Even during normal times, Port Costa, a tiny, census-designated place in Contra Costa County, had the feel of a ghost town: You’d drive up, up, up a twisting mountain road for what seemed like miles and miles before the street finally opened up to an old-timey downtown area that looked like some vision of the Old West, with its 130-plus-year-old brothel turned hotel, its antique-y gift shop, and its saloon-like rowdy biker bar — the whole area lit up with strings of twinkle lights at night, with sweeping views of the Carquinez Strait below. It was always a magical place.
Then, during the pandemic, it turned into a literal ghost town. Or at least that’s how it felt to Ivana Domansky, a Port Costa resident and the owner of said biker bar, Warehouse Cafe, which she bought, along with her now-ex-husband, in 1999, a few years after immigrating from the Czech Republic. The place had always been known as a weekend gathering place for motorcycle enthusiasts. And in the two decades since Domansky has been running the place, Warehouse Cafe developed a bit of a cult following in the East Bay for its selection of 250-plus different beers, and also because on weekends Domansky would serve a delicious, bargain-priced prime rib dinner with all the fixings — an astounding thing to discover at a biker bar on some remote mountaintop.
All that stopped when the region-wide shelter-in-place order came down in March, and the bar was forced to shut down entirely for the better part of four months. “This place totally depends on out-of-towners because the town itself is only 200 people,” Domansky explains. And realistically, she says, people weren’t going to drive all the way up that winding road just to pick up takeout.
“It was heartbreaking for me,” Domansky says, noting that she lives just down the street. During those first few months, when the weather was nice, she’d sometimes see out-of-town visitors drive up into the downtown area — and then immediately turn right back around. After all, everything was closed: all of the shops, even the parking lot.
Somehow, though, Domansky has kept Warehouse Cafe alive. With the advent of outdoor dining in July, she started opening the bar for lunch just on weekends, and then lunch every day beginning in August, serving a simple menu of burgers, kielbasa sandwiches, and such. She says she’s fortunate that the restaurant already had a large outdoor patio, which it has since expanded out into the parking lot. It’s about half of the business she used to get, Domansky says, but it’s enough to at least pay the bills — notwithstanding the fact that the restaurant’s freezer broke during the shutdown, meaning she had restock every last bit of food to reopen.
The bikers, it turns out were among the first to return — and the most joyous to have the bar back in their lives. According to Domansky, Warehouse Cafe has always had a weird mix of customers: locals, visitors from as far away as San Francisco or Sacramento, hikers, and yes, always, the bikers, who started meeting up at the bar just because it’s such a great starting point for a gorgeous ride through the East Bay hills. When the weather was good, having 50 or so bikes parked outside the bar on a Saturday or Sunday would be a common sight, Domansky says.
And despite their outlaw reputation, Domansky notes that the bikers have been “very respectful” when it comes to wearing face masks and keeping social distance. “Of course occasionally you have to yell at someone,” she says.
Now, as limited-capacity indoor dining has started up in Contra Costa County, Domansky has brought back the prime rib dinners too, for takeout or dine-in service — only on Friday and Saturday nights, as before. And as before, they’re about as good a deal as you can find in the Bay Area: Domansky actually lowered the price from $25 to $20 — cash only, as is everything else at Warehouse Cafe. It’s a 14-ounce hunk of meat, cooked to your preference, with garlicky sauteed mushrooms, a baked potato, and horseradish on the side. (The meal used to also come with soup or salad, which you can still buy separately.)
Looking ahead, however, Domansky says it’s hard to feel anything but “doom and gloom” when it comes to the restaurant’s prospects. Normally, she says, she counts on making enough money during the summer to carry the bar through the slow winter season when there are no bikers and much fewer tourists. This summer, instead, she took on $70,000 in debt. She’s hoping that by next summer, the bar will finally be able to open “full blast,” so that she can hire back the rest of her staff and resume some sense of normalcy. Until then, Domansky herself is often the one who’s cooking the food, serving it, and washing the dishes.
“I might survive it,” Domansky says. “But it’s pretty damn tough.”
Warehouse Cafe opens at 1 p.m. Monday–Friday and at 10 a.m. on weekends; it closes whenever there aren’t any more customers — usually around 10 p.m. on weekdays and a little later on Friday and Saturday night. The prime rib dinner is available for both takeout and dine-in customers during dinner only on Friday and Saturday, starting at around 6 p.m. on Friday and 5 p.m. on Saturday. Cash only. Call 510-787–1827 to confirm availability.