El Cerrito Beyond the Plaza
Vintage pinball machines, a renowned records collection, and fresh brews make El Cerrito an invigorating destination.
Welcome to El Cerrito, home of Down Home Music, above, and Playland-Not-at-the-Beach, Elevation 66,and Banh Mi Ba Le, below.
Photos by Stephen Loewinsohn
The 1906 earthquake sent many San Francisco residents packing, including a group that landed on a section of what was then Rancho San Pablo, a massive 17,939-acre property owned by Spanish settlers, that they renamed El Cerrito. Nowadays, it’s a city where you’ll find a renowned record store, an arcade chock-a-block with vintage games, and a smattering of delicious restaurants studding the city’s 2.5-mile stretch of San Pablo Avenue. With a new development plan finally approved for the strip—think new apartment complexes, storefronts, and a wider, bike-friendly street—you might find a new group of San Francisco expats settling in the area soon enough.
Start with brews, bahn mi, or both, when you cross the border from Albany to reach Elevation 66. It can be hard to snag a seat in this small gastropub, but the wait is worth it when you put your lips to a pint of the East Bay IPA, or any other of the six beers brewed in the shiny vats behind the bar. Linger over dishes, both sharing plates and main courses, from a rotating menu. While the teriyaki-braised pork belly tacos might not always be available, you can count on the house-made pickles and chips to be satisfying munchies. 10082 San Pablo Ave., 510-525-4800, www.Elevation66.com
Photo By Stephen Loewinson
For something quick and affordable, head a few blocks down the road to Banh Mi Ba Le Vietnamese Sandwich Deli, a tiny cash-only shop located in the Peppermint Tree Plaza shopping center. For around $3, you can take away a hefty bahn mi sandwich packed with the staples: pickled carrots, shredded daikon, sliced hot peppers, and your choice of tofu or meat (the barbecue chicken is a popular choice). Just be prepared to grab and go: This hole-in-the-wall deli only has three tables, two of which are outside. 10174 San Pablo Ave., 510-528-8882.
Photo by Stephen Loewinsohn
Banh Mi Ba Le
Further down San Pablo Avenue, test your pinball skills at Playland-Not-at-the -Beach, a nonprofit arcade and museum that houses some 25 exhibits filled with artifacts and games from Playland at the Beach, the former Ocean Beach amusement part. The funhouse is usually only open weekends, but starting Dec. 20, you can visit seven days a week (except Christmas day) during its Wacky Winter Wonderland event. Delight in the imaginative vignettes on display in Santa’s Village and the World of Charles Dickens; insert a provided penny and hand crank an old movie for a “knotty” peek into a sailor’s paradise in the Penny Arcade; and head into Pinball Alley for free plays on some 30 machines. 10979 San Pablo Ave., 510-592-3002, www.Playland-Not-at-the-Beach.org
Photo by Stephen Loewinsohn
This year, the documentary This Ain’t No Mouse Music!, about founder and producer of Down Home Music and Arhoolie Records, Chris Strachwitz, picked up some positive reviews from the likes of The East Bay Monthly, the San Francisco Chronicle, and The New York Times. Visit Strachwitz’s Down Home Music Store to meet the 83-year-old himself and comb through an impressive collection of blues, bluegrass, New Orleans jazz, zydeco, Norteño, and other roots music that he has collected or recorded under the Arhoolie label over the last 50-plus years. The latest additions to the shop? Check out the doc’s two-disc soundtrack and “Modern Sounds of Ancient Juju” by HowellDivine, the first blues album recorded by Arhoolie in the last 30 years. 10341 San Pablo Ave., 510-525-7471, www.DownHomeMusic.com, wwweArhoolie.com