River to Sea

From Petaluma to Pt. Reyes

Petaluma has always been aspirational. As a native, I’ve watched it dream of seceding from the United States of Americana—looking at you, Lucas and Coppola—and of joining bougier Marin County. Now, with its million-plus-dollar homes dotting the alphabetic West Side grid, it’s difficult to distinguish Petaluma, on paper, from its sister county’s tonier towns. In person, however, it’s a different story.

This is Petaluma, summed up in a single moment: The local, Waldorf-inspired, kindergarten-through-eighth-grade charter school, with all its hand-knitting and kale beds, shares its grounds with the local fairground, which is why the “Fair Food” drive-thru is parked in front of the school, selling slushies, hot dogs and deep-fried paeans to the heart of the nation.

Other culinary curiosities include the best Middle Eastern-themed food in town available at the Swedish restaurant, Stockhome (stockhomerestaurant.com), unless we’re talking about the best hummus, which is found at La Dolce Vita Wine Lounge (ldvwine.com). These aren’t contradictions, so much as complementary conundrums. Think cantaloupe and prosciutto—who knew, right?

Before proceeding further, consider this: Though this piece may bear a “spotlight” badge, please don’t confuse this effort with, say, the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” investigative team. No investigation occurred here; this riff is highly subjective, personal and idiosyncratic to the nth degree. It reflects no special interests other than my own and what I found interesting in any particular moment. It is, by definition, wildly incomplete, lopsided and shaded by my own proclivities and peculiarities.

This is to say, don’t bother writing a “letter to the editor” to complain about my apparent willful—or more likely, “blissful”—ignorance of your favorite spot. You have better things to do than share a piece of your mind with a writer who you will never know; instead, share a piece of your heart with someone who you do. Life is too short for hate mail—send someone a love letter instead. Moving on …

It took a pandemic for Petaluma to finally accept that it has a natural water feature in the form of the Petaluma River, which lines the aptly named Water Street. This is our Left Bank. It is both our Seine and drain. And soon to be bain—as in French for “bath”—when a controversial public art installation, consisting of 5 sculpted bathtubs on stilts, goes up. Before the “Bathwatergate” conspiracies start, consider dining al fresco along the waterfront. Restaurants abutting Water Street that now have outdoor dining include faves Cucina Paradiso (cucinaparadisopetaluma.com) with its Cal-Ital lunches—my wife and occasional Bohemian contributor Kary Hess and I had some laughs there with cannabis columnist Jonah Raskin—and the nearby Wild Goat Bistro (wildgoatbistro.com), whose killer short rib is a welcome part of their permanent menu.

For a European piazza experience with enough wine to keep your spirits afloat until Covid ends, visit the aforementioned La Dolce Vita Wine Lounge (ldvwine.com) in Theater Square. Pandemic measures led LDV to flow seating into the Square, which made a perfect experience even more so. The wine list is beautifully curated and well-matched with a rotating array of house-made hummuses, soup, salads, pizzas, sandwiches and more. Pro tip: LDV is ideal for a date at any stage of your relationship—sip, kiss, sip, kiss. … Everybody’s doing it.

Heading down D Street Extension into the wilds of West Petaluma, it’s a relief to find the road is mellower than when I was a teenager and “Hell Driving” through the hills was a rite of passage—I realize now it was just Darwinism on wheels. The county line falls on San Antonio Creek, which I’m presuming once had an indiginous name that was replaced by some missionary. St. Anthony was the patron saint of lost and stolen articles—including land, it would appear. 

The elbow joint that connects Sonoma and Marin counties is the Marin French Cheese Co., a.k.a. the Cheese Factory (marinfrenchcheese.com). It  boasts picnic tables, a pond and floating fowl of some kind—I’m not an ornithologist, I don’t play “Name That Duck.” To me, they’re all water chickens. It’s a perfect stop for motorists and bicyclists alike. If you grew up around these parts like I did, the cheese factory was a favorite school field trip, apart from the funky smell of aging cheese that once permeated the premises. That’s gone now, and you no longer need to duck your nose into your Izod polo shirt to avoid it. Ironically, I now miss the smell. Double irony—I’m also wearing a mask.

Further west is a striking illustration of the effects of climate change in real time—the mud puddle that was once the Nicasio Reservoir. Where did all the water go? It never arrived due to our truncated rain season. Area fire departments are already alerting citizens about potential fire hazards. Drive by and see if you can spot the vertebrae of the long-dried out sea monster, “Nicasio Nell.”

What’s the difference between Pt. Reyes and Pt. Reyes Station? Everyone I stopped on the street to ask where we were was a tourist, and thought they were in Pt. Reyes. I left it at that.

The best way to gauge the intellectual health of a town is to visit its local bookstore. Pt. Reyes Books (ptreyesbooks.com) is, as my Chron colleague Nick Marino put it, “The platonic ideal of a modern indie bookstore,” which means that visitors are likely surrounded by the cognoscenti of Marin County. Pt. Reyes Books is a browser’s paradise, and a buyer’s moral obligation.

Inasmuch as a good book can feed the soul, stepping next door for a coffee and a pastry courtesy of Bovine Bakery (bovinebakeryptreyes.com) can feed the body. The beloved bakery has adapted to the times and provides a convenient walk-up service, with its usual line of devoted patrons now winding down the street. Conceivably, the line could be long enough that you end up across the street at Toby’s Feed Barn (tobysfeedbarn.com), a family-owned-and-operated “general store and working feed barn that has been serving the community since 1942,” according to its website. Toby’s offers a variety of fresh, organic produce as well as pet food, hay and grain. Toby’s coffee bar also offers a CBD latte for $7.25, which, by all accounts, is well worth it.
What’s also worth it is driving the 7.7 miles westerly to Pt. Reyes National Seashore (nps.gov/pore/index.htm), which the National Park Service bills as a “natural sanctuary, a human haven.” And, for once, the government got it right. You’re invited to respectfully frolic with over 1,500 species of plants and animals; but be wary, as there is a Red Flag fire warning in effect at present writing. “Outdoor burning is not recommended” is the understatement of the year. So leave the barbecue at home, and enjoy the fresh air.

Daedalus Howellhttps://daedalushowell.com
Daedalus Howell is the editor of the North Bay Bohemian and Pacific Sun. He is the author, most recently, of Quantum Deadline and is the writer-director of the feature film Pill Head.
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