Merced, Calif., is getting a second Roaring ’20s as Bay Area travelers head east

Sold By DiTullio co-founder Giancarlo was quoted in SF Gate’s article back in June 2022
Merced California is attracting Bay Area Travelers!

By Ruth Carlson.

It was the Roaring ’20s, and thanks to the new Model T, road-tripping across California had become all the rage.

The Central Valley farm town of Merced, California — initially a rail town — embraced the modern motion, taking advantage of its location by building state Route 140. Signs at each entrance into town read, “Merced: Gateway to Yosemite,” and Bay Area-based architects built sleek Art Deco hotels on the main drag in a reflection of San Francisco’s downtown.

Fast-forward to the 2020s, and Merced is once again drawing Bay Area visitors, this time to its walkable downtown, which includes a quirky main street where a sisterly nun could hand you a joint along with some self-help guidance.

Some who visit Merced are even making it a permanent vacation by moving there — lured by the town’s upward swing and fertile potential. The Gold Rush lured fortune hunters to San Francisco, and today, Merced attracts investors with its tourism boom, housing affordability and the fastest-growing public research university in the nation.

Quentin Garcia, 28, traded Napa wine country for the San Joaquin Valley. He’s the executive chef behind Rainbird, a fine dining restaurant within Merced’s El Capitan Hotel. The restaurant, which debuted last year, capitalizes on its abundant agricultural access and plays to the city’s reputation as an unexpected destination.

Award-winning Rainbird chef Quentin Garcia's favorite place to get fresh produce is Humble Rice Farmer. He even uses the cherry blossoms in his innovative cuisine.

Award-winning Rainbird chef Quentin Garcia’s favorite place to get fresh produce is Humble Rice Farmer. He even uses the cherry blossoms in his innovative cuisine.

Ruth Carlson/Special to SFGATE

“This city is exploding,” he said, noting the area’s affordability compared with Napa. “Merced is like a diamond for a businessperson and a homeowner in California.”

Everything old is new again

Historic buildings, restored to their original glory, are attracting new restaurants and bars to Merced’s downtown — defying a narrative often deployed for small and even large American cities. Nordstrom, the Westfield mall and Saks Off 5th all recently announced closures in San Francisco’s downtown.

“Downtowns in small agriculture cities have been dying off for years, like Madera, Tulare, Selma, Atwater, Ceres, Chowchilla and Bakersfield. Merced is the exception,” said Kim Garner, who moved from Oakland and is now the director of impact for El Capitan Hotel.

Designed by architect Edward T. Foulkes, whose resume includes the grand Oakland Tribune office tower in downtown Oakland, El Capitan was a favorite in the 1920s of Mary Pickford, America’s sweetheart of the silent film era, and her husband, Douglas Fairbanks. Originally built in 1872, El Capitan was scooped up by the Austin-based hotel group New Waterloo this year.

Similar to Rainbird, the hotel’s Mainzer Theater is helping to center Merced as a cultural beacon, drawing crowds for a popular drag show on the second Thursday of each month. The hotel has the best art collection in town, said Garner, including antique Hmong textiles. Audiophiles can book the hotel’s Drawing Room, which has a record player and plenty of vinyl golden oldies.

Still the tallest building in Merced, the Tioga Hotel, left, features a wall of photos in its lobby depicting famous visitors, including Gary Cooper and Marilyn Monroe, who rented a suite there for years. At right, a view of the Mainzer Theater in downtown Merced. 

Still the tallest building in Merced, the Tioga Hotel, left, features a wall of photos in its lobby depicting famous visitors, including Gary Cooper and Marilyn Monroe, who rented a suite there for years. At right, a view of the Mainzer Theater in downtown Merced. 

Ruth Carlson/Special to SFGATE

Next door to El Capitan is the Tioga Hotel, another downtown touchstone, which was the brainchild of San Francisco’s Ralph McLeran, a 20th-century architect, who also left his mark on San Francisco’s downtown. Home to the city’s first neon sign, which still shines today, the Tioga continues to reign as the tallest building in Merced.

No longer accepting reservations, the Tioga is now an upscale apartment building with a wait list for open units. Its lobby harks back to a glamorous past with photos of famous visitors, like Marilyn Monroe, who reserved a suite there for years.

The Merced courthouse, designed by architect Albert Bennett, who also created the stately Mining and Mechanic Arts Building on Berkeley’s campus, was once the site of many an elopement, perhaps by men who got “zozzled” (or drunk) and unwisely purchased a “manacle” (a wedding ring) to propose with. The former courthouse has been transformed into the Merced County Courthouse Museum and proudly displays the oldest surviving complete Taoist temple in the country.

Back in the day, well-heeled travelers shopped for flapper dresses at the White House, an outpost of San Francisco’s first department store. Today’s shopping is a little different. Merced has a “killer antique and thrift scene,” according to Giancarlo DiTullio, a San Francisco native who relocated to Merced when he lost his restaurant job during the pandemic.

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Views of downtown Merced. (Images via Getty)

Bay Area buyers will be thrilled by the low prices at shops like Modern Living, which specializes in midcentury furniture, and the Merced Antique Mall, a cavernous space filled with unique finds such as art deco lamps, collectible glassware and hats from former San Francisco store I. Magnin.

A lesson in downtown rejuvenation

The driving force behind the rebirth of Merced’s downtown began in 2005 with the founding of the University of California, Merced. It has the most diverse UC student body in the state, according to Vice Chancellor Ed Klotzbier. The city lobbied relentlessly to recruit the university, and then UC Merced built a downtown campus to engage with the community, hiring local employees and holding classes and a popular speaker series. Talks on the study of side-blotched lizards and food innovation, for example, have sold out.

“From the beginning, the relationship between the college and the community has been productive and robust,” says Matthew Serratto, Merced’s mayor. “We are fortunate to have the nation’s first research institution of the 21st century with a stellar, diverse, and innovative administration and teaching staff.”

The 9,000-member student body is expected to grow to 15,000 in the next few years, according to Klotzbier. “We’re a startup,” he said, adding that students’ parents often decide to move to Merced after visiting their children at the university. One former student who now works at UC Merced said students there don’t protest; if they have a problem, they bring cookies to their professors and administrators and talk out the issues.

Some San Francisco leaders are discussing how a university presence can revitalize the desolate financial district, and they might do well to study Merced. The city held fundraisers and directed a letter-writing campaign to the University of California Board of Regents, soliciting notes from everyone from local leaders to school children. The university then used that same letter-writing tactic to bring in Michelle Obama as its first commencement speaker.

Economics was the driving force behind the campaign, according to Grey Roberts, a member of the university committee. “We were competing against Fresno and Madera, and one reason we were successful was that Smith Ranch donated 7,000 acres,” Roberts said. The gift is still giving. “Just look at how the community has grown,” Klotzbier said. UC Merced is the city’s second-largest employer, after the county. Faculty and staff moved into the city, which he calls “the heart of California.” “You can live in Merced and explore the whole state,” Klotzbier said. “It’s a base camp close to the Bay Area.”

Another draw for the Merced move is the proximity to farms. That was a hook for Garcia, who now sees Bay Area residents traveling to Merced just to experience his four-course chef dinner paired with wine at Rainbird.

In another bit of synchronicity, often the produce for these meals comes from Humble Rice Farmer, whose owner, Lena Xiong-Perez, relocated from San Jose to Merced to continue the family business and escape the Bay Area bustle. “Life is much slower here,” she said. “I can actually come home and smell the flowers.”

It’s best to visit the farms in the fall and spring, when the wildflowers are in bloom and waterfalls are flowing in Yosemite, not the summer months, when the average temperature can reach the 90s during the day, with a balmy 70 degrees at night.

Another restaurant, Bella Luna was recently purchased by DiTullio and his wife, Anaid Martinez-DiTullio. This 100-year-old establishment has red brick walls, family recipes and even a ghost. During prohibition, lore has it the unpopular owner Don Hill was murdered. So far, he’s been a friendly spirit to the new owners … merely rearranging the table settings in the middle of the night.

“I’d never heard of Merced before, but there is a lot of opportunity and growth; big investors redid the Mainzer, the Tioga and El Capitan hotel,” DiTullio said of their decision to relocate when COVID-19 closed down San Francisco. “We saw all three properties open and how they transformed the downtown. The growth has been exponential in the  last two years.”

Like any city, there is a dark side to Merced. A statue of Steven Stayner and Timothy White called “Coming Home” resides in Applegate Park. In 1980, 7-year-old Stayner was kidnapped and abused for seven years until his abductor nabbed another child, 5-year-old Timothy White. Stayner escaped with White to a police station.

In a bizarre twist, Stayner’s older brother Cary was convicted of a high-profile set of murders in 1999. The serial killer, who found his victims in an El Portal motel, is on death row in San Quentin.

Merced Mayor Matthew Serratto admits the murder rate is slightly above the national average for a city of this size (approximately 90,000) and noted that Merced just obtained a state grant to hire experts on violence prevention. He says law enforcement believes much of the crime in Merced is gang-on-gang violence.

Restaurateur DiTullio says he and his wife feel safe walking around downtown and North Merced at night.

“More people are moving here,” he said. “More homes are being built, and we’re steering toward a better Merced.”


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