I’ve been living in Novato for a few years, yet I haven’t taken the time to really explore all that this welcoming town has to offer. I regularly drive by the “historic downtown” sign and wonder what makes this place special.
The city embraces newcomers with a sense of warmth and familiarity. Novato hosts all the romanticized perks of a quintessential small town—homegrown businesses with a personal touch, mom-and-pop eateries that know your order after a few visits and echoes of a rich past that can still be recognized in present day establishments.
Despite the small town vibe, Novato has an impressive diversity of attractions.
The epicenter is Grant Avenue in downtown Novato. The area hosts many of the town’s festivities. The farmers market is a good first stop. Given its weekday schedule ( Tuesdays 4-8pm from May through September) it attracts a mainly local crowd in search of fresh produce while locals and visitors alike will descend on the annual Festival of Art, Wine and Music (this weekend—June 8-9). Nostalgia Days (Aug. 2-3), an event showcasing custom classic cars and golden tunes, is also a draw.
The Novato Parks and Recreation Department holds a free summer concert series on selective Saturday evenings in June, July and August. Novato City Hall transforms its lawn into an entertainment showcase for “Concerts on the Green” and “Hot Amphitheater Nights” cater to a larger crowd in the Hamilton Amphitheater. Bring a picnic and enjoy cocktails provided by Novato’s neighborhood sports bar, The Speakeasy, or cool down with shaved ice courtesy of the onsite Kona Ice Truck.
Don’t worry if you’re only in town on weekdays, you’ll still find plenty to do. Spend your day walking down blocks filled with homey eateries and specialty boutiques. Marvin’s Restaurant serves a great breakfast. Kitschy tchotchke and cheeky quotes adorn the walls of this cozy diner. Sit at the counter and watch the chefs flip your perfectly fluffy pancakes on the griddle or bring your dog along for a bite outside.
Love pastries? Check into Dr. Insomniac’s Fine Coffee and Tea for their signature “scuffin,” a savory scone/muffin hybrid. Rustic Bakery, a Marin County staple serving great sandwiches and organic baked goods, is another go-to lunch destination. If you feel like something spicy, ease on down to Carmen’s La Hacienda. I love their margaritas and generous fajitas.
Don’t take a nap yet, though. Eclectic boutiques like Sage Gallery feature local artists’ hand-crafted jewelry, housewares and other decorative designs. A Sentimental Journey is a vintage lovers dream. I recognized my grandma’s china and was surprised to discover archaic tools used to forge the very streets I’ve been strolling down. Turns out a local dealer travels through Marin and Napa counties in search of “rusty gold” treasures still found in family barns. I didn’t expect to see artifacts from the Novato History Museum for sale in the antique shop, but it seems these items are not as rare as I assumed.
Speaking of which, the museum is a must-see. The former city postmaster’s home now houses a fascinating collection of 19th century artifacts: locally forged ranching tools, household items and odd tokens of the Victorian era, including an unsettling wreath made of human hair collected by family members over the years. My quick history lesson (on the heels of a third grade class) really put things into perspective. Now I understand why cattle graze on hillsides of Olompali State Historic Park, which serve as a backyard of sorts to suburban neighborhoods. They are part of an agricultural tradition that spans generations.
Novato’s birth is a classic California tale. The Gold Rush lured East Coasters to put down roots and start a new life. Soon dairy farms, cattle ranches and apple orchards draped the landscape. As a result, the namesakes of many downtown Novato streets such as DeLong, Reichert and Sweetser cultivated this rural, yet surprisingly metropolitan city. The black and white images in the museum depicting Novato’s transformation over the decades tells the tale well.
While downtown retains remnants of the past, new developments like Vintage Oaks Shopping Center hide all signs of the farms they’ve replaced. Set amongst the many chains and big box stores you’ll find a few locally owned hot spots.
Jennie Low’s has what I think is some of the best Chinese food in Marin County. I like the admittedly Americanized classics: crispy egg rolls served with sweet and sour sauce, orange chicken and chow-mein. Tuttimelon’s gelato and frozen yogurt are a required stop. After making multiple repeat visits, I stopped kidding around and started stocking my freezer with pints of assorted gelato flavors like strawberry fresca, limoncello and orange-chocolate.
For another kind of treat, head to NJ Nails Spa. In addition to colorful and creative nail art, they offer cushy seats and a serene, sterile environment at an affordable price.
Extend your feeling of zen by hopping across the street to my new favorite local hang out: Moylan’s Brewery and Restaurant. Choose from a broad selection of deliciously crafted brews. Park at the bar, watch a ballgame and sip on a smooth Celts Golden Ale or a fruity Framboozled. Try the full-bodied Northern California IPA and Orange and Black (named in honor of the San Francisco Giants.) Want to go bigger? Have a Kilt Lifter Scotch Style Ale, it’s my favorite. If you can’t make up your mind, order the sampler.
What sets Moylan’s apart is that it’s more than a brewery. Loyal patrons have made it a second home. Customers have left their mark on the bar by donating personal memorabilia over the years like sporting awards, military ball caps representing various branches of service and treasured Grateful Dead posters. Amn impressive beer can collection rests on the rafters. I love how you can surprise a friend and sign up on the chalkboard to buy them a beer. A nook on the side of the bar hosts private parties and competitive games of darts.
I happily consider Novato my new home. What strikes me most about the small town is the kindness I have encountered. Whatever establishment I enter, whether I’m there for fun or need to deal with troublesome business, Novato natives impress me with their compassion and sincerity.
I like downtown Novato too. Check out the new Open Cures at 823 B Grant and the Friends of the Marin County Free Library’s The Book Place at 1608 Grant Avenue.