Perfectly PetalumaA 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
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
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
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.