretch leading to the waterfront.

Your first stop will be the Benicia Antiques Mall, the largest of the antiques shops dotting the street. Next to rustic turn-of-the-century dressers and 1950s pin-up-girl frilly dresses are curios such as a bronzed water pump, a Little League baseball trophy, a vintage standup radio microphone, Bob’s Big Boy metal trays and a boxer’s punching bag. The proprietress, too shy to reveal her name, lamented that several other antiques shops have closed in recent years. But she then proceeded to reel off a half-dozen other browse-worthy places on the street.

After a morning of fervid antiquing, many find sanctuary at Camellia Tea Room, two blocks down in a restored 1897 Victorian building. In addition to adhering to the British custom of serving afternoon tea from bone china pots, Camellia also features lunch of finger sandwiches and other delicacies in a room festooned with ornate wallpaper. Camellia can be seen as the antithesis of Benicia’s brothel- and beer-drenched early days, but owner Maryellen Hayes says it fits the town.

“We’re still kind of 19th century around here,” Hayes said. “That feeling, and the water at the end of the street, is our (charm) to people. We get a lot of day-trippers from the 415, 925 and 510 (area codes). It’s part of the city’s branding. We have a lot of ladies shops in town, antiques and salons. We’ve got salons up the ying yang – if you don’t have a good haircut in this town, there’s no reason – and they are promoting it as a ladies’ day trip. And we’re part of that, too.”

Nineteenth-century political life can be viewed a block and a half down at the Benicia Capitol State Historic Park, where for that glorious 13 months this town laid claim to the seat of power. A handsome brick building, accentuated by gleaming Doric columns, straddles the corner of First and G streets.

The restored state Senate (downstairs) and Assembly (upstairs) chambers are made to look as they did in 1853, with desks lined in orderly rows and a chandeliers dangling above and a wood stove in the corner. The Capitol, the only remaining structure from the state’s peripatetic days when the seat of government bounced from San Francisco to Vallejo to Monterey, is open Thursdays through Sundays for tours. Proving that bureaucracy reigns even when a Capitol has long since gone dormant, the ranger refused to talk to a reporter because she wasn’t “authorized” to do so. Regardless, a self-guided jaunt around the rooms shows that legislators worked in opulence, even if many had to sleep in saloons because of a housing shortage.

Less than a block away, at Bookshop Benicia, you can thumb through tomes touting Benicia’s glory days. But, judging by volume, it looked as if owner Christine Mayall does most of her business selling fiction in a cozy space that encourages browsing and certainly wants to attract the tourist trade.

“We get people who sail into the marina on weekends,” she said. “We meet all sorts of interesting folks that way.”

Many, no doubt, are traveling with dogs. Up and down First Street, dogs and their human companions roamed. From a pair of bichon frisés named Peekaboo and Freeway, to Yorkie mixes named Olivina and Georgie, dogs took advantage of water bowls left out for them. They can explore (leashed) on the city green near the waterfront and frolic (unleashed) on the small beaches just off the First Street Promenade.

Skip and Dana Godwin, with black lab mixes Drake and Olive in tow, said merchants don’t bat an eye when someone walks through the door with a four-legged friend.

“It’s like Sausalito in that respect,” Skip said. “A lot of the restaurants have outdoor seating, and that attracts people with dogs. All the B&Bs and hotels are dog-friendly, too.”

Lynne Parella, owner of the upscale wine and craft beer bar, The Chill, allows dogs on her patio, as does the First Street Cafe, the restaurant at the Union Hotel and other eateries. Such openness to canines has earned Benicia the status of the fourth most “dog-friendly” city in the nation by Dog Fancy Magazine.

Spurred by that honor, James Long, owner of Pups ’n’ Purrz on First Street, helped organize the annual A Great Dog Day by the Bay, featuring a Disc Dog competition, a toss-and-fetch tournament, an owner-dog look-alike contest and a dog beauty pageant. One item Long has trouble keeping in stock is cod sticks ($1).

“On the day of the peddlers fair, I sold out all 60 sticks,” he said. “People came in the next day wanting more and I was out. I had to get more fast. I think it’s because of the water. The dogs can smell the fish. They’re like, ooh, fish.”

The water is a lure to humans, as well. The Ninth Street Park and Boat Launch is home to the Benicia Outrigger Canoe Club, and avid canoeists Anne Grove and Wayne Kocher say paddlers come from all over because of the easy access to the water. Grove and Kocher were just pulling out their Huki V2-X tandem canoe from the water after an 8-mile paddle to beyond the Carquinez Bridge and back.

“It never gets crowded, lots of room on the water,” Kocher said. “You do have to keep your eyes open for the barges. Today, it was tranquil. But it can get very windy. That’s the only complaint. But it’s always a great day on the water.”

So, too, on land in Benicia. For once, a billboard told the truth.