Pacifica is known for the bounties nature has bestowed upon its elegantly rugged coastline. It is also known for having a Taco Bell located directly upon one of its faultless beaches.
What if I were to say that in the East Bay we have a comparable experience but one that doesn’t cause you to spiral into a deep existential crisis about how the ravages of colonialism and capitalism have marred the face of the earth and alienated us from nature as you wait for your $1.99 Enchrito® to arrive.
I mean, you can and should have a meltdown about that at any and every location within the United States, this place included, but it’s a little less in your face because, well, you gotta admit a Taco Bell on the beach, beautifully designed or not, makes you feel like we are all doomed. Instead, let me offer you this: a Chevys in one of the most romantic and unusual locations in the Bay Area, a spot so beautiful and rare that hell, even if you aren’t a fan of Chevys you should at least sit there with a drink or two.
Yes, the Emeryville Chevys, or “Chevys by the Sea” as it’s been dubbed by KQED, might be among the best spots in the East Bay to grab a drink, people-watch and bask in the glories of a sunset by the water.
A Bay Area Founded Restaurant Chain
Chevys is itself a product of the Bay Area, founded in Alameda in 1981 by Warren Simmons. Simmons also founded Tia Maria’s who had a location on the tip of Emeryville’s man-made peninsula (current site of Hong Kong East Ocean).
Chevys gradually blossomed into 37 restaurants before being acquired by PepsiCo in 1993 who drove the chain into bankruptcy in 2003. After years of various corporate boardroom witchcraft which I will not feign to understand, we now are left with a mere 22 locations. Despite this retraction, Chevys tenaciously holds on and plans for a location on the Las Vegas strip were announced earlier this year.
The Wondrous “El Machino”
What set Chevys apart from the hordes of 90’s chain restaurants were these two factors: the food was fresh and made from scratch and each location employed an ‘El Machino’ tortilla machine. El Machino was a wondrous mechanical beast that continuously pumped out hot, fresh tortillas for both the patron’s entertainment and stomachs.
Unfortunately due to all the mergers and sergers and whatever things businessmen pick up from the Malleus Maleficarum, El Machino is no more, and the angels above wept bitterly at the loss of the enigmatic tortilla assembly line dream machine.
The Emeryville location is the busiest out of all of the remaining restaurants, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s stunning. Not only is this Chevys right on the water with a sweet little pier attached to it, everything is right up close and personal to Artist Tyler Hoare’s Peanuts-inspired aquatic sculptures, the closest being the Red Baron fleeing Snoopy’s pursuit. It’s pretty much a cute as hell summation of those rarefied charms that makes the Bay Area the Bay Area, all in one spot.
For historical context, the Emeryville location opened in 1999 in what was previously the location of a Charlie Browns Fresh Grill (another bankrupt food chain with a handful of remaining locations).
The Emeryville location was described as “their largest” at the time it was approved by Chevys Chief Development officer Bill Shraeder in the above 1999 Emeryville Planning Commission recording.
Date Night Test
In order to test out my theory that this restaurant is one of the “most romantic” and special parts of the Bay Area, I had to go on a date. Luckily for me, I have a wife, so that was easy to finagle. Excited and wearing some of our cutest outfits for the hell of it, we arrived at the Emeryville Chevys during the last moments of the golden hour in the hopes to experience the ultimate in romance: sunset by the sea.
Despite hoping to sit on the patio for to indulge in extreme maritime luxury, we were informed that it was closed. We instead asked to sit directly by the windows, where we resided for the next three hours due to a combination of the Monday Night Football crowd and severe understaffing. From this vantage point we surveyed the ruins of an empire. If you see the bonkers lighting fixture with its dorky yet modernly sleek late 90’s Bay Area je ne sais quoi, it will instantly transport you to the days when oxygen bars were king, the panini was a status symbol, and the baby from Ally McBeal was lurking everywhere ever dancing without pause, without rest, like a sufi dervish desperate to make divine contact with god.
The word that came up the most that night was simulacra. Umberto Eco would have felt proud hearing us. But, it is not just a mere simulacra, it is a simulacra come true unintentionally due to years of neglect. The sassy Tex-Mex take on shabby chic, with displays of stacked up dilapidated antique farm equipment, posters of Mexican films from the 1950’s and 60’s, and lots of bronze and copper, had acquired real wear and tarnish.
The scale of the decor, along with the openness of the restaurant, is enjoyable on its own and creates a contagiously pleasant ambiance that makes it a joy to be there. My favorite part was the precariously dangling scythe located right above a booth that I cannot tell if it’s there due to decay, mistake, or perhaps a sort of memento mori. Eat fresh ye sinners, hell’s only half full. The building itself is absolutely gorgeous and built to showcase the amazing view of the Bay with walls of huge picture windows with plenty of seating by them. The overall effect is charming and relaxing, like an eccentric aunt’s cozy beach house, and, given the sterility and cookie cutter aesthetics of gentrification, this was a blessing and a huge relief to encounter.
El Machino duties and now handled by a human being and traditional comal griddle (video: Donna Arkee).
As we sat looking out the window towards the unbelievably beautiful, truly arresting scenery, a basket of steaming hot chips and darkly sanguine bowls of their signature smoky grilled salsa arrived. I balked, fearing that the recipe had changed and what that would mean for my already fragile psyche. My wife, who has no sentimental attachments to Chevys whatsoever, immediately dug in. It was delicious, she said, noting the wonderful light airy crunch of the chips, which she likened to the texture of communion wafers, which according to her, is a compliment because she could eat a whole box of those things. I was emboldened. After the first taste of salsa, I gasped. Twenty years later and it was the same beautiful thing.
As for the food, do not expect either the best or the worst, because, as exemplified but their solid 3-star review on Yelp, it’s more of a middle of the road situation. The standouts for me were the self-proclaimed famous frozen margaritas, their signature “Cadillac” margarita, the “tableside” made guacamole, the sweet corn tamalito and honestly, anything that features their fresh homemade tortillas will be fantastic. But on the negative side, for example, my barbeque chicken chopped salad arrived heavy on the dressing and light on the lettuce. Because of how busy it was, the more entertaining aspects of the meal were understandably left out. The guacamole that is supposed to be mashed fresh table side to you arrived pre-made from the kitchen. The sizzling fajita platter that is usually served a la flambé, ordered by us to get good pictures for this essay, arrived doused.
All of this caused me to have a complete crisis of identity because I didn’t really like the food. I feel like a snob. To me, there’s nothing worse than someone who is elitist and completely dismissive of fast food and mass dining. But here I am, having a mediocre time against my will, confused as to why I am not experiencing overwhelming bliss. I came to this Chevys weary and tempest tossed by trendy Bay Area fast casual, looking for a nostalgic utopia, and instead I found compromise. Despite this, god I’d do anything to have that damn salad again right now forever everyday of my life please. I can’t stop thinking about everything I ate there (except the cheesecake I violently suppressed that memory).
Fellow diners were a majority BIPOC people and I am sure a pretty diverse crowd in terms of socio-economic status. Also everyone is so so so nice there. Unbelievably nice. Hell, even when I was running around taking photos and videos of everything and the staff clearly thought I was insane, they were so polite, attentive and kind to me despite how slammed it was and how stressed they were. Even the customers are nice! Everyone is there to have fun and eat an insane amount of food that never stops coming and it’s fabulous.
The atmosphere and vibe are just so pleasant and chill and wonderful in a way I haven’t experienced in so long that I crave it.
The atmosphere and vibe are just so pleasant and chill and wonderful in a way I haven’t experienced in so long that I crave it. With the delayed service I spent much more time there than I was expecting or wanted to, but it was the easiest and funnest wait of my life. Sometimes you want to go to a chain restaurant that through whatever terrifying psychological tactics DOES make it feel like it’s a place where everybody knows your name. Occasionally you need the warm embrace of a post Reagonomics corporate simulacra! We got socialized this way y’all it’s time to face the facts! Return to mommy Chevys!
The Legendary Patio
After our meal, my wife and I exited the dining room onto the forbidden patio, and stood there a while and talked as the dark water lapped gently upon the tiny beach, sand glowing delicately in the moonlight directly below us. Holding hands, we walked down the outdoor stairs that lead directly to the public dock, where we sat on a bench surrounded by night fisherman, unwinding after a long day by communing with the bounty of the sea. We talked more, sentences punctuated by kisses, and agreed that this was one of our most romantic excursions in quite a while.
I realized I had been missing out on a core human need, which is to have an unobstructed view of the ocean while relaxing with a frozen margarita, guacamole, and chips.
As we talked, I realized I had been missing out on a core human need, which is to have an unobstructed view of the ocean while relaxing with a frozen margarita, guacamole, and chips. If Abraham Maslow hadn’t died in 1970 and was able to go to the Chevys in Emeryville, he surely would have listed this perfect combination of sensory delights at the base of his famous pyramid, that’s how fundamentally important it is. Nothing more and nothing less as this is sheer quintessential perfection befitting the inhabitants of Xanadu. If you do this once you will never have to learn a lesson about appreciating the small things in life because you took the master course in it. Amèlie would go into a jealous rage! Truly nothing is better.
Even more, a relaxing carefree date by the sea is one of the most lovely things you can do with someone you have feelings for, whether they’re brand new and too shy to be called anything but a crush yet, or something that you’ve known to be love for quite some time. I can say without a doubt, this Chevys is one of the most romantic locations in the Bay Area. Order some treats, sit by the window or if you are lucky, the patio, and enjoy life on the Emeryville Riviera.
Hours, menu and specials at chevys.com/emeryville.
Feature Image: Chevys Fresh Mex via Trip Advisor