How Petaluma became the ‘it’ town of Sonoma County
On a warm late summer Saturday night, downtown Petaluma is buzzing like a European paseo, where it seems like half the town is out and about. There are hipster brew pub crawlers, well-dressed couples out for a dinner and young parents pushing strollers in search of ice cream.
A long line of baby boomers is snaking down “The Boulevard” outside The Mystic, waiting to hear The Zombies play their 1964 hit, “She’s Not There,” while across the street and along the Petaluma River nearly all of the 350 seats in Brewster’s Beer Garden are taken up by revelers straining to talk over live music.
Many are making a stop after hitting the Lagunitas Beer Circus at the Fairgrounds, still wearing crazy wigs and costumes.
Busker “Petaluma Pete,” AKA John Maher, in his signature bowler hat, is tickling the ivories with honkeytonk on one of the outdoor pianos he set up around town in the run-up to the upcoming Petaluma Piano Festival. It’s one of what seems like a festival every week in a town that few would describe as sleepy anymore.
Petaluma, long considered a homespun farm town and pit stop for travelers bound for the coast or the wineries to the north, is waking up.
The onetime driveby Chicken
Capital is now emerging as a destination for nightlife, weekend festivals and tourists who come to dine, stroll shops of curated bespoke goods, taste wine or visit a thriving brew pub scene.
It’s also drawing new residents, becoming a locus for younger workers in search of housing that may be pricey but is still more affordable than San Francisco, the East Bay and Silicon Valley, particularly among couples looking for a family friendly town to raise kids.
Adding to the town’s appeal: it’s closer and more commutable to the aforementioned job meccas than the rest of Sonoma County. Meanwhile, intrepid weekend wine tasters are exploring the region’s newest viticultural area - the Petaluma Gap (see related story, left).
“I shudder to say it, but Petaluma is the new ‘it girl,’ The ‘beer food and wine ‘it girl,’” wine writer and personality Leslie Sbrocco, host of KQED’s “Check Please,” said with a grin. A longtime Petaluman who moved to the town years ago to raise her two kids, she has watched Petaluma transform in real time. And while, like many locals, she bemoans the traffic that comes with tourists - she lives on the eastside near the now legendary Lagunitas beer mecca, one of the top-selling craft brews in the country with a popular concert series of name bands - she’s also excited about many of the changes.
“I’ve been saying Petaluma is a great place for so many years and people would go, ‘Where?’”
Forbes Travel last year declared Petaluma as “the wine country’s hottest new destination,” giving a shout out to popular restaurants like The Shuckery in the newly glamorized Petaluma Hotel and the sophisticated yet vegan- and vegetarian-friendly Drawing Board, opened last year by twentysomething Rosie Wiggins. Other new restaurants like the inventive StockHome with a surprising Swedish and Turkish street food twist, has got foodies talking about the town along the river.
Marie McCusker, president of the Petaluma Downtown Association and Visitors Program, said she watches, just outside her Lakeville Office, a lot of groups and friends now connecting and heading downtown to lunch after stepping off the new SMART Train.
“As the gateway to Sonoma County, we like to say that all roads lead to Petaluma” said Colleen Rustad, communications manager for the Petaluma Visitors Program. “If you draw a bullseye on a Bay Area map, Petaluma is right in the center, easy to get to from San Francisco and Sacramento and an ideal home base for visitors heading west to the coast, north to the redwoods or east to Sonoma Valley.”
With the launching of train service, the number of people stopping by the Petaluma Visitors Center in the old train depot by the SMART stop soared from 7,1321 between 2016 and 2017 to 17,000 just a year later.
And judging by a rise in hotel tax dollars, more people are spending the night.
More gains expected
Petaluma still lags behind most other cities in the county in hotel tax money - $2.8 million in 2017 compared to more than $3 million for Sonoma and more than $4 million for the smaller Rohnert Park and chic Healdsburg to the north. But the numbers have climbed by more than $1 million in the last five years, with even more gains expected after the recent opening of a new Hampton Inn in the revitalized old Silk Mill that’s within walking distance of downtown and the SMART station. Visitors can choose among the corporate comfort of a upscale chain hotel housed in a 19th century building, to the elegantly restored Petaluma Hotel on East Washington to the Euro-hip Metro Hotel downtown. A 222-room Courtyard Marriott Hotel is proposed for southeast Petaluma.