Eighty years ago, the Ford Motor Company built the largest assembly plant on the Pacific Coast along the shores of Richmond’s Inner Harbor. Architect Albert Kahn designed a quarter-mile-long, 525,000-square-foot building with assembly lines, a railroad shed, and a pier with a one-acre hangar where boilers were housed and cranes lifted goods from ships into the factory. The plant became one of Richmond’s three biggest employers and helped stimulate the development of the city’s harbor. During World War II, it was retooled for the production of military vehicles. After the war, the plant resumed the car-assembly biz but closed up shop in 1956.
Decades after it produced its last automobile, the plant has been meticulously restored and now houses workshops and offices for high-end tenants like Vetrazzo, SunPower, and Mountain Hardwear. Nearby is the Marina Bay Yacht Harbor, Rosie the Riveter National Historic Park, and a new section of the San Francisco Bay Trail. The old crane bay houses an impressive industrial-chic concert venue, the Craneway Pavilion, and the boiler house next door has been turned into an equally attractive restaurant.
Boilerhouse, which opened last August, has retained enough of its original factory-deco atmo to make it an eye-filling place to take a meal. The barnlike ceilings, sawtooth skylights, and factory sash windows let in plenty of natural light. Gears, pulleys, chains, and levers accent the dining room, central bar, and open kitchen. The silver-painted old boilers, exposed piping, terrazzo tabletops, and terra cotta flooring give the space a sleek, shiny look; this is a fun place to enjoy all-American brewpub-y fare while you take in the postmodern ambience, the bay views, or the game on the flatscreen TV.
The starters are uniformly hearty and satisfying. The Niman Ranch sliders were layered with bacon, lettuce, tomato, and house-made pickles and were substantial enough for a light meal. The skinny, sweet potato fries arrived bistro-style in a paper cone and were irresistibly crisp and savory, especially when dipped in aioli. The Texas chili was perfectly adequate — Niman Ranch ground chuck with beans, bell peppers, just enough spice to make things interesting, and lots of grated cheddar cheese, sour cream, and chopped onion on top — but not as rich and earthy as it could’ve been. But the jumbo chicken drummettes were terrific: half a dozen big, juicy drumsticks baked with a spicy Buffalo-style coating and served traditionally with baby carrots, celery sticks, and a cool, creamy dipping sauce.
Our favorite entrée was the Apple Bleu pizza, one of four. A soft, pillowy crust supported a tasty balance of flavors and textures: The mozzarella took the edge off the pungent Point Reyes Blue, and strands of balsamic-y grilled onion made a delicious contrast to the slices of sweet, crisp apple. The Mazatlan skirt steak involved a big platter of fluffy Spanish rice; pinto beans laced with melted cheddar; crisply fried plantains; soft, sweet grilled onions; a bright, spicy salsa fresca; and a twelve-ounce slab of beef with lots of smoky flavor despite its chewy, overdone texture (we’d requested it medium rare). But there was nothing wrong with the Cajun shrimp. The prawns, marinated in herbs and spices, were grilled just to the plump and juicy stage and served on a bed of that fluffy rice, garlicky al dente zucchini on the side: yum.
Dessert is the least impressive part. The Boilerhouse Brownie Stack sounds terrific — a baked-on-the-premises brownie ribboned with Ghirardelli chocolate chips, drizzled and dolloped with raspberry compote, chocolate syrup, and whipped cream — but the brownie had the flavor and texture of a freshly unwrapped convenience store cookie, and there wasn’t enough other stuff to lighten the mood. The chocolate raspberry cake had that same quality, although the blackberries that accompanied it were sweet and juicy. Happily there was really good cheesecake on the menu as well: light and fluffy with a nice, tart, citrusy afterbite and more of those fresh, plump berries alongside.
The wine list is brief and to the point, and draft beers include Cloverdale’s Downtown Brown and Berkeley’s Trumer Pilsner as well as a revolving selection of seasonal brews. And the bar shakes up an inventive selection of cocktails: the Red Star, a bracing combo of crushed strawberries, fresh mint, and Belvedere vodka; the Valen-tini, housemade lemonade juiced with raspberry- and mandarin-infused vodka from Alameda’s Hangar One distillery; and the Rosie Rita, tequila sweetened with triple sec, orange juice, cranberry juice, and a touch of lime.
Vegetarians won’t find a whole lot of choices, but there are enough options to assemble a serviceable meal. Start with garlic or sweet potato fries and one of three salads: Greek with feta and olives; field greens with tomato, cucumber, and blue cheese; or couscous with fennel, zucchini, goat cheese, and a harissa-laced vinaigrette. Entrées include a (potentially meatless) pasta of the day as well as two pizzas: the Apple Bleu and a pesto margherita with tomato, basil, and mozzarella. Or opt for one of the house burgers and replace the beef with a gardenburger at no extra charge.
Boilerhouse offers several special deals throughout the week. On Mondays there’s a $10 Italian buffet from 6-8 p.m. Board Game Night happens every Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday from 2-10 p.m. An economical senior/early-bird dinner menu is offered weekdays from 3-6 p.m., same time as happy hour. On Fridays from 5-10 p.m. there’s prime rib for only $15. A $20 brunch buffet is laid out Sundays from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. ($30 if you want all-you-can-guzzle champagne and mimosas, too). And if you’re in the mood for live entertainment, the Craneway next door generally has something cooking on Friday nights. Any time of the week, though, it’s nice to conclude a snack or meal or cocktail with a stroll down the pier and along the water, belly satisfied, islands and city posing in the distance, bay lapping the now-quiet wharf.