Fifty years after George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola directed and produced American Graffiti in Petaluma, the picturesque town still triggers a wave of nostalgia inspired by the movie’s soundtrack of rock and roll originals. In fact, the city has some of the nation’s best examples of iron-front architecture, and the entire downtown is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Petaluma’s Quirky Past
One of California’s earliest towns, Petaluma (incorporated 1858), is ideally situated beside a railway and a river about 30 miles north of San Francisco. When an enterprising inventor came through and perfected the chicken egg incubator here, the town’s early 20th-century agricultural reputation soared, sending celebratory chicken suit-wearing Petalumans parading through the streets of the “Egg Basket of the World.” A century later, cornerstones are agriculture and small-town life, but Petaluma’s wine industry carries more caché than its poultry past.
And on the subject of the town’s unique appeal, it’s hard to beat the honky-tonk piano-playing charm of one local, Petaluma Pete.
All-important characteristics are the cooling breezes and fog funneling through coastal mountains that contribute to Petaluma Gap’s designation as an American Viticultural Area in 2017. Comprising a sizable region stretching from Bodega Bay to San Pablo Bay, this AVA straddles northern Marin and southern Sonoma counties, where significant diurnal spreads of 50 degrees allow wine grapes to ripen late, reaching their full flavor potential. Seventy growers farming over 4,000 acres of vineyards in this distinctive microclimate are known for producing top-quality Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Syrah.
Taste the Grapes
In Downtown Petaluma, a mini-hub for wine tasting, about half of the one dozen tasting rooms welcome walk-in visitors, while the rest are open by appointment.
On the outdoor terrace at Petaluma Mill, Adobe Road Winery has been serving 90+ point wines on the terrace with A+ riverside views since its opening in March 2022 by race car driver Kevin Buckler. // www.adoberoadwines.com
Book ahead at Brooks Note Winery and Tasting Room, a cozy space for distinctive Pinot Noirs from Marin, Sonoma, and Mendocino counties paired with local cheeses. // www.brooksnotewinery.com
Reserve at Black Knight Vineyards Thursday through Sunday to sample the estate collection from the family-owned and -operated vineyard specializing in sparkling, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir. // www.blackknightvineyards.com
At La Dolce Vita Wine Lounge, a long list of rotating international wine selections are paired with cheeses, pizza, and bar food. Events like classic film nights and live music on the patio are much loved by locals. // www.ldvwine.com
On Thursday through Monday from noon to 5 p.m., drop into Sonoma Portworks in the old Foundry Wharf building for Sonoma County’s only port, sherry, and grappa tasting room specializing in after-dinner wines since 1994. Not to miss: Deco, a port with essences of natural dark chocolate, and Duet, a sherry with essences of natural hazelnut. // www.Portworks.com
For a different approach, in its small and cozy downtown lounge, FloraLuna Apothecary serves non-alcoholic cocktails with homemade syrups and bitters. // www.Floralunaapothecary.com
Northern California’s first hard kombucha brewery and tasting room, called Hoocha, serves refreshing raw, vegan, and naturally gluten-free drinks at 5% – 7% alcohol. // www.Hoochabrewing.com
Open for appointments on Thursday through Saturday, Keller Estate pours their own Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Pinot Gris at the vineyard tasting room located 8 miles from downtown. // www.kellerestate.com
Alternatively, dip into olive oil tasting 7 miles away at McEvoy Ranch, a family-owned working farm, one of the nation’s largest producers of estate-grown Tuscan-style oil. // www.mcevoyranch.com
Where to Eat
Keeping up with Petaluma’s vibrant food scene is a challenge that embraces both American classics and international flavors. For burgers, fries, and beer, Lagunitas Brewing Co. is an all-American, dog-loving taproom featuring the label that’s synonymous with Petaluma, crafting hop-forward beers in Northern California for 30 years. // www.lagunitas.com
Some say that great Italian restaurants contribute to an all-American streetscape. Cucina Paradiso is a small trattoria with both indoor and outdoor all-day dining. // www.Cucinaparadisopetaluma.com
Della Fattoria Downtown Cafe is another top Italian pick with an emphasis on homemade baked goods and weekend brunch. // www.dellafattoria.com
Meatballs and mashed potatoes are never better than at Stockhome, a Swedish family-owned eatery recognized as a Michelin Bib Gourmand standout, with counter service for indoor and patio dining as well as a retail shop. // www.stockhomerestaurant.com
With a spin on Sicily and New Orleans, Chef Tony Najiola brought the slow food concept at Central Market to Petaluma 20 years ago, and it’s been a favorite ever since. // www.Centralmarketpetaluma.com
Reserve ahead for a table at the tiny Street Social restaurant where Chef Jevon Martin and his wife Marjorie Pier continue to earn recognition as a top 25 Bay Area restaurant by San Francisco Chronicle. // www.streetsocial.social
Order a hearty home-cooked meal in a friendly ‘50s diner at Sax’s Joint; remember to ask about daily specials such as mango habañero, crispy chicken sandwich on garlic grilled sourdough bread, jambalaya eggs Benedict, or “The Joint,” the largest biggest pancake found in the Bay Area, the size of an extra-large pizza. // facebook.com/SaxsJoint
One of the newest places in town, Luma Bar & Eatery is a plant-forward California cuisine showcase with a cocktail lounge and alcohol-free options located on the riverfront. // www.Lumaeatery.com
Blurring the line between comfort food and haute cuisine, Table Culture Provisions chef/owners Stéphane Saint Louis (formerly of Della Fattoria and The Shuckery) and Steven Vargas provide an intimate dining experience. // www.tcprovision.com
One of the nation’s 3,600 recognized “Tree City USA” urban environments, the city is creating Petaluma River Park on 24 acres of rare, wild waterfront property on the McNear Peninsula near downtown. Petaluma River and its tributaries are a significant natural feature that offer excellent recreational opportunities alongside the city’s 200-plus acres of creek and riverfront recreation areas, many of which feature trails. The Floathouse is Petaluma’s new answer to people-powered watercraft, including pedal and paddle kayaks, pedal and paddle SUPs, hydro-bikes, Schiller water bikes, canoes, and rowboats. // www.thefloathousepetaluma.org
Shollenberger Park is ideal for bird watching and hiking a two-mile flat, circular trail; Helen Putnam Regional Park is a large, 256-acre natural open space located just beyond the city limits.
Where to Stay
To soak up the vibes of historic Downtown Petaluma, stay at the century-old Hotel Petaluma. Barber Cellars has tastings in the courtyard featuring pours of Sonoma Valley single vineyard wines, while The Shuckery serves oysters, fish, and seafood. // www.hotelpetaluma.com
Near downtown, Metro Hotel & Cafe is a boutique property of 15 rooms with an onsite Peruvian restaurant. The property evokes a European-inspired atmosphere in a 140-year-old building where guests enjoy complimentary morning crêpes and coffee, free parking, and free Wi-Fi. // www.metrolodging.com
The newest hotel is Home2 Suites by Hilton, with in-room kitchens and an outdoor pool. Ten minutes from downtown, the property has free parking, Wi-Fi, and hot breakfasts. // www.hilton.com/en/hotels/
Lastly, Chef Charlie Palmer’s hospitality group has announced plans to develop a culinary-focused 93-room hotel with a 190-seat restaurant and rooftop bar in Downtown Petaluma.
Find more information and a calendar of events at www.VisitPetaluma.com. Drop in to the Petaluma Visitors Center, open daily at the historic train depot at 210 Lakeville Street.