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 honky-tonk on one of the outdoor pianos he set up around town in the runup 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 drive-by 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.
“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 east side near the now legendary Lagunitas beer mecca, one of the top-selling beers 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 shoutout 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 such as 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.