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Walnut Creek: San Francisco Suburb with a Difference

by Beverly Dubrin

Walnut Creek, California, located 23 miles east of San Francisco, is a city with a population of approximately 80,000. It's a "bedroom" community that, as few as twenty years ago, was known mainly for its network of creeks and acres of walnut groves. In the Walnut Creek of the 1990s the creeks are still here but the walnut trees are few and far between, replaced by private homes and office buildings.
I have lived in Walnut Creek since 1972 and have seen it blossom from a quiet suburb into a bustling city. It has become a shopping and cultural hub for the communities east of San Francisco. While there is no heavy industry in Walnut Creek, there is a vital "white collar" business community.

Although the traffic can be pretty heavy through the downtown area at peak times, the qualities that originally attracted me to Walnut Creek have continued to exist. There are numerous recreational and cultural facilities, including two Olympic-sized swimming pools (one of which is open to the public year-round), well-maintained community parks and open space, and the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts. The downtown area, consisting of the newer Broadway Plaza with such "name" stores as Nordstrom, Macy's, and Banana Republic, and an older adjacent area, the original downtown, with historic buildings that house most of the city's restaurants and smaller shops. Rossmoor, Northern California's largest community for people age 55 and older, is nestled in a secluded Walnut Creek valley. BART (Bay Area Regional Transit) connects Walnut Creek with San Francisco and other communities to the east and with East Bay communities to the north and south. While the downtown area is but a short walk from the BART station, there is an extensive bus system that covers much of the city and which provides free shuttle service throughout the downtown area.

A Bit of History

Originally, Walnut Creek was called "The Crossroads" because it was here that the roads leading from Martinez in the north and Oakland in the west converged. Walnut Creek's first settler, William Slusher, built his home on the back of "Nuts Creek" in 1849. The beginnings of downtown came a few years later when Milo Hough, of nearby Lafayette, built a hotel called "Walnut Creek House" along with a blacksmith shop and store. By 1856, a gentleman named Hiram Penniman had laid out the downtown along what is now Main Street. Penniman also built the ranch house which today is the Shadelands Ranch Historical Museum. The Crossroads was renamed "Walnut Creek" in 1862 when the first US Post Office was established. Walnut Creek was incorporated in 1914.

Cultural Highlights

In 1990 Walnut Creek became a cultural destination with the opening of the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts. Prior to that, most cultural events took place in a building on the same spot that once had been a walnut-hulling warehouse. Its formal name was The Walnut Creek Civic Arts Center, but most natives referred to it as the "nuthouse." The Regional Center is a 72,000 square-foot facility with three theaters, a classroom, and an art gallery. It was financed by city funds and private donations. It was designed to accommodate just about every performing arts group in Contra Costa County as well as visiting performers.

Walnut Creek boasts three museums. Two are right in town and the third is a half-hour drive up Mount Diablo.

The Lindsay dates back to 1955 when Alexander "Sandy" Lindsay took it upon himself to develop community programs in his backyard to nurture children's connection to nature. It was only after Lindsay's death in 1962 that his backyard program was formalized as a museum and moved into a former East Bay Municipal Utility District pumping station. A wildlife rehabilitation program was established in 1970. Today the Lindsay occupies a new well-appointed building. While many of the programs and exhibits at the Lindsay are designed with children in mind, this is a museum for anyone interested in the natural world. I have been a member for years, taking part in the educational nature walks and classes. The Lindsay operates every day of the year with a staff of about 20 and over 1000 volunteers, many of whom are teenagers.

Its Wildlife Hospital is complete with treatment rooms, intensive care, quarantine, and laboratories. The permanent "Living with Nature" exhibit allows visitors to observe animals being fed and exercised. Several non-releasable wildlife, with explanations of why they cannot be returned to nature, are on display. Terminology relating to wildlife, such as "imprinting," is clearly explained. The Lindsay's resident animals are used in learning environments both in and out of the museum.

Many exhibits are at floor or kid's-eye level. There are lots of specimens to touch. A wall of labeled drawers contains minerals, shells, bones, skins, fossils, rocks, and other natural objects, all available for handling. Children can sit with and pet rabbits and guinea pigs in the Petting Circle. There are games to play in the Discovery Room (kids must be accompanied by an adult) and storytime is held Thursdays and Sundays on an outdoor balcony. A replica of Mount Diablo's Balancing Rock rises up two stories, recreating this massive sand rock which represents Mount Diablo's past, complete with its animals, fossils, and plants.

The second in-town museum is that of the Walnut Creek Model Railroad Society. It is only regularly open twice a month, but railroad fans keep up with its schedule of special events and are able to visit more often. This museum is a "must visit" for model railroad buffs.

The Summit Museum perches on the top of Mount Diablo in the Visitor's Center. Operated by Mount Diablo Interpretive Association volunteers, it highlights the cultural and natural history of the mountain and its ecosystems. Mount Diablo, with its 3,849-foot summit, is the highest mountain in the Bay Area. On a clear day you can see the Farallons, the Delta, the Santa Cruz Mountains, and the Sierras. It is a State Park, with Rangers, hiking trails, camping, and picnic grounds. Using a combination of artistic renditions, displays, and video, a geology exhibit in the Summit Museum traces the creation of Mount Diablo. Move on to the diorama of Mount Diablo's many habitats, all of which visitors pass through on the way up the mountain. At each habitat display, which includes plants and wildlife, one can listen to the sounds of that habitat. The history of Mount Diablo is told in words and pictures. Trail maps, natural history guides, greeting cards with photographs of the mountain, and tee shirts with pictures of Mount Diablo's wildflowers are some of the items for sale in the small gift shop. While many people in my acquaintance bicycle the ten miles up the steep winding road and/or trails to the summit, I find the half-hour drive up to be thrill enough. Along the way there are several rest stops and picnic areas from which to enjoy the view and to hike or relax.

Recreation

Outdoor recreation thrives in Walnut Creek. There is swimming year 'round at the Clarke Memorial Pool and, during the summer months, at Larkey Park . Both pools are Olympic-sized. Fans of synchronized swimming may catch a glimpse of the 1996 Olympic Synchronized Swim Team which trains in the Clarke diving pool. Golfers have a choice of the 18-hole municipal Boundary Oak Golf Course or the 9-hole Diablo Hills Course. Newly-renovated playgrounds with the latest in equipment are in most neighborhoods. Some of the more popular playgrounds are at Heather, Arbolado, Walden, and Civic Parks. A network of paved trails for walking, cycling, and skating traverses the city in all directions. At Heather Park one can reserve a tennis court; in city parks and at local high schools, tennis courts are available on a first come first serve basis. If you live in town, you can even have your own community garden plot at Howe Homestead Park.

Events and Activities

Sunday mornings from 8 a.m. until 1 p.m. (year 'round except for Christmas, New Year and Easter Sunday) there is an outdoor Farmers Market in the parking lot at Broadway and Lincoln Street. Fresh produce, baked goods, cheese, sausage, fish, and flowers are just some of the offerings at the market. Often there is musical entertainment and once a month a local chef gives a cooking demonstration using ingredients from that day's market.

The Walnut Festival takes place in September. This three-weekend event includes a big parade down Main Street (yes, there is a Walnut Queen), a carnival at Heather Farm Park, a tennis tournament, and foot race.

Other weekends from spring to fall, there are frequent arts and crafts festivals. Most take place downtown along Main and Locust Streets. The biggest of these events are Art on the Main (second weekend in May) and the Art and Wine Festival (first weekend in June).

Dining

Walnut Creek is something of a restaurant mecca. Name your favorite cuisine, and, chances are, you will find one or more restaurants that serve it. If it's Italian you are after, Prima is the place to go for an elegant meal. For a less formal Italian meal, I suggest Caffe Delle Stelle or one of the city's newest restaurants, Ristorante Milano. Right across from the BART station is Spiedini, a popular Italian restaurant that features spit-roasted meats and poultry.

Regional American food is what is served at the popular Lark Creek Cafe where Bay Area celebrity chef Bradley Ogden presides as executive chef.

Vic Stewart's is an old-fashioned steak house in Walnut Creek's restored 1891 Southern Pacific Railroad Depot. One dining room is in a 1901 Pullman dining car. Vic Stewart's is owned by former Secretary of Energy (Reagan administration) John Herrington.

For Thai food there is Mai Thai. For Chinese, my favorites are Wan Fu and Green Garden. Wan Fu serves spicy Szechwan dishes and Green Garden is my choice for weekend Dim Sum lunch (be prepared to wait in line to get in). The Cantina offers a creative menu of Mexican dishes, many of them "heart healthy." Aficionados of authentic Mexican food are faithful to the more traditional La Fogata. For Japanese, I suggest Jun-Jun. Tiny Cafe India serves tasty Indian food.

Sample the local beer at the Black Diamond Brewing Company and enjoy pizzas, sandwiches, and grilled dishes that complement the brews. A display of panoramic photographs of Mount Diablo by Stephen Joseph, pays an attractive and appropriate tribute to Contra Costa's beauty. Black Diamond is a popular family dining spot in the early evening; later on in the evening there is live music.

Crogan's, Walnut Creek's first bar and grill, continues to be a popular happy hour gathering place and serves a good burger and excellent fresh fish. Enjoy a sandwich at Genova Delicatessen as President Bill Clinton and his entourage did when they were in the area for Net Day. The Cheese Steak Shop is the place for genuine Philadelphia cheese steak sandwiches.

Pascal's makes the best scones and croissants in town.


Bedford Gallery
1601 Civic Drive (in the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts)
Open Tuesday - Sunday noon - 5 p.m., until 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday
The art gallery of the Regional Center for the Arts. Exhibits change every few months.

Boundary Oak Golf Course
(925) 934-6211

Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts
1601 Civic Drive
(925) 943-SHOW
Ticket office open Monday - Saturday, noon - 6 p.m., performance nights until 9 p.m., Sundays one hour prior to performance time.
Theatrical, dance, music programs by local and visiting performers

Diablo Hills Golf Course
(925) 939-7372

Heather Farm Garden Center
1540 Marchbanks Drive (in Heather Farm Park)
(925) 947-1679
Wander through the demonstration gardens that surround the Garden Center's main building. The herb garden, rose garden, and children's garden are some of my favorites. All are open to the public except when a special event is going on. This is a beautiful setting for a wedding. Call for information on gardening classes.

Heather Farm Park
Heather Drive between San Carlos and Marchbanks Community Center
park, picnic, field reservations: (925) 943-5859
Equestrian Center: (925) 939-2929
Swim Center: (925) 943-5856
Tennis: (925) 945-0105
One of the best-used parks in Walnut Creek, Heather Farm Park's facilities include the Clarke Memorial Swim Center, tennis courts, softball, volleyball, and picnic areas. Some picnic sites can be reserved for private events. Swimming and tennis is open to the public for a daily fee. At the north end of the park is the Walnut Creek Equestrian Center.

Howe Homestead Park and Community Gardens
2950 Walnut Blvd.
(925) 930-7731

Lindsay Museum
1931 First Ave. (in Larkey Park)
(925) 935-1978
Exhibits open Wednesday - Sunday 1 p.m. - 5 p.m. (from 11 a.m. July and August) Admission: Adults: $3, children/seniors: $2, Members: Free admission the first Wednesday of the month
The oldest and one of the largest wildlife rehabilitation centers in America. The museum features exhibits of non-releasable wild animals and the local natural environment. It offers an extensive educational program for children and adults.

Old Borges Ranch
Shell Ridge Open Space
1035 Castle Rock Road
(925) 934-6990
Visitor Center Open Saturdays 1 p.m. - 4 p.m., Sundays noon - 4 p.m. Open Space open daily 8 a.m. - dusk
Pack a picnic or even camp overnight (by reservation only) and experience ranch living in the style of Walnut Creek's early settlers. Throughout the year the Ranch hosts special public events. Guided mountain hikes are regularly scheduled in the open space. Call for details.

Shadelands Ranch Historical Museum
2660 Ygnacio Valley Road
(925) 935-7871
Wednesday and Thursday 11:30 a.m. - 4:00 p.m., Sundays 1:00 p.m. - 4:00 p.m.
Built in 1902 by settler Hiram Penniman, Shadelands Ranch is a Colonial Revival style ranch house. Now a museum and historic library, visitors can wander through rooms furnished with the original furnishings and, in the History Room Archive, look through photos, maps and memorabilia documenting Walnut Creek's history. The Museum is available for special events, including weddings. It hosts antique fairs throughout the year and, in December, a Holiday Victorian Faire.

Ruth Bancroft Garden
1500 Bancroft Rd.
(925) 210-9663
Tours on Friday and Saturday by reservation, April through mid-October. Call for information on special events and tours.
This private garden, with its founder, Ruth Bancroft, still in residence on the property, is a stunning example of how desert and dry climate plants can be used to create an appealing, yet California-sensitive environment. Many of the succulents that grow in the garden are available for sale.

Summit Museum
Top of Mount Diablo
(925) 837-6119
Enter from North Gate Rd. in Walnut Creek or Diablo Road in Danville Open Weekends 11 a.m. - 5 p.m., Weekday hours will start in Spring Museum admission Free
Park admission: Automobile Day Use: $5; Bicyclists: Free; Dogs $1 (not allowed in Museum or on trails)

Walnut Creek Model Railroad Society
2751 Buena Vista Avenue (at Larkey Park) Last Friday (8:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.) and third Sunday of each month (1:00 p.m. - 5:00 p.m.)

Other Entertainment

Masses
2721 North Main Street
(925) 256-POOL
Billiards; sports bar and grill

Virtual World
1375 North Main Street
(925) 988-0755
Virtual reality video entertainment

Walnut Creek Restaurants

Black Diamond Brewing Company
2330 North Main Street
(925) 943-2330

Cafe India
1521 North Main Street
(925) 944-5403

Caffe Delle Stelle
1532 North Main Street
(925) 943-2393

The Cantina
1470 North Broadway
(925) 946-1010

The Cheese Steak Shop
1387 Cypress Street
(925) 934-7017

Crogan's
1387 Locust Street
(925) 933-7800

Genova Delicatessen
1105 South California Boulevard
(925) 939-3838

Green Garden
1101 Civic Drive
(925) 938-8878

Jun-Jun
1989 North Main Street
(925) 947-1174

La Fogata
1315 North Main Street
(925) 934-8121

Lark Creek Cafe
1360 Locust Street
(925) 256-1234

Mai Thai
1414 North Main Street
(925) 937-7887

Pascal's French Oven Bakery
1372 North Main Street
(925) 932-6969

Prima
1522 North Main Street
(925) 935-7780

Ristorante Milano
1829 Mt. Diablo Boulevard
(925) 988-0300

Spiedini
101 Ygnacio Valley Road (across from BART)
(925) 939-2100

Vic Stewart's
850 South Broadway
(925) 943-5666

Wan Fu
1375 North Broadway
(925) 938-2288



Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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