The Route: This out-and-back bicycle ride from Jack London Square to Drake’s Barrel House in San Leandro offers the bar trekker an excellent tour of the Oakland estuary and San Leandro Bay. It’s a good bicycle ride for a sunny weekday when traffic is relatively light. The path is built almost entirely on “reclaimed” marshland, so it is very level and perfect for a beach cruiser or town bike.
The Stops: Oakland Grill, Merchants Saloon, Quinn’s Lighthouse, Guadalajara Restaurant,
El Novillo taco truck, Aloha Club and Drake’s Barrel House
Distance: 18 miles
You’re going to need a strong foundation for a day of beer and bicycling, so I recommend starting off with a hearty breakfast at the Oakland Grill at Third and Franklin. The Oakland Grill is one of those places you have to go to be considered a “real” Oaklander. Hidden away in the produce district, the Grill exemplifies the Oakland ethos of substance over style. It’s also one of the few remaining restaurants to offer a Joe’s Special — a traditional regional dish of scrambled eggs, beef and spinach that gets its name from the old San Francisco tradition of calling every mom and pop restaurant “Joe’s.”
From Oakland Grill it’s only one block to historic Merchants Saloon at Second and Franklin, another bona fide Oakland institution. I’m not recommending a beer after breakfast (not that anyone would judge you for that at Merchants!), but it’s a fine recommendation for an après-cycle libation. If you do visit Merchants, be sure to take note of the tiled trough underneath the bar. That is what used to be known as a urinal in the early days of Oakland bars. Isn’t history fun?!
After breakfast head to the water’s edge at Jack London Square and turn south. You are now on the Bay Trail, an inspired but as-yet-uncompleted trail project that aspires to circumnavigate the San Francisco Bay. This part of the Bay Trail takes the trekker through the Port of Oakland’s decaying industrial waterfront. Admittedly, descriptors such as “decaying” and “industrial” aren’t f usually selling points for outdoor adventures, but this less-traveled road offers unexpected pleasures. It’s not showy, but beautiful in its own way. And it offers a glimpse of a gritty, industrial Oakland that is rapidly disappearing underneath bulldozers clearing paths for condos and office parks.
The trail is soon cut off at the Lake Merritt channel — the narrow remnants of the once mighty channel that connects Lake Merritt to the San Francisco Bay. To get an idea of how much larger this channel used to be, consider that all of Laney College sits atop the original waterway. You’ll have to head inland a bit to bridge the channel, then continue south on Embarcadero past the series of lonely hotels, the sadly discarded Ninth Avenue terminal and Quinn’s Lighthouse (another one of those places you have to go to be considered a real Oaklander).
When you get to Union Point Park, you are at the end of the original estuary. From this point south, Alameda was once connected to Oakland until a man-made channel was cut severing Oaklanders from their neighbors to the west. As you ride along that narrow channel you get a good contrasting view of both Oakland and Alameda. On the Alameda side, the waterfront is lined with the tidy homes of Alameda’s waterfront gentry. On the Oakland side you get trucks, discarded shipping containers and cement depots. The disparity gets one to wondering how the Oakland waterfront came to be so different from the Alameda waterfront. Or, for that matter, how it came to be so different from the San Francisco waterfront with its big attractions like Fisherman’s Wharf, the Ferry Plaza and Pac Bell Park. Hold that thought — you’ll need something to discuss over beers.
The route between Union Point Park and the end of the Alameda channel can be hard to decipher for the newbie, but follow these directions and you should be fine: After Union Point Park, stay on Embarcadero as it turns east and becomes E. Seventh. Continue following E. Seventh to the footpath under 29th Ave. You are now in Jingletown, the formerly Portuguese neighborhood between the bridges. Continuing down E. Seventh, take a side trip one block down Derby and back to check out the mosaics decorating the walls of the Institute of Mosaic Art.
Arriving at Fruitvale, an optional side trip 200 yards east takes you to your last best option for dining. Guadalajara Restaurant offers decent food, huge portions and roving bands of mariachis. The El Novillo taco truck in the parking lot offers good Mexican street food at low prices (if you don’t mind using a concrete traffic barrier for a table), and the Aloha Club across the street is a special treat for jaded dive-bar aficionados. If you fueled up at the Oakland Grill, you probably aren’t ready for lunch yet, but you can keep this option in your pocket for the ride back. And if you have too much fun at the Aloha Club, BART is bike-friendly and just around the corner.
Cross Fruitvale then turn left on Alameda. A couple hundred feet down, you can catch the Bay Trail to High Street. Left at High then a quick right on Tidewater. A few hundred feet down Tidewater you will be able to return to the trail as it heads west back toward the water. From here the trail winds through the narrow parks that line San Leandro Bay. At the east end of the bay take the bridge west across San Leandro Creek then make a quick right-left to get to the Martin Luther King Jr. Regional Shoreline. The bucolic bliss comes to an end, along with the Bay Trail, at Doolittle. Stay on Doolittle south, past the golf course to Davis Street. Left on Davis and over the railroad tracks — your only climb of the day. Walmart is on your right, and Drake’s Barrel House is behind Walmart.
A visit to Drake’s is the raison d’etre for this trip. The Barrel House offers not only the regular Drake’s lineup, but also an experimental selection of barrel-aged and strong beers that you’re not likely to see elsewhere. These are extreme beers — beer geek beers. High in alcohol and often sour, they are not for the Bud and Corona crowd. For local ale enthusiasts, though, a visit to the barrel room is a mandatory pilgrimage. The barrel room sports a small patio for al fresco imbibing. You can lock your bikes there or bring them inside. Growlers, bottles and a very small selection of snacks are also available.
Now that you’re comfortably situated with a beer, you can return to your musings about why the Oakland waterfront is so different from similar real estate in Alameda and San Francisco. Here’s the short answer: A century ago, the ports of Oakland, Alameda and San Francisco competed for regional dominance. Oakland won. Alameda and San Francisco gave up the fight and refocused their efforts on residential and recreational development along their respective waterfronts. For bonus points, consider whether this was a battle we would have been better off losing. Discuss.
Rick Mitchell runs Luka’s Taproom & Lounge and the Punchdown Wine Bar and credits dedicated staff for “doing all the heavy lifting.”