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How do you hide a hugely popular, 350-seat restaurant?

If you’re Brewsters Beer Garden owner Mike Goebel, you put it in plain sight along downtown Petaluma’s main drag just north of Washington Street. Except you build it backwards, so the street view shows only a peek of metal-framed window tops fronted by a garden of succulents and native grasses.

The garden is actually a living roof over the kitchen, which, like the restaurant, sits well below sidewalk level at the bottom of a hill.

More interesting, though — why would you hide a 350-seat restaurant? Perhaps for the cool factor. Goebel owns San Francisco hip bars Holy Water, Bloodhound and Churchill, so he knows a thing or two about style.

It’s true, too, that it’s energizing to pull into Water Street — a skinny, dead-end stretch of asphalt next to the Petaluma River — and see a mass of cars parked on every square inch. It feels like the party has started even before we find the entry tucked behind a tall wood fence sandwiched between two historic brick buildings.

In fact, a lot of the Brewsters’ charm comes from its low-key, bohemian-chic setting, with guests spread out on a sea of outdoor picnic tables, indoor communal high tops and bar stools. The food, created by former Citizens Band chef-owner Chris Beerman, is very good with its barbecue and higher-end pub grub focus, to be sure.

But really, this is the kind of place where everything tastes even better since the mood is so fun and relaxed, and dishes are served in retro-cowboy style metal trays.

Add in live music, craft beers like Dad Pants Pilsner by Barrel Brothers Brewing Company of Windsor ($7), obscure wines like Populis Carignane of Mendocino County ($10), and inventive cocktails involving ingredients like buttered popcorn, rum and Fentimans Botanically Brewed cola ($9), and we’ve got a winner.

One recent evening, the place rocked with the bluegrass sounds of Kevin Russell & His So-Called Friends, working their magic on a small stage near a fire pit.

The concert was part of a weekly, Thursday night theme of “Bourbon & Bluegrass,” offering special pours of boutique spirits like Rhetoric 22 year, Pure Kentucky XO and Eagle Rare 10 year ($18, flight). Just reading the clever tasting notes stimulates the appetite, such as the Rhetoric’s promise of “Smarties (candy) and dark fruit leather.”

I’m a bit burned out on ubiquitous pork belly these days (bacon everywhere!), but this appetizer rendition is refreshing: the tender, crunchy-skin capped meat comes paired with garbanzo beans, peppery watercress, crisp-edged mushrooms, a jolt of hot chiles and salsa verde ($13).

It was an improvement to a somewhat bland preparation on an earlier menu, where the pork was gilded more simply with roasted Sierra Beauty apple chunks, potatoes and braised greens ($12).

I’ve never seen such a version of mac and cheese before, meanwhile, in a big, wet glop of tasty noodles topped in tempura-fried, Parmesan-dusted onion rings ($9). It’s definitely a plate to be shared, our jean apron-clad waitress warned us, and she was right.

For proof Brewsters is a barbecue joint, look no further than the wood fired smokers and grills off to the side of patio.

At times, you can see a well-muscled man or two wrangling the meat, and using an actual mop to “wet mop” the whole, butterflied, Carolina-style hog that’s a specialty alongside other signatures such as white oak smoked St. Louis Ribs ($15-$39) and grilled Creole hot link atop crawfish étouffée ($16).

IF YOU GO

As the scenic, twisting Highway 1 route along the Big Sur coast will be closed for several months because of this winter’s storm damage, take Highway 101 south to San Luis Obispo, and turn West to Morro Bay on Highway 1. California Highway 1 Discovery Route, www.highway1discoveryroute.com. Itineraries, maps, attractions, deals.

Morro Bay Visitors Center, www.morrobay.org. Lodgings, restaurants, recreation, historic sites, deals. Ask about the free passport worth $130 in discounts at hotels, restaurants, and local businesses.

EAT

■ Giovanni’s Fish Market and Galley, Morro Bay, www.giovannisfishmarket.com. On the waterfront deck, fish-on-a-stick, chowder, crab sandwiches, fish tacos, ”chowda fries.”
■ Robin’s, Cambria, www.robinsrestaurant.com. A locals’ favorite for de- cades, Thai, Mexican, Middle Eastern and Indian food in a garden setting.
■ Wee Shack, Morro Bay, www.weeshack.com. A cozy, casual, award-win- ning café, massive burgers, breakfast burritos, and comfort food.

STAY

■ Cambria Inns, www.cambriainns.com. Four charming inns above Moon- stone Beach: Blue Dolphin, Sand Pebbles, Moonstone Cottages, and Castle Inn.
■ Anderson Inn, Morro Bay, www.andersoninnmorrobay.com. An 8-room, boutique inn overlooking the marina, with some fireplaces, soaking tubs, and balconies; and downstairs, The Galley Seafood Grill & Bar.
■ Morro Bay State Park Campground, Morro Bay, www.parks.ca.gov. Near the Museum of Natural History and the golf course, 126 sites, for tents and RVs to 35 feet; some full hookups.

At first bite, the chopped Marin Sun Farms Duroc pork surprised me — it was fiery with a powerful red pepper kick, and dressed with pungent pickled onions and deeply seasoned sliced pickle ($14, half-pound). Yet it was quickly addictive, and I alternated bites with bits of excellent soft roll and cooling sips of nitrogen draft cold brew coffee ($5).

The fried chicken threw me completely off, however ($22). Three pieces arrived nicely crusted and crisp, but the oh-so-salty meat was overcooked to rubber.

Too bad, because the sides of al dente sautéed escarole, whole kernel creamed corn and feather light, sage honey-kissed biscuit were divine.

Still, watch as servers march endlessly from the open kitchen pick-up window bearing plates of burgers, and you’ll get the message.

These huge, messy sandwiches star Stemple Creek Ranch ground beef that’s perfectly cooked to order. Crowned in creamy, mellow Nicasio Valley San Geronimo cheese, jazzed with a touch of horseradish mayo, and finished in shaved romaine, pickles and tomato jam on a premium Della Fattoria bun, they’re some of the finest indulgences I’ve savored in a long while. And with a big mound of thin-cut crisp-perfect fries alongside, they’re a bargain at $14.

In a curious touch, Brewsters charges an “outside dessert fee” ($15).

Are there so many of us carting cake with us, I wonder? But leave your sweets at home, since you’ll be plenty pleased with the restaurant offerings of brownie a la mode, cookies and milk, a root beer float, or 3 Twins vanilla ice cream topped in goodies like salted caramel sauce and mini chocolate chips (all desserts $7).

The best is the banana cream pie, dusted in shaved bitter chocolate and whipped cream.

Fluffy, silky, banana cream pie, served in a beer garden down by the river? Who’d a thunk?

But like Brewsters itself, it’s all a very happy discovery.

Carey Sweet is a Sebastopol-based food and restaurant writer. Read her restaurant reviews every other week in Sonoma Life. Contact her at carey@careysweet.com.

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