It’s a stop for nightly commuters, a biker bar and a family-oriented historical highway landmark, hosting everything from car shows, weddings and baby showers, to taco Thursdays and Wednesday trivia nights.
The Mountain House Bar & Grill, situated on the same windswept, rustic plot of land that’s hosted businesses since during the Gold Rush era, serves many roles and was the first establishment in the area with “Mountain House” in its name, predating the nearby San Joaquin County community that was founded in the early 1990s.
“They stole our name,” jokes owner Josie Alvarez, who bought the business in 2004 in a short-lived partnership with a girlfriend but now runs it with her mom Sara Pina and boyfriend Claudio Rubio. The bar, ironically, is actually just outside the proposed Mountain House city limits, where voters are scheduled to decide on incorporation in March.
Alvarez’s establishment, with a Tracy address but officially in Alameda County, is the only business for miles. Located west of Tracy on West Grant Line Road at the east end of the Altamont Pass, it’s just around the corner from the site of 1969’s infamous concert at the old Altamont Speedway, as depicted in the 1970 movie about the Rolling Stones, “Gimme Shelter.”
The site of the Mountain House Bar & Grill dates to 1849, when a large, blue denim cloth tent was set up on the property as a stage stop to provide food and entertainment for passing miners. It was later a school and then a tavern and hotel called Mountain House before the original structure was torn down and replaced with a one-story building in 1880.
In 1920, the road in front of Mountain House became the Lincoln Highway, reportedly America’s first paved coast-to-coast road, stretching from New York to San Francisco. In 2008, Alvarez, along with her mother, was presented with a new Historic Lincoln Highway sign by the California chapter of the Lincoln Highway Association.
“They’ve all been called Mountain House,” Alvarez says of the businesses at that location, which at one time featured two buildings before fires destroyed most of the structures. “Whether it was a hotel, school, ice cream parlor or gas station, Mountain House was in the name. There’s a lot of good history here.”
The inside of the bar and restaurant reflects that history, from the old newspaper articles about the business embedded in the bar countertop, to the dollar bills and vintage license plates lining the ceiling and walls. An urn covered by an American flag holds the ashes of veteran Robert Eugene Rooney, Sr., a regular customer who died in 2009. The urn overlooks Rooney’s favorite spot at the bar.
Alvarez grew up in Hayward, eventually working in the real estate finance field. She bought one of the first houses in the nearby Mountain House community in 2003, she says, and used to regularly drive by the bar during her commute.
“I always thought we should check it out,” Alvarez says. “And then all of a sudden a year later, it came up for sale.”
One of the changes Alvarez made was installing a permitted kitchen about eight years ago, specializing in French dip and barbecue tri-tip sandwiches cooked by her mother. “When I first bought it, it was just a beer bar,” she says. She also set about making changes to the backyard area and the inside, which she said had been neglected during the 19 years of the previous owner.
“I think Alameda County forgot about them,” Alvarez says. “When I transferred all the permits as owner, it opened a Pandora’s Box. It’s like, ‘You don’t have floors that you can mop and disinfect; you don’t have this, you don’t have that.’ I had to put in for a conditional use permit to continue doing events.”
Because of its remoteness and access to major freeways, Mountain House has traditionally been known as a stop for motorcyclists, a complicated legacy Alvarez says she has both embraced and wanted to somewhat alter, saying she’s tried to turn it into more of an establishment for families.
“A bar in the middle of nowhere is going to attract a motorcycle rider,” Alvarez says. “I’ve always tried to change that stigma, but it’s definitely not unwelcome because we still get riders on the weekend, and we still get clubs that have their annual anniversaries here. We have a lot of regulars, but we’re a huge commuter bypass. Everyone gets off the freeway to take Grant Line. People stop and just want to get off the road for a while.”
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