Steakhouse Chef Named 'Mayor of Mankas Corner'
FAIRFIELD — In a little more than a year since he arrived at Mankas Steakhouse, chef and owner Peter Halikas has become very popular in the tightly knit Suisun Valley Community.
In a brief ceremony Friday evening, Halikas was named honorary mayor of Mankas Corner, and awarded the ceremonial medallion by Fairfield Mayor Harry Price.
“It entails me promoting and representing the Corner and the Valley as a whole,” Halikas said as he switched between running the restaurant and enjoying a reception on the patio. “Talking about it and getting out there and letting people know about the amazing things going on in Suisun Valley, the amazing things going on in Fairfield. All the things that are going on and really being an ambassador for this area.”
SUISUN VALLEY — Christley Manka left the gold rush mines to run a general merchandise store in Suisun Valley that became a favorite place for 19th century farmers to come and play cards.
Solano County today has plans for Mankas Corner – the possessive apostrophe is missing from the maps – that go far beyond being a pioneer era-flavored meeting place. It sees the corner as becoming an outpost on the edge of world-famous Sonoma and Napa Wine Country.
Mankas Corner can be the “Sonoma Square” of Suisun Valley, according to the county’s 2011 Suisun Valley Strategic Plan. It can be the “cultural heart” of the rural valley, it said.
The corner at Mankas Corner and Clayton roads has a wine tasting room, steak restaurant, furniture store, antique store and, in a former gas station, the Clay Station art co-op. All of this is an embryonic form of what is described in the Suisun Valley Strategic Plan, a step toward realizing a grander vision.
Vezer family helps shape Mankas Corner
Frank Vezer is a Mankas Corner mover-and-shaker. He bought several of the buildings there starting in 2006, including the ones that now house the wine tasting room and steak restaurant.
His family intended to move to the Napa Valley in 1989, but took the back roads to Interstate 80, saw Suisun Valley and decided to move there instead. Over time, Vezer wanted to sell the wine that came from the Vezer Family Vineyard. He noted the small commercial center of Mankas Corner was nearby.
“We saw what the potential was,” Vezer said.
Vezer on a recent day demonstrated how his Suisun Valley vision mixes the rustic Suisun Valley of old with some Wine Country elegance.
The 1860 stagecoach master’s house at Mankas Corner remains intact, with a plaque outside describing its history and towering pecan trees nearby that must date back to Manka’s day. Inside, the building looks like a wine tasting room that could be found at an upscale Napa winery.
The adjacent restaurant building received $800,000 in renovations about a year ago, Vezer said. It is now the Mankas Steakhouse, run by Peter Halikas and Tim Gill.
Halikas is a former owner and chef of N.V. Restaurant and Lounge in Napa and worked at such restaurants as Gary Danko in San Francisco and Brix, Dean and Deluca, and Domaine Chandon in Napa Valley. Gill worked at Brix, Meadowood, Auberge du Soleil and Domaine Chandon in Napa Valley.
Despite his Napa Valley culinary roots, Halikas in late February talked with enthusiasm about Suisun Valley. He talked about using local produce for the restaurant, ranging from chard to kale to radishes to beets to tomatoes to quinoa.
“You wouldn’t believe what’s being grown in the valley,” he said.
Plus, the restaurant features Suisun Valley wines.
Vezer, like Manka, worked in the mining industry and he headquarters his various business ventures at Mankas Corner. He described how he initially encountered some resistance to his ideas for Suisun Valley.
“There was a fear we wanted to turn this into Napa,” Vezer said.
Even Napa Valley itself has had similar tensions, with some saying that too much Wine Country sizzle turns the valley into a kind of Disneyland agricultural area. Recent Napa battles have centered over whether wineries should be allowed to have weddings and other social events. Some people want farming and agricultural preservation to be front-and-center.
Vezer said he wants to maintain the Suisun Valley’s flavor and history, to preserve its century-old Victorian homes and old water towers. He talked about how his family renovated a pioneer-era home on Suisun Valley Road and turned it into the Blue Victorian Winery.
He’s not looking to have monstrous Tuscany wineries that look out of place in the valley, he said.
He praised the county’s 2008 General Plan update and the vision it stakes out for promoting agritourism in Suisun Valley.
The Mankas Corner of the future
Vezer looked at fields near his wine tasting room and restaurant and said this might someday be a good site for a hotel. He mentioned something along the lines of Benbow, a historic North Coast hotel along the Eel River.
Or perhaps one of his own Mankas Corner buildings could become a 16-room hotel or microbrewery or miniature version of the Vintage 1870 – now called the V Marketplace – in Yountville, Vezer said.
A limiting factor at Mankas Corner described in the county’s 2011 Suisun Valley plan is the lack of sewer service and the limited capacity of a water pipeline.
“If these infrastructure challenges are overcome, Mankas Corner would be an ideal location for additional economic activity,” the plan said.
Providing such infrastructure in rural places has long been a controversial issue in Solano County. Some have worried that having limited city-like water and sewer service could ultimately lead to large-scale, city-like development.
The Suisun Valley Strategic Plan says that Fairfield is one possible water source for valley commercial areas. For sewage, it recommends businesses use either septic systems or package sewage treatment plants, as opposed to extending a city system to a location such as Mankas Corner.
Making road improvements is another challenge. Solano County Engineering Manager Matt Tuggle said once-sleepy Mankas Corner has become a busy place on weekends, with parked cars lining the narrow streets at times.
Solano County’s Suisun Valley Strategic Plan calls for widening the roads at Mankas Corner to accommodate new shoulders and trees. Crosswalks and a decomposed gravel pedestrian pathway would be added. Money to get started is to come from the One Bay Area Priority Conservation Area grant program.
Rolling with the changes
Mankas Corner as envisioned by the county is a place in transition. One business wants to make certain the new Mankas Corner has room for it.
John Crossley owns John’s Hauling. His business sells used furniture, clothes, tools and other items, everything from gum machines to old barber chairs. It does hauling and junk removal.
But John’s Hauling also goes by the name of Suisun Antiques and Collectibles. Crossley said the county wanted a name that’s a little more “wine-country friendly.”
He chose Mankas Corner for the location of his business about eight years ago – before the county came up with its valley agritourism vision – and leases a building. People were stealing items from his previous Fairfield location, he said.
“I did a job out on Mankas Corner and had forgotten how pretty it was,” Crossley said. “I thought this would be great, just to keep my equipment out there so it’s protected.”
As things turned out, the entire business ended up relocating.
Crossley talked about the rusty, old tractors that are decorative touches in front of his shop.
“These are the very tractors that tilled the land and worked the land out there,” Crossley said.
“That’s part of the reason I came out here. I love it.”
He talked about the weather as a Mankas Corner strong point. About a mile away, the wind can be so strong, it will blow your hat off. Mankas Corner is sheltered and has only a breeze, he said.
“It’s just perfect out there all the time,” Crossley said.
Manka’s influence still felt
Mankas Corner has long been a Suisun Valley commercial center. Christley Manka and others saw its potential in Solano County’s pioneer days. Such works as J.P. Munro Fraser’s 1879 “History of Solano County” and “A History of Suisun Lodge No 55, Free and Accepted Masons” tell his story.
Manka was born in Virginia and crossed the Great Plains to California in 1849. Hoping to strike it rich during the gold rush, he went to the mines near Yuba Creek.
In about 1852, he came to Solano County and ended up owning 100 acres in Suisun Valley. Agriculture had just begun to take off in the valley. Nearby cities Fairfield and Suisun City had a combined population of a few hundred people.
Manka became a partner with John W. Barton, a Vermont native who had started a general merchandise store in Suisun Valley. Barton’s Store became the Barton and Manka store.
In 1859, Barton moved to Fairfield, where he started Barton’s Hotel. Manka stayed with the Suisun Valley business at the rural crossroads that now bear his name. The area’s economic activity benefited from a stagecoach that stopped there twice a day.
Local farmers went to Mankas Corner to play cards at the tavern and store. They left their horses at a hitching rack, the late historian Ernest Wichels wrote.
Manka died in 1888. His business passed on to other hands, with boxing matches taking place there in the early 1900s. A post office came and went.
The hitching rack has been replaced by parking spaces, but Mankas Corner is still going strong. And Christley Manka’s name lives on at the valley commercial center he spent more than three decades helping to build.
Reach Barry Eberling at 427-6929 or firstname.lastname@example.org