ALAMEDA -- After first opening its doors in April 1977, McGee's quickly became an Alameda institution. Located on Park Street between Buena Vista and Pacific avenues, many still find it a great place to meet after an adult softball game, or given the number of TVs on the premises, to join with family and friends to watch major sporting events.
And the food wasn't bad, either. Many especially bragged about the fried chicken. However, times change. And McGee's has changed with them. On Feb. 28, McGee's Bar and Grill closed, only to reopen March 7 as McGee's Black Skillet Grill.
"The menu had been the same since 1977, and it was time for a change; people are eating differently" said Tim Goodman, McGee's general manager. "We've got new chefs and new menus, a different style of food. New people came in and leased out the kitchen."
McGee's patrons, for instance, now can enjoy steamed mussels. Or burrata bruschetta, another first for the restaurant. But changes extend beyond the food, as regular patrons will notice before even looking at the menu.
"We redid the floors, redid the bathrooms and brought in new furniture (wood replacing plastic)," Goodman said. "It's still McGee's, but as I say to people, it's McGee's-plus now."
As before, customers could eat outdoors in the back patio. Only now, that area has an awning, and a television has been added so customers can enjoy fresh air and their favorite sporting events. As McGee's Bar and Grill, customers would place and their orders and get called to the counter when their food was ready. Customers of McGee's Black Skillet Grill still will place their orders cafeteria-style at the counter but have the food delivered to their tables when ready.
Though changes have come to the menu and the facility, people will find an atmosphere they have long enjoyed. McGee's still has plenty of flat-screen TVs. And as always, the sports photos that hang on the restaurant walls are a McGee's staple, serving as a tribute to past greats. Among them are classic black-and-white shots of Willie Mays swinging the bat and hockey's Bobby Orr flying through the air while celebrating a goal in the 1970 Stanley Cup finals. But as a restaurant, the focus goes back to the food.
"Before, about 50 percent of our menu was deep-fried," Goodman said. "But now it's a lot different than it has been before."
McGee's owners John and Linda Costello now lease the kitchen to classically trained chefs Ian Libberton (a culinary school graduate) and Paul Diego (apprenticeship), who boast more than a combined half-century of culinary experience.
"Everything's fresh," said Libberton, whose 24-year career has taken him to kitchens in Los Angeles, San Diego, Sacramento and twice to San Francisco, where he most recently worked at the Grand Hyatt. "We smoke our own meats -- our own briskets and pork shoulder for our sandwiches."
Fellow chef and business partner Diego boasts his own impressive resume. Originally from Minnesota, Diego also is a second-time Bay Area resident, whose career has taken him to Hawaii and Florida, too. During his time in the Sunshine State, Diego and a friend earned a five-star rating for their restaurant.
"What we're not doing here is reinventing the wheel," said Diego, who has known Libberton for 15 years and has worked with him for five. "What we're doing here is better than whatever everybody else is doing."
McGee's Black Skillet Grill aims to serve a more health-conscious clientele -- "our ground beef is Niman Ranch ground beef," Libberton proudly said. "No antibiotics, no hormones" -- but the changes have not occurred without plenty of thought.
"This is a longtime well-established place," Libberton said. "It's kid- and family-friendly. That differentiates it from other bar-and-grills."
Overall, McGee's Black Skillet Grill blends the old and new. As for the past 36 years, customers still swear by the restaurant as a gathering place for post-softball meals, or to catch perhaps a baseball game on TV. And with baseball's pennant races heating up, the start of football and U.S. Open tennis, McGee's should have a steady stream of customers walking through the door in the weeks ahead. Still, Goodman and company have a higher aim.
"We want the restaurant to be food-driven rather than TV-driven," he said.
That is, to give folks another reason to come inside.
"Hopefully, we're better now," Goodman added. "Using a quote from one of our softball players, 'Now the wives look forward to coming here, too.' "