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If you want to find the heart of the city of Sonoma, you'd naturally start at historic Sonoma Plaza, a community gathering place as well as a tourist attraction, surrounded by restaurants and shops.

But if you're looking for local people, you might want to cross First Street West to the Sunflower Caffe where patrons on the front patio greet each other like old friends, because they are.

"This place is loaded with locals," said Tim Curley over breakfast there on a recent weekday morning. Curley, a teacher and musician from nearby El Verano who also works at the Ravenswood Winery tasting room in Sonoma, is a regular at the cafe.

"I work at a winery, and you see a lot of winery people here at lunchtime," he added.

A city might have an obvious center, like Sonoma Plaza, but it also has informal centers where locals and city insiders meet, like the Sunflower Caffe.

What is the true center of a town? We'd like to know what you think. But first, here is what we've found out so far about Sonoma County's nine incorporated cities.

Shady, friendly Healdsburg Plaza, ringed by restaurants, shops, tasting rooms and galleries, is an obvious center. But residents say you're likely to find people in the know at Flying Goat Coffee, just off the Plaza a half-block up Center Street.

And in Santa Rosa? Old Courthouse Square, of course, but walk up Fourth Street to Mac's Deli, where local matters are discussed every morning over coffee. Railroad Square is another magnet for the public, but for conversation among locals, some recommend A'Roma Roasters at Fifth and Wilson Streets.

In Cloverdale, Jim dePriest is an enthusiastic transplant who moved to town to manage the new Cloverdale Performing Arts Center, which opened a year and a half ago right downtown on Cloverdale Boulevard. Not far away is the open-air Cloverdale Plaza, home to weekly summertime concerts and an annual sculpture show.

For downtown Cloverdale denizens, days tend to start with coffee or breakfast at Plank Coffee on the boulevard or Underground Coffee on the plaza, and end with happy hour at Ruth McGowan's Brewpub on First Street, dePriest said.

Rohnert Park, a planned city built in sections, with a park in each section, has a different dynamic. Shopping centers are a draw in every city, but in Rohnert Park, they double as town centers, too.

Bao Alderson, Montgomery High School business teacher and assistant head football coach at Cardinal Newman High School, grew up in Rohnert Park and offered his own analysis of the town's makeup.

He described the city's center as stretching "from Raley's to Safeway," referring to the Raley's in Plaza Park Center off Rohnert Park Expressway and the Safeway on Commerce Boulevard. For a local focal point and a hangout with a long history, there's Quincy's Pub & Cafe on Enterprise Drive.

Windsor, a town that grew into a planned city, has created its own official center at the Town Green. Yet locals point to Pohley's Market on Windsor River Road and Patterson's Pub on Windsor Road as the real hubs, the gathering spots.

Cotati has La Plaza, site of the annual Accordion Festival and other events, but also a cluster of popular gathering spots, including the Redwood Cafe and the Tradewinds bar on Old Redwood Highway in the center of town.

Some Petalumans say that their city has to be viewed in two parts. On the west side, the Foundry Wharf area, and relocated Irishman John Crowley's Aqus Cafe on H Street, are focal points. And Copperfield's Books on Kentucky Street downtown is a meeting place where you can expect to see familiar faces and local chatter.

On the east side of town, the new Sunflower Center on McDowell Boulevard offers public meeting rooms, as well as an organic restaurant. Lucchesi Park on North McDowell Boulevard is the scene of many a community event.

Sebastopol has its plaza at the corner of Highway 116 and Petaluma Avenue, but some locals rank the Whole Foods Market across the street as an equally important locus, a meeting place.

You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at 521-5243 or dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com. Press Democrat Towns section correspondents contributed to this story.