(Editor's Note: Even as lives become more and more digital, Petaluma has shown that it cherishes its brick and mortar gathering spots — the taverns, bars and cafes where people can meet up, talk about their days, and learn what's happening in the community. Those institutions play a rich role in Petaluma's history, and this is the first in a series that profiles them.)
In 1946, a young World War II veteran named Mario Figone returned home to Petaluma from the Army. It was quite a year for Figone. He married his sweetheart Lillian Wilson and then dove right in to work, taking over a corner grocery store with his brother John as a partner. A few months later, the two added the bar next door to their enterprise and named it Mario & John's Tavern.
Nearly 67 years later, the original sign still lights the corner of Wilson and East D Streets, sending out an inviting neon glow into the quiet neighborhood. Mario & John's Tavern has been a mainstay for almost three generations of patrons, even after John and Mario died and Mario's sons Donnie and John took over.
"We grew up right around the corner in the same house that my grandfather Giovanni built and my father Mario was born in," reflects Donnie Figone, adding that he considers many of the bar's patrons friends. "I was a kid when I started helping out in the grocery store so I've known some of the customers since then."
"It's a great place, one of the few real neighborhood taverns in Petaluma," he added.
Donnie Figone is the kind of person you would hope to find running your neighborhood tavern. An infectious smile and a hearty handshake are indicators of his gregarious nature, even at 6 a.m. when he comes in to help set things up for the first shift at 8 a.m. And, until a couple of years ago, he went right from the bar to his day job at Shamrock Materials, where he worked in sales for 38 years before retiring. He remarks that, "In the last few years we've seen customers move or pass away, and the economy had a big impact on what people could spend."
Though the economy has now picked up, the brothers are still considering selling the bar and are in discussions with possible buyers. Donnie Figone declined to say who potential buyers are or when a deal might be finalized, but made clear that the building will stay in the family — only the business will change hands.
Figone has mixed emotions but says he recognizes that change can be positive. "We're only selling the business, not the property, so we feel good about still being a part of what comes next."
In the tradition of a neighborhood establishment, the 8 a.m. opening draws a coterie of regulars, some of whom are getting off work and some who are just early birds. The space itself is pleasantly illuminated by natural light, which bounces off the polished wood bar. Cordial greetings and sports scores are exchanged, along with the news of the day. Joey Dolinsek, a carpenter by trade — and a lifetime skateboarder — is one of the morning crew. However, on a recent evening, he and a woman he described as "a lady friend" stopped in for a beer after the races at the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds, which is walking distance from Mario & John's. "It's got all the stuff I like, pool, shuffleboard, sports on TV," he said.
The afternoon crowd swells with a core group of long-time patrons who occupy the 14 stools at the bar and spill over to the scattered tables, including couples and single women.