Dining On The Delta
in the most unassuming of locations, lives a secret you’re not sure you’ll want to share.
The Sugar Barge Bar and Grill, located at the Sugar Barge Resort and Marina, might be the best [un]kept secret in the East Bay. The restaurant has a loyalist group of diners and newbies coming in from all over Northern California to try out the foodie destination.
“Many are surprised that such elevated dining exists right here in Bethel Island, so close to the Brentwood and Oakley areas,” said Tracy Venable of Sugar Barge Bar and Grill. We’re approachable and comfortable, but also highly focused on presenting exceptional dishes and specialty cocktails.”
The whole dining experience is completely unexpected. Once you try it, you’re torn between wanting to tell everyone about the gem you discovered and keeping it hush-hush, so you know your favorite table will always be available when you visit.
Sugar Barge arguably has the best views of the delta in the region. Quite literally, it is located in the water–built on a pier system that keeps it suspended above the delta waterways. The restaurant overlooks Frank’s Tract, and guests can watch wildlife and boats go by year-around.
“The view is phenomenal,” Tracy said. “We hear people tell us often that visiting Sugar Barge makes them feel like they are actually getting away. When they drive through the gates of the resort, it feels like a vacation. It could be a tropical or lakeside retreat, but it’s right here–just minutes away from Brentwood, Oakley, and Discovery Bay.”
“It’s often overlooked how close Brentwood is to water. People forget about the delta and its beautiful waterways,”
Boat docks (as well as boat rentals) are available right at the restaurant. Diners can arrive by boat or car, creating a unique experience for all. The restaurant offers two levels of food service: the casually upscale cuisine on the main floor and lively, bar-style grub on the rooftop deck. The deck has nearly 360-degree views of the water that guests can enjoy as the delta breeze cools them off.
“It’s often overlooked how close Brentwood is to water. People forget about the delta and its beautiful waterways,” Tracy said. “They drive to Crockett or Benicia for waterfront dining, but we have gorgeous views right here in East Contra Costa County. For many in Brentwood or Oakley, we’re just a quick 10-minute drive.”
The complex at Sugar Barge includes boat rentals, boat and RV storage, docks, a boat launch ramp, and 114 RV camping sites. It includes all things delta and water recreation related.
“Green space, trees, water views, the relaxing vibe … it just feels different here. Everyone is happy. It’s truly an experience of relaxation for your soul,” Tracy said.
Owned by the Riggs Family for over 26 years, David Riggs and his sister Tracy Venable used the downtime during COVID-19 to completely remodel the main floor dining room and bar. They unveiled the renovation just a few months ago, in May 2021.
“When indoor dining was approved at 25% capacity, we reopened our doors. Guests saw an entirely new space,” Tracy explained.
“If you haven’t been here in the last three months, you haven’t seen the new Sugar Barge. From the tables and the décor to the completely revamped menu, it’s all new and fresh,” she added.
The designer-inspired look includes modern wooden tables, tasteful blue walls, wood plank accents, black and white photos from the East Contra Costa Historical Society, and a mural installation of the original Sugar Barge from the 1940s. There are small odes to the original design with mint green venting and tiny, inconspicuous coral accents.
The outside dining area still resembles its loved aesthetic with the same patio bar and stage for live music on Saturdays.
“While the space may look more refined, we want guests to know that we are still the same, down-to-earth venue,” said Daun Salter, Front of House Manager. “It’s a comfortable, casual, easygoing dining experience that welcomes families with kids as well as those going on a date night. We are a close-knit community here, where we greet everyone and remember our guests’ names.”
THE BAY AREA LEGEND, CHEF JEFF
Chef Jeff Churchill joined Sugar Barge in 2020, bringing his reputation of culinary excellence. In a previous role, he was able to rank his restaurant as a Top 125 with the National Restaurant Association, and he holds a title of winning a Northern California Chef Challenge.
“He is incredibly well known and respected, and we couldn’t be more pleased that he has joined us,” Tracy said. “He has such a loyal following, and people are thrilled he is back to the delta. We are excited for all he is bringing to Sugar Barge. He has really elevated the menu.”
Chef Jeff, with his creative culinary flare and welcoming smile, has infused new life into Sugar Barge, revamping the entire menu. From the Ahi Tuna Tower, Coconut Prawns, Panko Crusted Halibut, Crab & Shrimp Louie, Hand-breaded Calamari Steak and Guinness beer-battered fish to the Prime Rib and Barge Burger, the plates are carefully prepared to excellence.
“I like to believe my dishes are simple but effective,” Chef Jeff said.
Sugar Barge serves a seasonal menu with fresh ingredients and specials, such as the Chocolate Ganache Cheesecake he recently made using Guittard French Vanilla Dark Chocolate and cream. The dish was described by guests as being “hands-down, the best dessert they had ever tasted” and a “10 out of 10.” Chef Jeff is looking forward to expanding to breakfast in late 2021, bringing his specialty Canadian Bacon to a new dining time.
Chef Jeff has been in the restaurant industry since he was 13. While in college for restaurant management, he was mentored by a well-respected chef who encouraged him to go to culinary school. He enrolled in the brand-new California Culinary Academy and was part of its very first graduating class in 1978. Since then, he has held prestigious roles in restaurants and country clubs across the Bay Area, including Orinda, Danville, and Discovery Bay.
“Chef Jeff, with his creative culinary flare and welcoming smile, has infused new life into Sugar Barge, revamping the entire menu.”
“He is incredibly well known and respected, and we couldn’t be more pleased that he has joined us,”
THE HISTORY OF THE BARGE
The “Sugar Barge” was a former, locally famous, cargo vessel that was used to transport freight across the delta, Sacramento River, and the San Francisco Bay. Its original name was “South Shore #1, then “M.V. Mokulii.” In the late 1940s, it was primarily used by C&H Sugar to carry sugar to piers across the Bay and thus became known as “The Sugar Barge.” When the barge retired from commission, it was permanently moored (or docked) at Bethel Island. It was sold to three restauranters who turned it into a snack bar for boaters traveling through its central location. Unfortunately, the restored cargo barge didn’t withstand the elements and eventually sank. However, that portion of the land and delta waterway became permanently known as the Sugar Barge–with or without the original vessel.
In 1996, father and son, Earl and David Riggs, recreated the legendary restaurant and opened what is today the Sugar Barge Bar and Grill. The Sugar Barge Resort has now been family owned and operated for 26 years. The entire complex includes a marina, docks, boat storage, boat rentals, boat launch ramp as well as an RV Resort with a convenience store and gift shop.
The Sugar Barge Bar and Grill is open during the summer for outdoor, rooftop patio dining Friday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. The remodeled, indoor restaurant is open Thursday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday 4 p.m. to 9 p.m., and Sunday 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Both dining experiences are closed Monday through Wednesday. The restaurant is located at 1440 Sugar Barge Road in Bethel Island.
Photos By Melissa Van Ruiten