Here’s how to explore Treasure Island right now – before it’s developed
Like so many Bay Area residents, Michael Hennahane hadn’t given much thought to Treasure Island.
In the first 20 years he lived in San Francisco, Hennahane had never even set foot on the 400-acre flat slab of land anchored in the waters between San Francisco and Oakland. All the while – including countless hikes across the Bay Bridge – the site, in his mind, was “nothing more than a freeway exit sign.”
That is until a friend finally convinced Hennahane to visit him. What he saw left him stunned.
âI was so blown away,â he recalls. âHere is this very rich place right under our noses and yet so little known. Every time I returned I found something new, unique, strange and interesting.
Flash-forward, and Hennahane is now president of the Treasure Island Museum, the entity dedicated to the preservation of the history of the island. And what a fascinating story there is to preserve.
Created from a landfill in 1936 and sharing the name of Robert Louis Stevenson’s legendary pirate saga, Treasure Island was host to the 1939-40 Golden Gate International Exhibition, which attracted nearly 20 million visitors from around the world. At one point the island was envisioned as a municipal airport for San Francisco, but World War II intervened and ended up serving as a US Navy station from 1942 to 1997. Since the 1980s, the gigantic hangars of The island’s planes have often housed Hollywood film and television productions.
These days, Treasure Island and its closely related neighbor, Yerba Buena Island, are home to just under 2,000 San Francisco residents living in rental housing. But a massive $ 6 billion redevelopment plan currently underway will eventually bring 8,000 new homes, as well as three hotels, restaurants, parks, a new ferry terminal and upscale retailers.
All of this leaves Treasure Island currently in a kind of limbo – or “awesome in-between”, as Linda Edson, owner of the popular island CafÃ© d’AracÃ©ly, describes it.
Indeed, historic mid-century buildings and the remains of the exhibit share the turf with construction sites that portend intriguing changes to come. But a drive along the uncrowded country roads also reveals views that, quite frankly, resemble something out of a zombie apocalypse movie, as dilapidated and abandoned buildings mix with piles of mountainous rubble.
And the pandemic certainly hasn’t helped. Some retailers who were here just over a year ago chose to go out of business when faced with economic challenges that were too difficult to overcome.
âTo be honest, Treasure Island is a bit dying right now,â admits Hennahane. “But I think things will open up as the development progresses.”
That’s not to say that there aren’t things to do and places to see while Treasure Island gets its dramatic facelift. An exhilarating bike (or car) ride to Bay Bridge might be all you need to spend a few hours away from the hustle and bustle of the city.
Incentives? Start with the broad lines of sight.
âIf you want to enjoy the most spectacular views in San Francisco, you have to come here,â says MeeSun Boice, the ultra charming co-owner of Mersea Restaurant. “Where can you see the Bay Bridge to the city, the Bay Bridge to Oakland, Angel Island and the Golden Gate Bridge?” And on a clear day, you can actually see the windows of Alcatraz buildings.
Indeed, the scenery is so alluring that you’ll often find tourists perched along the rocky west coast of Treasure Island taking Instagram-ready selfies or dreamy-eyed newlyweds posing for their wedding photos.
Mersea, located a few steps from the water’s edge, capitalizes on this open landscape while releasing a playful atmosphere. Made from 13 metal shipping containers, it is imaginatively outfitted with salvaged and recycled items.
Cooking, for example, is done in a modified ârapid deploymentâ military kitchen that was designed to be dropped in the middle of the Afghan desert and serve 2,400 meals a day to starving troops. And some of the tables have been topped with wooden lanes from what was once the naval base’s bowling alley. (No gutter balls, please).
This playful character extends to Mersea’s outdoor seating area, which features pÃ©tanque courts and a putting green and is decorated with luscious gardens. As for the food, Boice, who partnered with Chef Parke Ulrich for the restaurant, describes it as “cozy and laid back”. Guests munch on double-decker cheeseburgers, crispy tacos, or divine bowls of fish chowder while listening to live music – and gazing at the San Francisco skyline, of course.
Said Boice, looking like the biggest cheerleader on Treasure Island, “When you want to meet friends, but your East Bay friends don’t want to go to town, and town people don’t want to go too. away is where you can meet and socialize.Enjoy the view and have fun with each other.
Located closer to the heart of the island is Edson’s Cafe Aracely, which offers a quiet and relaxing space including a large patio and garden with an outdoor fireplace, lounge seating, and string lights.
Choosing this secret spot for his stylish restaurant six years ago was a leap of faith for Edson.
âWhen we started construction, literally nothing was happening here. No food circulation. No car traffic. Nothing, âshe recalls. “But I thought, ‘If I build it, somebody will come.'”
And they come for a menu that features California-style dishes with a mix of French and Spanish influences. (The croissant French toast with cream cheese and rhubarb is to die for.) Aracely is also inviting enough to host weddings and other private events.
If you’re looking for an urban wine experience, head to Wines from Treasure Island. Housed in a converted Navy commissary, it is a collective of six brands that produces what owners call âaffordable luxury artisan winesâ in a pet-friendly environment.
The rustic and inviting setting, with its terracotta tiles, is a great place to create bottled poetry, according to Dennis Hayes, the main winemaker with Umbria.
âWe are surrounded by ice water and we have prevailing cool breezes,â he says. “So we have natural air conditioning, unlike wineries in Napa and elsewhere.”
Apparently, Treasure Island is also a great place to brew (and drink) beer. For several years, it housed the Woods Island Club, a so-called âbeer beach,â where guests could taste the foam while sinking their feet in the sand (trucked).
Sadly, the Island Club has closed due to the pandemic and access issues created by the redevelopment. But Jim Woods, co-founder and CEO of Woods Beer & Wine Co. hopes to open another sales site nearby soon. Meanwhile, the production side of the business continues to “create a storm” on Treasure Island, and its beers are served in both Aracely and Mersea.
âWe’re not going anywhere,â Woods says. âWe believe in Treasure Island for the long term. Love that it’s only 15 minutes by bus or Uber (from San Francisco), and it feels like you’re on another planet.
As Woods and others eagerly await the shimmering improvements the future will bring, Hennahane and her team work to ensure that Treasure Island’s distinctive past doesn’t get lost in all the hustle and bustle.
Their quaint museum, located in Building 1 along Palm Avenue, closed during the pandemic (and was still closed as of this writing), but continued to offer online exhibits, lectures, self-guided tours of Treasure Island and more.
And with the redevelopment comes aspiration. Fundraising is underway for a bigger and brighter facility – complete with theaters and virtual reality attractions.
“We want to be a large modern museum, rather than a repository of dusty objects,” Hennahane explains. âLike the island itself, we change over time.