Let's take a moment to applaud the military-industrial complex for being so resistant to change. Without its stubborn ways, demolition crews would have bulldozed Alameda's small-town charm decades ago. Instead, just over a dozen years after the Naval Air Station Alameda shut its doors, the town still has a vibrant Main Street (even if it's called Park Street) full of little surprises.
Most cities can't maintain an independent video store with Blockbuster looming, but Alameda boasts three on Park Street alone, most notably BlueRectangle (1355 Park St., 510-337-0750). More than just an "Eff-You!" to Blockbuster, BlueRectangle offers VHS, DVDs, CDs, books, video games, and even a rack of secondhand evening gowns. Old TVs fill the front display windows, broadcasting black-and-white movies while inside moms ferry kids around, weaving their way to a small box filled with free children's books. You won't find shelves of Michael Mann drivel, but you might just discover your high-school soundtrack — Will Smith's Big Willie Style maybe?
Down the street at Churchward Pub (1515 Park St, 510-521-4800), you're more likely to hear Southern rock — at least during weekday happy hours. (On weekend nights, the local bar turns into a dance club.) A large, proudly worn L-shaped bar dominates the deep-brown room, and the beer and whisky help keep the stools filled.
Around dinnertime, most patrons will run next door and bring back tacos and burritos, but it's also worth a trip across the street to Havana (1518 Park St., 510-521-0130, HavanaRestaurant.net), a cool-blue restaurant with Cuban flair. Aside from a dangerous mojito, the menu tempts with Cuban sandwiches, ceviche, and plantain-crusted halibut.
From the bounties of the waters to the waters themselves, Robert W. Crown Memorial State Beach (Eight St. and Otis Dr., 510-521-7090, EBParks.org) has picnic tables, horseshoe pits, a freshwater lake, and bike trails. However, the real gem is the thin stretch of beach that almost disappears during high tide. When the water recedes, the sand, full of clamshells, stays soft and wet, making it the best place in the city for a sunset stroll.
After the sun dips behind San Francisco, the lanes light up just a few steps from the beach at AMF Bowling Center (300 Park St., 510-523-6767, AMF.com). Insiders know that Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday are $1 nights and the best time to score a couple of beers, hot dogs, and a lane for the night.
Of course, that still leaves the rest of the weeknights vacant. Luckily, there are waffles. Ole's Waffle Shop (1507 Park St., 510-522-8108), to be exact. The old-school diner has the usual selection of burgers, pork chops, and tuna melts, but breakfast stands out. The eggs are runny, the waffles crisp and fluffy, and the coffee comes in a ceramic mug, making it a perfect way to end the day in Small Town, USA.
Don't miss: For a quiet distraction, head down to the Alameda-Oakland Ferry (2990 Main St., 510-749-5972, EastBayFerry.com) and take a short trail to the right of the ferry to a hidden bench that provides the perfect spot for watching the ships lazily drift by. ... To get an up-close view of a ship, tour the USS Hornet (707 W Hornet Ave., 510-521-8448, USS-Hornet.org), a decommissioned aircraft carrier full of Navy exhibits and interactive programs. ... Let the flippers fly at Lucky Ju Ju Pinball (1510 Webster St., 510-769-1349, UJuJu.com), where a flat fee lets you play more than forty classic pinball machines, most dating back to the 1950s and 1960s.