Walnut Creek Mayor Kevin Wilk walked down Main Street, watching sidewalk revelers who, despite being a few days away from California officially reopening, all seemingly believe it was their birthday.
A large, glowing, thumping party truck carrying open-air celebrants rolled down the street. People shouted to continue conversations over the distorted stereo, turned to 11 and buzzing like a chainsaw attempting to slice through a mountain of memory foam.
“I’m not even sure that’s legal,” Wilk said from behind his mask, eyeing the passing mess.
It didn’t seem to matter this weekend. After more than a year of either being closed, or tip-toeing around ever-changing rules and health mandates, Walnut Creek’s nightlife was stretching its party muscles again after a 15-month COVID-19 nap.
Most people were without masks; getting drinks and food in mouths was obviously a priority.
Like many cities, Walnut Creek has changed since early 2020. Struggling restaurant owners worked with an accommodating city to receive grants and move dining onto sidewalks and streets, eliminating 125 downtown parking spaces.
Some mainstays — like old favorite party bar Tiki Tom’s near Broadway Plaza — didn’t survive. Others, like Havana restaurant on Bonanza Street — adapted, and are now closer to thriving than just surviving.
“It’s been a long year and at this point right now, everyone is just trying to understand what happened and what’s the future,” said Jeff Dudum, owner of Bourbon Highway, the line for which extended up the block. “Our job is to make sure that everyone’s safe. The guests, we ask everyone to just respect and do what’s best. I will tell you, it’s been a long year and four or five months.”
Walnut Creek holds a unique place in Contra Costa County, the Bay Area’s third-largest county, with nearly 1.2 million people. Though technically a small city, its thriving web of downtown bars, restaurants and clubs attract people from all over the region and provide about 30 percent of the city’s tax base.
“The reason why I moved here is that it’s a small town with a big town feel. You meet people,” said Doug Miliman, a Bourbon Highway regular before the pandemic. “I stopped drinking for seven months during COVID. I have a grandmother, I had to take care of her, she lost her husband during COVID.”
Clearly having a good time, Miliman paused when asked if things feel normal again.
“No. It’s still different. I think everybody’s adapting. There’s a lot more outdoor seating and dining, there’s definitely a different vibe. A lot of things changed during the pandemic.”
Eddy Schmitt made a significant investment in outdoor dining last year. The owner of Fuego Tequila Grill wants the city to let him keep the $20,000 outdoor, open-air enclosure he built out front.
“This patio is over 25,000 pounds of weight. It’s not going anywhere anytime soon,” Schmitt said with a laugh. “In order to create a patio that was safe for the public, but at the same time aesthetically pleasing, we put it up. Then asking us to take it down so fast would be unreasonable.”
Schmitt said the city can make up for the lost parking revenue by asking owners to pay rent on the space.
“Everybody thinks because the pandemic is over, the effects of the pandemic are over, and that’s just not true” Schmitt said. “The pandemic took a year and a half of our lives; it’s going to take at least double that to recuperate the loss.”
Though providing no assurances, Wilk said residents like their new downtown.
“The surveys are overwhelming,” Wilk said. “People want to keep outdoor dining. People say ‘I want to keep the European-style dining.'”
Servers moved faster than anyone on the Friday night sidewalks. Most owners and managers say it’s been difficult getting people back to work.
“The business is really good, especially weekends. The only issue we have lately is the challenge to find workers,” said Luis Sabillon, the general manager of 1515 restaurant and lounge. “We had a lot of loyal employees who had been here for years. They went to real estate, they went to construction, they went to a lot of industries, and I tried to call them back and they said ‘Sorry, I’m not available.'”
Nevertheless, Sabillon is confidant in the future.
“It’s packed on weekends already,” he said. “We have to tell (returning staff) we’ll give you more and you’re going to make more tips.”
Spike Lewis, a manager at Rooftop restaurant and bar, said everything is in transition, from how to allocate resources between the dinner and bar crowds, to keeping the tall plants against the bar for social distancing.
“We have to decide who we want to be going forward. We’re kind of in the process of meeting on those things now, to decide what stays the same and what might change,” Lewis said.
Through all the change, some things stay the same. “I’m seeing so many of the regulars coming out of the woodwork, kind of a homecoming,” Lewis said. “I don’t get the feeling of people kind of hiding out. It definitely feels like the light at the end of the tunnel.”
If the two Lamborghinis parked in front of the Broadway Club are a good indicator, then city nightlife is already healthy again. The club’s atmosphere could be mistaken for a San Francisco venue; the music moved, as did the dance floor.
Like much of downtown Walnut Creek, the place was alive again.