I train in Oakland under Kim Peuser, and will of course attest him being a wonderful sensei. He came up in Oakland during the 70's and early 80's, when training was said to be pretty tough here. Kayla Feder sensei was also with our dojo during those years and trained with him and everyone else around at that time; i've seen her and she has some great Aikido as well. We have some great energy going right now, with many enthusiastic students taking advantage of the full 7-day availability of classes, including mornings; you are more than welcome to come and watch and ask any questions you may have (i recommend coming in on a Mon, Wed, or Fri).
Regarding your questions about martial-ness and what not:
these are tough questions that indeed challenge (plague?) the aikido community at large.
My (simple) take is that one gets out what one puts in. To train for real effectiveness, people must simulate, to the best of their ability, real situations. The further removed from real attacks and grabs, the less likely that the training is preparing someone for a real situation, IMHO.
but, that being said, Aikido has more to offer than just being able to fend off the challenges of our testy friends who believe we are wasting our time. In particular, Aikido stands out (to me) as a system that develops a degree of self (bodily) awareness as it relates to our reactions/responses to (not just physical) conflict in our worlds. Thanks to my training, i have developed (to a degree, of course) an ability to notice when my responses/reactions to the world are manifesting themselves in the body, as in tension, stress, irregular breathing, etc. This awareness then allows me to re-center myself, and operate in the world with a certain command over myself that i wouldnt have otherwise. Perhaps one can get this from other arts, but i have dabbled in Tae Kwon Do, Karate, and Judo, and i never experienced these benefits from those arts myself.
so, all of that is to say this:
for many, running a (Aikido) dojo in modern north america involves much more than just training people to go out and be well greased fighting machines.
our community of training partners is thriving partly because we invite anyone to come and train and be able to gain something from it. If we only strictly trained in fierce, combatitive mode all the time, we probably wouldnt have such a full roll sheet with such a diverse mix of people. Although i definitley enjoy training tough with my 25-30 something male dojomates, believe me, there is something subtle but important to learn in trying to do the same techniques with a 40-50 something women who is not interested in training that same way. (please excuse my gendered examples here)
in the end:
the only way you will figure out which dojo is right for you (and, indeed, if Aikido itself is right for you), is to try it out.
ps. (plug plug) we offer a great return on monthly dues investment based on fees and training schedule, compartively.
also, as an Iwama style school (based on the teachings of the late Saito Shihan), we train extensively with the bokken and jo (wooden weapons).
good luck on your search!