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Thousands of people are expected to roam the streets of Santa Rosa?s historic Railroad Square district Sunday watching eccentric contraptions race on the train tracks during the second annual Handcar Regatta.

But it?s getting so Railroad Square, just west of downtown, is pretty busy any time. As new destinations open in the blocks surrounding the city?s old train depot, the entire district gains power as a magnet for visitors.

Longtime hometown favorites such as La Gare French Restaurant and the Omelette Express now share the area with more current and high-end restaurants like Stark?s Steakhouse.

?The tourists who come in appreciate the easy access to so many places to go eat in the evening, all within walking distance,? said Keo Hornbostel, general manager of the Hyatt Vineyard Creek hotel and a member of the Historic Railroad Square Association?s board of trustees.

The same compact district also offers live bands at the Last Day Saloon, A?Roma Roasters Coffee House and the Toad in the Hole Pub. And the 6th Street Playhouse stages full theatrical productions.

Add to that the popularity of a growing list of special events.

Last year, arts activists Ty Jones and Spring Maxfield launched the Great Handcar Regatta, drawing some 5,000 people to see races run by handcars created by local artisans. Organizers predict 7,000 could attend this year?s event today.

?And it?s not just one big event,? Hornbostel said. ?We do a little bit at a time, and that reaches out to people from different demographics.?

In August, some 400 people attended the second annual ?A Taste of Railroad Square,? a restaurant showcase organized to raise money in support of the 6th Street Playhouse.

On Oct. 4, Paul Stokeld of the Toad in the Hole Pub plans a block party, with the pub?s regular bands and patrons, some of them local actors, performing Monty Python skits and songs.

?I?ve been puttin? up posters, and they must look good, because somebody keeps nickin? ?em,? Stokeld joked in a pronounced English accent.

The key to the area?s growing popularity, its leaders say, is its variety of choices, from antique and novelty shops, a park and several hotels, to a wide array of bars and restaurants.

?I think the whole area is growing,? said Josh Silvers, who opened the Syrah Bistro 10 years ago and plans to open a new, more casual burger and pizza restaurant and bar called Jackson?s a block away in early November.

And that?s hardly the only new restaurant in the neighborhood, which traces its history back to the late 1800s. Jack and Tony?s Restaurant and Whisky Bar opened on Fourth Street earlier this year. The district has become steadily more diverse.

?We have a Thai restaurant, a Japanese restaurant, an English pub and then some really old-school restaurants, like La Gare, with three or four generations of people eating there,? Silvers said.

Long established as a draw for Wine Country tourists, Railroad Square is attracting a larger local following as well, said Hornbostel of the Hyatt Vineyard Creek.

?In years past, we wouldn?t get a lot of local people on a Sunday. Now ... we?re getting more and more Santa Rosans and Sonoma County people coming down here,? Hornbostel said. ?They?re starting to realize what?s here.?

<em>You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at 521-5243 or dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com. See his ARTS blog at http://arts .blogs.pressdemocrat.com.</em>