By Kurt Jacobson
Exiting off of California Highway 101 heading into downtown Petaluma the town looked the same.
Even though I hadn’t been here since the 1970s, the grain towers along the Petaluma River still stood vigil over the sleepy city hiding the surprises that awaited me. Rumors had it that Petaluma was now much more than the World’s Egg Basket or the Wrist Wrestling Capital of the World.
As I pulled up to the recently-restored 1923 Hotel Petaluma on that blue-sky September day in 2017 something felt different. After checking into the hotel, I went for a walk to see the town.
My Coast Guard buddies and I used to visit occasionally while stationed nearby in Two Rock. Instead of the dive bars and tired old shops in the downtown core, I found trendy restaurants, brewpubs, fine dining, and a new theater district. This was not the town I remembered from the 1970s.
A bit of history is in order. Petaluma, chartered in 1858, has been a thriving commerce center for well over 100 years. Back in the days of the Gold Rush important supplies for the growing city of San Francisco came from Petaluma.
Location is Everything
Being well-situated on the Petaluma River where lumber, produce, and meat could be shipped quickly downriver to San Francisco proved lucrative. During the 1860s to the turn of the century, Petaluma thrived.
When the 1906 earthquake and subsequent fires all but leveled San Francisco, Petaluma survived mostly unscathed.
Thanks to solid granite bedrock under the town, the damage was slight, and Petaluma’s economic importance was heightened as the San Francisco Bay area needed their neighbor more than ever to send supplies to rebuild. The first practical chicken egg incubator was invented in 1879 by Lyman C. Byce. Afterward, Petaluma became the World’s Egg Basket enhancing its prominence.
After surviving urban renewal of the 1960s that changed so many cities in the U.S., Petaluma retained a wealth of buildings from long ago giving it a distinguished look. Two stately bank buildings still survive. The banks are reminders of when no expense was spared to show the residents “this bank plans on being here forever,” unlike banks today.
One of these banks holds a wealth of antiques for sale while another bank building holds Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, but is in the middle of a transition from selling seeds to who-knows-what?
A walk down Petaluma Boulevard rewards shoppers with almost 20 antique and vintage stores in and around this main drag.
Add to the collection of splendid old buildings the Andrew Carnegie Library. This neo-classical beauty is a museum and research library not to be missed.
The old post office on 4th Street is still in use and worth a look. Built in 1933, this Spanish Colonial Revival building adds to Petaluma’s old-school charm.
Most towns and cities are lucky to have one authentic from-scratch-bakery, but Petaluma has three within a 10-minute walk of the downtown core. My wife and I had lunch at Della Fattoria Bakery and Café. Their breads are without a doubt some of the best in all my North American travels.
I had the savory toast trio where they lavish three slices of their best breads with egg salad, bean spread, plus lox and cream cheese. Della Fattoria’s Meyer lemon rosemary bread is well-known all the way to San Francisco and beyond.
This prime loaf sells out most days before noon due to its golden brown crust and fragrant sourdough and rosemary flavor. When I returned the next day for breakfast, I was crushed to hear they had sold out of this prized loaf. I’d have to come back!
I knew a return trip would be needed to explore further a town I used to think was a boring as they get. Six months later I got my wish and set out why such significant changes have happened.
For a different mode of transportation from San Francisco International Airport, I took the Sonoma County Airport Express bus for a mere $36 right to Petaluma. How fun it was to look out the windows of the bus going over the Golden Gate Bridge while I filmed the passage on my smartphone.
Once in town, I caught a taxi to The Metro Hotel. The Metro is unlike any hotel I’ve ever visited. The first big difference is they don’t staff the front desk from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and provide a combination lock on the door for guests.
While I waited for the staff to show up, I met a fellow guest. Ruben was his name, and in the ten minutes we had to wait for the reception clerk to show up I found out some intel on the hotel.
Why stay Anywhere Else
Ruben told me “I come to Petaluma for work every Monday and I wouldn’t stay anywhere else. When I stay at the Metro Hotel, I feel like I’m staying at a friend’s house.”
The new owners have made extensive renovations to the 140-year-old building and decorated it in a Parisian retro style transforming the old building into a unique lodging choice.
The biggest surprise was the four Airstream camp trailers in the yard of the Metro Hotel. Guests love camping out in these silver comfort palaces for a private stay mimicking a camping trip. Each Airstream is self-contained with a shower, kitchenette, bed, and toilet for maximum comfort.
After lunch at Mi Pueblo Mexican restaurant, I walked Petaluma Boulevard to take mental notes of the places to visit. There were bakeries, antique shops, bars, and restaurants to check out.
I walked over to the Petaluma River and noticed two beer joints across from me. Dempsey’s is a brewery and restaurant while Taps is a brewpub.
Add to this collection Brewster’s Beer Garden, and you have three brewpubs to explore. Petaluma is the gateway to wine country, so it’s fitting that two wineries have taken up space in the downtown core.
Find Barber Cellars in the Hotel Petaluma pouring their wines and serving up one of the best grilled cheese sandwich menus anywhere.
On the road to Wine
In the Great Petaluma Mill complex find Adobe Road Winery’s tasting room. Tasting excellent wines like their Big Pig Pinot and one labeled merely ”Red Wine” made me an instant fan.
Owner Kevin Buckler took his enthusiasm for car racing and brought it to Adobe Road Winery. This is a must taste wine experience.
Already in possession of numerous awards, this winery is a winner. Adobe Road will soon break ground on a more extensive facility across the river where they will crush and bottle their excellent wines. A new tasting room will complete this exciting new venue when opened in the summer of 2019.
All of the progress in Petaluma was a mystery to me. At Seared Steaks and Seafood restaurant I asked bartender Tyler why. He said “I moved away to attend UC Berkley then moved back to Novato.
One Friday night friends of mine said let’s go to Petaluma.” Tyler was surprised that the sleepy town he grew up in would attract his friends on a Friday night, but found out Petaluma had changed for the better in his absence.
Happy hour dinner at Seared was a hit as I munched kung pao shrimp followed by their delicious beet salad.
Paired with a glass of local sauvignon blanc it was perfect. Restaurants like Seared, Central Market, Cucina Paradiso, and the Shuckery can compete with Napa and Sonoma eateries for quality.
When you add up the bars, restaurants, nightclubs, and the vintage Mystic Theater, it makes sense why Petaluma has gained in popularity.
The old Mystic Theater is a prime concert venue attracting some excellent performers. The night I was in town the Psychedelic Furs were playing to a sold-out crowd.
The next morning after having breakfast at Della Fattoria’s new restaurant I took a walk to see the Theatre District. I spied a young woman on her way to work and asked her if she was a local and might answer some questions about her town. She told me, “I grew up here and moved away to San Diego for ten years. I recently moved back because it’s a great place to raise a family and there’s so much going on here.”
A pattern was forming I heard a few more times before leaving town about locals returning to their roots. Petaluma residents are a friendly bunch and several that had moved away after high school were returning. The old post office and Andrew Carnegie museum and library still stood where they had when these youngsters grew up here, but much had changed for the better.
Where are all the People Coming from
Maybe it’s the exodus from San Francisco where big-city folks are looking for a less-expensive place to live and want to bring some of that big-city culture with them that’s’ changing Petaluma? For some transplants, it’s more desirable to live in Petaluma than the resort-like Napa and Sonoma.
t could be the variety of things to do here like kayaking and paddle-boarding on the Petaluma River? Or the fun festivals and events almost every weekend of the year might be responsible for the attraction?
Petaluma’s Butter and Egg Days, Antique Fairs, Salute to American Graffiti, Rivertown Revival, and the Veteran’s Day Parade are top events that pack the town with revelers. Whatever the reason for success, Petaluma is a city poised on the brink of greatness.
Now that I know how much is going on in Petaluma it’s going to be a layover point for future Northern California visits. When you combine a pastoral farmland region with a friendly small city, the results are excellent.
My advice to you is come visit while Petaluma is still a secret hotspot.
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Kurt Jacobson lives in Baltimore, Maryland, and spent many years as a professional chef. Now he travels the world and shares his stories here and on other travel websites.