About Petaluma

  • Perfectly Petaluma
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    Perfectly Petaluma

    A beautiful downtown, fine restaurants-all this and eggs too
    By Marcia Williamson, Photographs by Jean Jarvis

    Sunset Magazine, August, 2003

    "We need another night," a Sacramento guest implored the innkeeper. "We didn't realize there's so much Petaluma in Petaluma!"

    The guest was right. Once considered a mere pit stop for Central Valley Travelers on their way to the coast, Petaluma has blossomed into a city dense and rich enough to reward-even require-a multiday investigation.

    A miraculous downtown
    At heart, this Sonoma County city of about 55,000 is a river town. Connected to San Pablo and San Francisco Bays by the modest but useful Petaluma River (known as Petaluma Creek before it was dredged into a river), the town thrived by shipping products, and, above all, eggs to larger cities.

    Trade was lucrative enough to create an unusually handsome downtown filled with proudly ornate Victorians and classic 1800s iron-front buildings (popular because they were falsely thought to be fireproof). Almost miraculously, these structures were spared the ravages of the 1906 earthquake. Even more remarkably, Petaluma voters made sure the buildings were saved from the ravages of urban renewal, so the center of town stands mostly intact. Peggy Sue Got Married, an innocently low-tech time-travel movie, was shot here in 1986, and it's easy to see why. Such is Petaluma's architectural authenticity that all director Francis Ford Coppola did to carry viewers back to gentler decades was place period cars on city streets.

    Farm-fresh produce and sophisticated art
    Today Petaluma's downtown-on the National Register of Historic Places-is comfortable with its own history and allows new life to inhabit old forms, despite some patent incongruities. Wedged into the 1886 McNear Building, for example, is High Tide Surf Shop (9 Fourth St.; 707/763-3680), though there's nary a breaker on Petaluma River.

    The best on-foot introduction to Petaluma is the free docent-led walk that starts at the Petaluma Historical Library and Museum on most Saturday (and some Sunday) mornings through October. The museum, a former Carnegie Library with fabulous paneled interior, is an architectural treasure in its own right. You can see the sights on your own by following the historical tour published in the free visitor guide put out by the Petaluma Visitor Center. But that would mean you'd miss the tart opinions of guides like docent Millie King, an old-timer who has been known to disdainfully acknowledge the design choices of the 1950s. Those aesthetics were the reason a few of the previously ornamented Victorians were "slipcovered" with stucco, she explains with regret.

    Downtown attractions include the laid-back Petaluma Farmers Market, held Satuday afternoons through October in Walnut Park (Petaluma Blvd. S. at D St.). Here, vendors' pick-ups overflow with sweet corn, tomatoes, and Arcata oysters while musicians play in a gazebo shaded by walnut trees.

    Petaluma also holds enough antiques stores to inspire a full season of Antiques Roadshow; the visitor guide includes a complete listing of shops. There's also a gallery scene. Barry Singer Gallery showcases superb fine-art photographs, and two other galleries cluster nearby. During An Evening of Art, Garden and Music (5-8 Aug 16; free), many galleries and stores will host open houses featuring live entertainment. Art in the Park (10-5 Sep 6-7; Walnut Park) celebrates creativity with a display of local sculptures and paintings.

    The city's restaurant scene is increasingly varied and sophisticated. The newest star is The Girl & the Fig, the winsome sister of the Sonoma restaurant of the same name. It serves French country food in a handsome Victorian that boasts splendid sunset views. Locals also like the Japanese cuisine and sake cocktails at Hiro's Japanese Restaurant.

    Water Street Bistro is tiny, but it has an appealing riverfront terrace and a fabulous New Orleans-style Muffaletta sandwich. Jellyfish serves artful Asian-fusion food and has outdoor seating overlooking boats in the Petaluma Marina. Velasco's offers reasonably priced Mexican food in a family-friendly atmosphere.

    For entertainment, Zebulon's Lounge offers live jazz every night at 9, plus book readings Tuesday nights. Cinnabar Theater (3333 Petaluma Blvd. N.; 707/763-8920), in a remodeled mission-style schoolhouse, is always worth checking out, especially for anything involving the performance artist Fred Curchack. Like Petaluma, the shows here express a whimsy and inventiveness that will leave you charmed.

    Ode to the egg
    It's difficult to spend a day in Petaluma without becoming conscious of chickens-from the downtown storefront that was once the world's only chicken pharmacy to cheerful chicken images in local graphics. After all, Petaluma was once the "Egg Basket of the World." The poultry breakthrough came in 1879, when Lyman Byce invented the Petaluma Incubator. By keeping hens in constant production, the incubator proved to boon to chicken farmers, and Petaluma began to promote itself as the global egg basket.

    Early in the 20th century, word of the chicken bonanza traveled to landless Jews in Russia and Eastern Europe. They immigrated to Petaluma. A lively community of secular Jewish chicken farmers-late New Yorker movie critic Pauline Kael grew up in such a family-enjoyed life here for decades, until such family farming became unprofitable.

    Things may be looking up, chickenwise. The demand for organic chicken has created a niche market in which Petaluma Poultry (707/763-1904) is the leading U.S. supplier. And Petaluma Farms (700 Cavanaugh Lane; 707/763-0921) sells organic eggs to grocery stores, farmers' markets, and directly to consumers at the ranch.

    Petaluma sojourn

    Petaluma is in Sonoma County, about 32 miles north of San Francisco. Pick up a free comprehensive visitor guide from the Petaluma Visitor Center (800 Baywood Dr.; www.visitpetaluma.com or 877/273-8258).

    Art and Music

    Barry Singer Gallery. Closed Sun-Mon. 7 Western Ave.; (707) 781-3200.

    Zebulon's Lounge. 21 Fourth St.; www.zebulonslounge.com or (707) 769-7948.

    Dining

    The Girl & the Fig. Lunch, dinner daily. 222 Weller St.; (707) 769-0123.

    Hiro's Japanese Restaurant. Lunch Tue-Sat, dinner Tue-Sun. 107 Petaluma Blvd. N.; (707) 763-2300.

    Jellyfish. Breakfast lunch, dinner daily. In Sheraton Sonoma County Petaluma, 745 Baywood; (707) 283-2888.

    Velasco's. Lunch, dinner daily. 190 Kentucky; (707) 773-0882.

    Water Street Bistro. Breakfast, lunch Wed-Mon. Water St. at Western; (707) 763-9563

    Lodging

    Métro Hôtel & Café. This flea market-furnished, cheerfully Gaelic inn appeals to the lower-budget traveler and is within walking distance of downtown. 14 rooms from $69. 508 Petaluma Blvd. S.; www.metrolodging.com or (707) 773-4900.

    Old Palms of Petaluma. This B&B's Czechoslovakian owners have filled a grand old mansion with Old World antiques. 4 rooms from $116, including a four-course breakfast. 2 Liberty St.; www.oldpalms.com or (707) 658-2554.

    Sheraton Sonoma County Petaluma. At the marina, 183 rooms from $150. 745 Baywood; www.sheratonpetaluma.com or (707) 283-2888.

    Summer fun

    16th Annual Petaluma Summer Music Festival. Eclectic collection of classical, ethnic, and opera music. Aug 2-23; from $12. Cinnabar Theater and other downtown venues; www.cinnabartheater.org or (707) 763-8920.

    Great Petaluma Quilt Show. One of the state's largest quilting gatherings. Aug 9. Several downtown venues; (707) 778-8015.

    Historical tours. Free docentlet walks start from the Petaluma Historical Library and Museum at 10:30 most Saturday mornings and the first and third Sundays of each month, from May through October. Museum open 10-4 Wed-Sat, 12-3 Sun. 20 Fourth; www.petalumamuseum.com or (707) 778-4398.

    Petaluma Adobe State Historic Park. Started in 1836, this large, wood-balconied adobe is the city's oldest building and the former cattle-ranch headquarters or General Mariano G. Vallejo. All Nations Bigtime ($5, including park admission) brings Native American music and dancing to the rancho. $2 park admission. 3325 Adobe Rd.; www.parks.ca.gov or (707) 762-4871.

    Petaluma Farmers Market. 2-5 Sat through Oct. Walnut Park; (707) 762-0344.

    Hiking

    Shollenberger Park. A new 1-mile walkway leads from the southern end of the Petaluma Marina, where there's ample parking, into this 165-acre wetland which hosts amazing colonies of resident and migratory birds. Lakeville Hwy. at Baywood; www.petalumawetlandspark.org