You’ll never drink alone at Steiners in Sonoma
It’s 7 a.m. on a Monday, the regular crowd shuffles in. There’s an old man sitting next to me, savoring a tonic and gin.
And next to him, there’s a fellow in younger man’s clothes, sipping an espresso.
OK, that’s not quite how the Billy Joel song goes, and my rhymes are tortured. But it’s a perfect snapshot of a typical morning at Steiners Tavern, an iconic spot on the Sonoma Plaza that’s been welcoming customers of all kinds since 1927.
By noon, the scene has changed. True, Ron DeArmit at the bar is a friend of mine, and while he doesn’t get me my drinks for free, he does suggest bargain price options — maybe a beer on tap ($5) or a cosmo ($6). Or perhaps, like the businesspeople at nearby tables, I’m just here for a quick, pleasing lunch of a perfect, over-stacked turkey-bacon club sandwich with fries ($12) and a diet cola.
At 9 p.m. on a Saturday, the regular crowd isn’t shuffling in — they’re streaming in. The hipsters order trendy craft cocktails, and the locals stick to their favorite old fashioneds or Negronis that the bartenders start mixing as soon as the regulars walk in the door. Here and there are tourists drinking everything and anything, delighted they found this old-school jewel in an increasingly glamorous Wine Country.
Indeed, depending on the time you visit — Steiners is open from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. seven days a week — you’ll see such a variety of people that it’s impossible to pigeonhole the place.
“Clientele is like six different entities,” said owner Paul Spadaro. “Through early morning, midmorning, early afternoon, midafternoon, evening and late night, we’ve always been the bar that’s open to anybody. Some people think, ‘Oh it’s a locals bar; you can’t go in there unless you’re one of them.’ And then they come in and realize, ‘Oh wow, this is pretty cool.’”
It’s true that the red neon Steiners sign is a beacon of friendliness and comfort, particularly after our recent tumultuous years. The walls are cluttered with historic black-and-white photos of Sonoma, including one of tavern founder John Steiner, who first opened the bar in his former Union Hotel at West Napa Street and Highway 12.
When the hotel was torn down in 1956 to make way for what’s now the Bank of America, he relocated the tavern to the historic Fitch adobe building on First Street West, where Valley restaurant is now.
In 2000, new owners moved the bar again, to its current spot in the former Glendale Federal bank/Masonic building just 120 feet away from Valley. Spadaro took over the business in November of 2004 and added his own touches: San Francisco Giants and 49ers corners hung with team photos and pennants, dart boards, 17 flat-screen TVs and lots of quirky mementos like rifles and taxidermied animals donated by locals who love the bar.
But there’s more to this storied place. About 10 years ago, Spadaro ventured into food service. He turned what used to be a storage closet into a compact kitchen, cutting out a little order and pass-thru window and cranking out still-popular-today gut-filling standards such as buffalo-sauced chicken wings ($10), golden battered mini corn dogs ($8) and spicy jalapeño poppers ($8).
Over the years, he expanded the menu, and today, it offers more than you’d expect from a place that doesn’t even have a grill or proper oven but relies on a self-contained auto fryer.
You can tuck into daily specials ranging from panini to clam chowder in a sourdough bowl, plus always-available signature dishes such as that San Francisco classic we all secretly love: shrimp Louie salad mounded with plenty of sweet bay shrimp, Cajun-spiced avocado, carrots, tomatoes, black olives, hard-boiled eggs, lemon wedges and 1000 Island on a bed of crisp iceberg lettuce ($15).
“It started out as a small idea of little fried things here and there, and now what we do out of that tiny kitchen is amazing,” Spadaro said.
It’s become fancy enough that these days, the order window to the kitchen is boarded up, and we enjoy table service.
A few months ago, Chef Maria “Cha Chi” Vazquez came on board, dialing up things even more with rotating specials such as chilaquiles, huevos rancheros topped in avocado, tangy chicken enchiladas with rice and black beans, hearty pozole, fluffy chile cheese tamales and penne pasta in creamy chile poblano sauce with chicken.
On the everyday menu, breakfast tacos are particularly delicious, bringing two hefty delights loaded with eggs, bacon, country potatoes, ranchera salsa, cotija, avocado and sour cream on flour tortillas ($13). Try them with a bloody mary, zesty and delicious with mix made from scratch.
Regulars know Steiners is also a secret spot for good seafood, such as fish ‘n’ chips ($13), shrimp cocktail ($9) and silky lox for piling on bagels with capers, onions and cream cheese ($14).
That’s because Spadaro, 62, knows his fresh catch.
“I’m a fisherman by trade. I literally grew up on the wharf in San Francisco,” he said. “I’ve been fishing since I was that big, and I know everybody. My grandfather and father were commercial fishermen, and my whole family fished or sold fish — many still do to this day — in San Francisco and Monterey.”
He used to own PJs Oyster Bed restaurant in San Francisco and is still licensed to fish; he runs sports fishing boats on charter. For Steiners, he sources from the family-owned Costarella Seafood at Pier 45 (owner Bob Costarella once worked with Spadaro’s father before marrying another fisherman’s daughter and opening his own business).
So now, it’s midnight on a Saturday, and the crowd is even more eclectic. There’s a rowdy group enjoying nightcaps after a wedding reception in one corner. In another, friends are playing darts while sipping Steiners’ famous fizzes fashioned with vanilla vodka, Bailey’s, half and half, fresh nutmeg and other secret ingredients Spadaro chooses not to divulge.
High-top tables are anchored by hospitality industry people decompressing after work over fried mozzarella sticks ($7), chili cheddar dogs ($10) and whatever inventive cocktail they’ve challenged the bartenders to create.
As always, the bar is bustling. And even if we’re back to wearing masks indoors, it’s clear: Steiners has got us feeling all right.
Carey Sweet is a Sebastopol-based food and restaurant writer. Read her restaurant reviews every other week in Sonoma Life. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.