Those of us ruled by our stomachs will drive vast distances, well out of our way, just to have breakfast at an authentic diner, where the spoons are metaphorically greasy and both the home-fried potatoes and conversation tend to be salty.
Fortunately, Babs Delta Diner is not all that far away.
Then again, even native Bay Areans might be hard-pressed to know precisely where the heck Suisun City, home to Babs and so many other Delta charms, is located. Somewhere in that tawny, rolling-hill nether region north of Vallejo, right? No, no, try farther east. It’s kind of Baja Fairfield, out in that swampy morass dotted with tiny islands and silty sloughs, home to the mighty Delta smelt and also land of many pronunciations of the town name. (For the record, it’s Suh-soon.)
“It certainly is out of the way and, in fact, I didn’t know where it was until I got here,” Tim Na said. “I’m from San Jose. I mean, I knew Fairfield and the Budweiser factory and stuff. But, honestly, it’s a little gem.”
Na is the owner of Babs Delta Diner, taking over 2 1/2 years ago, a few months before beloved owner Doris “Babs” Curless’ death at age 81. So, if he needed help finding this plucky city of 28,111 that wraps itself around the jutting Suisun Slough, you can be forgiven for a certain amount of geographic befuddlement. Just remember: east of Fairfield, west of Rio Vista. Follow Highway 12 and your nose, because you’ll know you hit Suisun City when the olfactory commingling of bacon from Babs and brininess from the marsh envelopes your senses.
And it’s imperative: You must seek out Babs Delta Diner, even though, sadly, Babs is no longer with us. It’s the kind of diner you’ve always heard about but didn’t really think still existed, not to be mistaken for those gentrified, hipsterized knockoffs that city dwellers offer up like so many egg white omelets and seitan sausages.
Babs Delta Diner, though only around since the early 1990s, is a dive in the best sense of the word. It’s also the key, the prime mover, in the revival of Suisun City from drug-infested, gang-saturated dump to a pleasant day trip for Northern Californians.
But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. You must experience a Babs breakfast before tackling the rest of the town.
The moment you walk through the door a host of big-hearted locals will greet you, the outsider, as if you were some long-lost relative back in the fold. You can find Na behind the cash register, the razor-sharp bill of his Golden State Warriors ball cap slightly askew. He smiles and tugs on his goatee, points you toward the counter, where a sassy waitress in a tight-fitting black T-shirt with “Babs” emblazoned in cursive across the front brandishes the bulbous coffee pot before your keister even hits the stool.
Your spot is on the dogleg of the blood-red counter, underneath a framed San Francisco Chronicle story from 1999 with the headline “Suisun City Sheds Its Seedy Image,” and with a good view of the row of personally monogrammed ceramic coffee mugs that Babs, bless her heart, made for the regulars long ago.
In sidles Bo Kaine, clearly a local. He waves off the menu and orders hash and eggs, his usual. He barely has time to shake some salt from the antique Coca-Cola-branded shaker before Michael Segala slips in next to him. The mug marked “MIKE” is plucked off the hook overhead and filled to the brim, steam curling skyward. You, meanwhile, have girded yourself for a Babs breakfast. In preparation for the promised sumo-wrestler-portion sizes, you haven’t eaten for 18 hours and have run 10 miles that morning. Torn between ordering three hot cakes ($5.45) or two ($4.45), you play it safe and go for two.
“They’re big, right?” you ask.
The eyeliner-loving waitress gives you the once over, smiles.
“You might say that,” she says.
The hot cakes arrive with impressive rapidity, half an inch thick and nearly as big as manhole covers. You barely finish one before a little “food baby” develops in your midsection. It’s not that the cakes are particularly dense – they are, in fact, downright fluffy – but the sheer mass of this flour, sugar and egg concoction is daunting. To save face among counter comrades, you take a single bite out of the second hot cake before throwing in the napkin. The waitress soon slips your check under your plate, eyeing the mostly untouched second cake and nodding knowingly. Yeah, another lightweight.
You waddle over to Bo and Mike, who seem to know everyone in the place. Bo’s a dog groomer in town, owner of Tidy Tails. Mike’s a big dog in town, a city councilman in office since 1992.
“We both knew Babs, of course,” Mike says. “Babs passed away two or three years ago. What is it, Bo, two?”
“We miss her, so we don’t even think she’s gone.”
Judging by both Babs’ interior and the homey vibe among the clientele that has filled every table on a Friday morning, Babs isn’t gone. The essential Babsness of the joint endures, from the extensive selection of Coca-Cola memorabilia that Babs so cherished to the shiny black-and-white tile floor to the original menu items (named for cooks and/or customers, such as: “Chad’s Special,” half ham, half sausage, two eggs, potatoes, toast).
“This new owner is fantastic,” Mike is quick to add. “Kept the ambiance and whatnot. Tim and (wife) Grace are good partners in the community. They live right upstairs.”
“Don’t see much of Grace now,” Bo adds. “They got a 1-year-old, you know.”
Na, for his part, is savvy enough not to spoil a good thing. His background is as a chef at high-end Silicon Valley restaurants. He had to be talked into buying Babs by his uncle, who saw an ad the ailing Babs placed on Craigslist and thought it would be the perfect fit for David’s first ownership venture.
“I mean, it’s a greasy spoon, and it’s out of the way,” he says. “I told (his uncle), ‘You know, dude, I checked it out and there’s no way. I’m used to fine dining.’ ”
But buy it, he did.
“I love it here now,” he adds. “It’s different than San Jose, because, here, if you ask a customer how they are doing, they actually respond and ask about you and care about it. In San Jose, it was like, ‘Fine, whatever. Leave me alone.’ This is a friendly place.”
Heck, you can find out everything about Suisun just hanging around Bo and Mike. One of Mike’s favorite subjects is how the city went from real dive, in the worst sense of the word, to a thriving community with a spiffy, handsome downtown marina and waterfront.
He points his fork over to that 1999 framed Chronicle story, which details Suisun’s recovery from decades of blight. In 1988, the story reports, the Chronicle published a survey of 98 cities in the Bay Area, ranking them by crime rate, cost of living, housing prices and quality of life – and Suisun City finished dead last, 98th – thanks to the trifecta of drugs, gangs and unemployment.
But in the mid-’90s, the entire city became a redevelopment area. Much municipal funds (a $68 million bond, for starters) and sweat equity went in to razing the neighborhood near the Suisun Slough, gussying up the docks, where discarded oil tanks and crack pipes were strewn, and rehabilitating the marsh and slough, which had become so silty that many boats couldn’t navigate it except at high tide.
A fancy San Francisco design group was hired and, eventually, the marina had new docks, a paved and lighted promenade that encircles the slough, live-work Victorian-style lofts, a hotel (Hampton Inn) overlooking the waterfront and, as an exclamation point, a $3.5 million glass-domed city hall, which, honest to God, replaced the double-wide trailer that had served as city headquarters.
Most important, to city leaders, was an influx of family-owned businesses and restaurants, such as the higher-end Athenian Grill, Chianti Osteria and the Ironwood American Bistro. The linchpin, however, was Babs Delta Diner, not high-end but held in high esteem.
“Babs was the first to move to the waterfront, and gave others a level of confidence,” Mike says. “She was quite a woman – in her 60s, single, raising a family, starting her own place.”
“A great cook, I must add,” Bo adds.
“Babs and other restaurants bring people here,” Mike continues. “The phrase I use is a cornucopia of cuisine. We made a decision early in redevelopment to make sure people moving in here had a commitment to good service and a passion for (Suisun City). Family businesses. Now, you go up and down the waterfront, and the only time you’ll see something other than family-owned is that Subway (on Main Street) that recently came in. But we make sure all the stand-alone (buildings) are all family-owned. No Starbucks. We’ve got a family-owned coffee shop, Docks.”
Edie Jones, owner of Docks, said summer is the busy time downtown, with boat owners heading in and out of the Delta and kayakers taking advantage of Suisun’s prominent location along the Bay Area Water Trail.
“There are a lot of retired people here but tourists like the town,” she said. “We’re trying to get more college-aged people down here. We’ve got open-mike nights, paint parties. It’s working out.”
Suisun City may not rank near other watery Bay Area travel destinations – say, Sausalito, Half Moon Bay, Alameda – but it has its charms.
One must-stop is the Lawler House, an art gallery started in 2009 by the Suisun Waterfront District Artists, a collective that showcases paintings in the Italianate mansion that dates to 1857 and was on the “Suisun prairie” until being moved to downtown on a barge in the 1980s. Another stop is the Suisun Wildlife Rescue Center, at the end of Kellogg Street, just before the marsh. The nonprofit rehabilitates sick and injured wildlife found in Solano County; coyotes, red-tailed hawks, a golden eagle and great-horned owls are among its more prominent residents.
After seeing the wildlife, you can venture out into their natural habitat. The Peytonia Slough Ecological Reserve features a half-mile dirt trail to the point where it leads to Peytonia Slough. Ducks, geese and blue heron call the salt grass and coyote bush home, and fishermen frequent the point to cast for striped bass and catfish. A little farther afield is Grizzly Island, where a 3.1-mile loop trail showcases the area’s biodiversity. Even farther afield – 7 miles – is the Western Railway Museum, where you can ride the decommissioned electric trains that once ran from downtown Oakland and San Francisco through Suisun City and Rio Vista and on to Sacramento.
Many visitors to Suisun actually come by boat rather than car. (The town also gets people coming via train, since the Amtrak station is about a half-mile from downtown.) Many sailors keep their boats at Suisun and many more dock in the summer months. One year-rounder is Bob Bribeno, of Vacaville.
“In the summer, it’s great,” he said. “There’s really not a lake around here, but people go out on the slough. A lot of the boat owners will do ‘fun runs.’ We’ll get a whole bunch of boats and anchor out in one of the sloughs, swim and barbecue and things like that. The (marina) gets crowded when the salmon are running. You know the salmon are running when seals show up here. You get big crowds of fishermen.”
Almost as big as the weekend brunch crowd at Babs, where Mike and Bo swear the wait for tables is an hour the whole day. The two men shovel in their eggs and potatoes and rave about Babs, the person, and Babs, the diner, though Bo has one quibble, something that always bothered him.
“I’m still trying to figure out why I never got a (personalized coffee) cup from Babs,” he said.
- Babs Delta Diner: 770 Kellogg St., 707- 421-1926
- Docks Coffee Bar: 535 Solano St., 707-803-5518
- Athenian Grill: 750 Kellogg St.; www.atheniangrill.net
- Chianti Osteria: 314 Spring St.; www.chiantiosteria.com
- Ironwood American Bistro: 203 Main St.; www.ironwoodamericanbistro.com
- Suisun Wildlife Rescue Center: 1171 Kellogg St.; www.suisunwildlife.org
- Western Railway Museum: 5848 Highway 12; www.wrm.org