Posted by: acooksca | 07/14/2009

The Oldest Watering Hole in the Delta

In the town of Isleton

In the town of Isleton

Under the wide sky and rural expanse of the Sacramento/ San Joaquin River Delta we were looking for lunch. Giusti’s Landing is a homey bar and restaurant, run by the same Italian-American family for nearly 100 years. Lunch at Giusti’s is just one of many good reasons to make the one hour drive from San Francisco. Drifting along uncluttered roads atop earthen levees I wondered why we hadn’t visited this peaceful place sooner.

Head out into the Delta from the Bay Area and you travel from 2009 to the 1960s. The slow moving ruralness of 15 tiny towns, populated by old Delta families and assorted characters, looks more like The Deep South than California. Most of the towns, only several blocks long, are nestled between a shady river bank and farmland. Locals gather in small cafes (there are no Starbucks) and at shops on Main Street to watch the day drift by. Or at a joint called Isleton Joe’s for buckets of boiled crawdads (crayfish).

The Delta is a compact triangle of 1,000 miles of rivers and sloughs, levees, historic  towns, and a few remaining warehouses that hint at the commercial importance of the Sacramento River. For 100 years, from 1850 to1950, freighters and steamboats provided transportation for much of California’s agricultural products and connected the interior to San Francisco. Everything travels along freeways now. The ships have been replaced by an armada of pleasure and recreational boats in search of tranquil waters, inviting coves and a way of life little changed in years.

This is a nature-rich low land of waterways defined by levees, some built in the 1850s. Before the levees this vast area, technically an estuary rather then a river delta, mixed fresh with salt water coming up from San Francisco Bay. A Spanish expedition in 1772 looked down from Mount Diablo on two great rivers crossing a vast valley of sloughs and vegetation. They found game, waterfowl and great stands of tule (a giant native bulrush).

An estimated 30,000 native Indians, simple fisher-gatherers, lived in the Delta in 1800. By 1833 two thirds of them had died in a “great fever” brought by early settlers from The East. Homesteaders remained few and the potential of this swampy area was not realized until the discovery of gold in the foothills just east of Sutter’s Fort (near Sacramento) in 1848. An instant demand for quick and sure transportation of freight and passengers arose. By 1850, it is recorded, 28 steamers and 60 assorted other boats wound their way up the rivers from San Francisco Bay to Sacramento.

Food for the thousands who poured into the gold fields was an immediate necessity as well. Hundreds of laborers were brought by ships from China to build levees and drain the water. Their work reclaimed thousands of acres of farm land, 20 feet below the level of the levees. This was an effort of immense scope…the Sacramento/ San Joaquin Delta receives water run-off from 60% of California. The drinking water for 25 million Californians and much of the Central Valley agricultural water still comes from the Delta.

Many towns in the Delta have buildings from the early twentieth century with a Chinese decorative style to their facades. I found a historic marker in Isleton at 66 Main Street. Built in 1926 originally as a Chinese restaurant, “it became a cantina/dime-a-dance hall run by Joe Kum You and Joe Gung. It was common knowledge that some dancers were sporting girls plying their trade.” This was usual in the Delta, a wide open area of gambling joints and bars during the prohibition years. The deco-designed Ryde Hotel, three miles down the levee from Walnut Grove, still boasts a tunnel leading from the river to a basement speakeasy.

The destination of our drive was Walnut Grove, population 7,049, the second largest town in the Delta. Established in 1850, it lies on a broad portion of the Sacramento River. There is nothing left of the walnut and oak groves that once grew here… they were cut to fuel steamboats that pulled into the docks. By 1865 it was the Delta’s major port for agricultural goods and fish. Pears, apricots, asparagus, tomatoes, pork and beef flowed through Walnut Grove’s packing houses, canneries and slaughter house. The required laborers came from sizable neighborhoods of Chinese, Japanese and Filipinos.

Our interest in Walnut Grove focused on lunch. Giusti’s Place stands atop a levee a mile outside of town on Snodgrass

Giusti's Guest Dock, Snodgrass Slough

Giusti's Guest Dock, Snodgrass Slough

Slough.  Established by Italian immigrants in 1912, Giusti’s is the oldest restaurant in the Delta. It thrives in the hands of the fourth generation of the original family, and is acknowledged to be some of the best food in the Delta. For many years, the author Erle Stanley Gardner, the originator of Perry Mason detective stories, had a houseboat in the Delta and was a fixture at Giusti’s in the 1960s. He wrote “Giusti’s has a distinctive atmosphere of warm hospitality. The food is a type of home cooking (that) satisfies the inner man.”

We located Giusti’s by the line of vehicles parked off the side of the highway at a simple roadhouse. You enter through a dark and cozy bar with hundreds of ball caps stuck to the ceiling. Make your way to the small dining room behind the bar and you get a friendly greeting and a wave toward a wooden table. Some guests were boaters off a clutch of small craft tied up to Giusti’s dock. Three business women across from us sipped Cosmopolitans with their lunch. Two men in work clothes concentrated on their steaks until a beer went by that was a mis-order… “hey, I’ll take that” one of them called out and it landed on his table.

The 10-item lunch menu appears on a dry erase board. There is no printed menu. We might have been tempted by crab and shrimp salad, salmon filet, fettuccini with chicken or even a freshly ground hamburger. But we asked our waitress what she would order and her immediate response was the pot roast or the carnitas-style pulled pork. In a local place, go with the locals.

Lunch comes family-style with a bowl for the table of vegetable soup or chilled green salad with house dressing (no choice here) and a glass of Chianti. Both dishes were quite good, freshly made and well seasoned. The pot roast, deeply flavorful in a rich, spice-infused gravy over mashed potatoes is the perfect retro match for the surroundings.

From the family photo album on the Giusti’s web-site we recognized Mark, grandson of the founder. He was setting up a banquet table for a group of elderly men. Mark offered to have the kitchen make them whatever they wanted… a filet? Pork chop? New York steak? In this old fashioned place everyone is taken care of. When the gents couldn’t determine which side dishes to order the waitress said “don’t worry Hun, I’ll decide and just bring them”… and she did. Everybody was happy.

Details:

Giusti’s is open for lunch, dinner and cocktails, Tuesdays through Sundays. They stop seating at 1:30 for lunch. Our lunch including drink, tax and tip was a very reasonable $17 per person. Cash only, no plastic, although there is an ATM machine in the corner of the bar. Giusti’s 125 foot long dock on Snodgrass Slough welcomes boaters.

Resources:

Giusti’s Landing Restaurant: http://www.giustis.com/index.html

Cruising the California Delta: Robert Walters 1972. Miller Freemann Publications, Inc.

The World of Water – exploring the Sacramento Delta: Erle Stanley Gardner 1964. Wm. Morrow & Co.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walnut_Grove,_California

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Responses

  1. What a fun (and close!) day trip from San Francisco.


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