On a warm Thursday night inside Volpi’s Historic Bar, a pair of visitors from Kentucky are perched at the bar, drinking Bud light, and swapping stories with bartender Tino Rivera. On the walls are an array of hunting trophies — with a yardstick available to measure the rack spread, should one be so inclined — while, overhead, dozens of dollar bills are pinned to the high ceiling, with messages, names, and doodles scrawled upon each faded green bill.
“You can tell the old ones from the new ones by how brown they are,” explains Rivera. “Some of have them been up there since before it was illegal to smoke indoors. People still want to add their own sometimes, though. We wrap the dollar bill around a heavy weight, with a pin sticking out, and throw it up there until it sticks. The weight falls down, and the dollar bill sticks up. Some are pretty ancient.”
It’s just such traditions that keep people coming to Volpi’s, and other local watering holes like it, and which lead residents to tell visitors from Kentucky and beyond that it’s a place they have to check out at least once while passing through town. The 92-year-old pre-Prohibition bar, bedecked with decades of photos, accordion memorabilia, and all those deer and elk heads, has become a certified Petaluma landmark - a compact, no-nonsense, comfortably cluttered, plain-beer-and-hard-drink haven, tucked away in the hindmost quarters of Volpi’s Ristorante on Washington Street.
It’s the kind of place some might once have called a “neighborhood bar” or a “family bar,” while some could certainly employ the once-pejorative phrase “dive bar.”
Originally meaning a descent into darkness, Dive Bar is a term that used to be tinged with danger and illicit immorality, but has since lost the air of seedy despair, and has now come to be synonymous with history, authenticity, and a certain kind of old-school charm.
“People love going to dive bars,” says Rivera. “I love going to dive bars. If I’m in a new town, I’ll ask, ‘Where’s a good dive bar?’ They’re fun. They’re real. A lot of them, like this one, are full of history. Here in town, I’ll go to Gales, on Petaluma Boulevard, ‘cause my buddy owns it and it’s fun - and that’s definitely a good, historic Petaluma dive bar. But I hang out here a lot, too, ‘cause I work here, and I’ve known the family my whole life.”
Rivera, born-and-raised in Petaluma, drives a truck by day — he drove out to Colusa County and back earlier today — but still spends a night or two every week making drinks behind the bar, where he’s worked Saturday nights, and the occasional fill-in, for nearly fourteen years.
“I’ve known this family since I was a kid. I’ve known the Volpi’s since I was eight years old,” he says. “My dad and the owner, John Volpi, taught boxing in town when we were kids. In the old days, ranchers used to come into town, do what they had to do, and stop in here for a drink before heading back home. But most of them are gone now. We do still have a few the old-timer’s kids, and grand-kids, and even some of their great-grandkids, coming in here.”
Before the front of the house was a restaurant, it was an Italian market. As such, it was one of several market-bar operations in town, a vanishing breed now mainly represented by Ray’s Delicatessen and Tavern, on Western Avenue since 1947.
This is the first in a six-part series exploring the historic bars of Petaluma. In part two, running next week, writer Clark Miller visits Andresen’s in downtown Petaluma.