Rolling up to it, the flickering old neon sign looked like it came straight out of 1952. Walking in, I felt like I was in a Scorsese film. Seriously. It was like time capsule where you have a big dining area, some old décor and well, pretty much a mixture of old charm ambiance and glossy-pink and baby-blue cake frosting painted walls.
I think the bar is the only reason why this place is still open. There are always a handful of locals in here, which accounts for about 75% of the Alviso population. If you read all the reviews, you’ll find they all say the exact same thing. But depending on the kind of person you are, it will either be a 1-star or a 5-star. For me, a 5-star.
Truthfully, the reviews on Yelp are where I stole everything I wrote above (including the title) from five different reviewers. Call me a plagiarist. The reviews and the retro building have intrigued me for so long that Vahl’s has been on our Bike Date Friday bucket list since I worked in Palo Alto, about 12 miles north on the Bay Trail.
After I moved to my new job just six mile south on the Guadalupe River Trail, it moved up on the list. But it took an upcoming 10 month closure to pave the trail to get us down there last Friday. It was well worth the sketchy gravel ride on our touring bikes with overfilled tires. Why did we fill them to 90+ psi?
Along the way to Alviso we crossed the river to see the James Lick Mill and Mansion. Built in 1855, when there were few settlers in the area, it’s now surrounded by suburbia, smack dab in the middle of an apartment complex. I correct myself, a luxury gated apartment community. Since we arrived just past the official 9am-6pm visiting hours, a helpful resident let us through the gate to see the mansion and the mill.
The story of James Lick has the makings of a Gabriel García Márquez novel: an unplanned pregnancy, a father refusing his daughter’s hand to a man of no means, the young man escaping to Argentina, Peru and then San Francisco to make his fortune in a lifelong battle to win his bride. Monetary success, romantic failure, and a legacy that lives today. I can’t do the story justice here. I encourage you to read about his amazing life.
Fast forward a few miles and a century later and we’re at Vahl’s in Alviso drinking Manhattans and eating what was considered upscale Italian in the 1950s in a dining room of mixed vintage–none of it currently in fashion. Meanwhile, the real soul of Vahl’s is carrying on in the bar, where a packed house of 80-somethings were belting out the hits of another generation, karaoke style, and shuffling along cheek to cheek.
“Anything that’s older than my parents has longevity for a reason,” one of the Yelp reviewers wrote. How true. Another wrote: “The fact that a place like Vahl’s still exists and is not overrun with people under the age of 30 is empirical evidence that Hipsters do not exist in the South Bay.” I don’t think that’s true, they just haven’t followed the Guadalupe River down to Alviso yet. I’m hoping the hipsters don’t find Vahl’s before we make it back there.
Is there a place near you that’s stuck in a time warp? Would you be sad if it went away–or worse, remodeled?
About Bike Date Friday: Since September 2010, my husband and I have had a standing date every Friday night. We eat at a different place every week and arrive by bike. There’s no better way to end the work week.