One of the many whimsical certainties of Ernie’s Tin Bar — established in 1923, far out on a eucalyptus-fringed corridor of Lakeville Highway — is the beloved landmark’s strict prohibition against talking on cellphones while on the premises. There are signs saying as much throughout the diminutive establishment, even greeting arrivals as they step from the parking lot, succinctly informing all newcomers that if you make a cellphone call, you buy everyone a round of drinks.
Ironically, this is a point of constant conversation at the bar, especially for first-timers.
“People do like to talk about not talking on cellphones,” laughs bartender C.J. Fields (aka Calamity Jane), who points out that the cellphone rule is not the only conversation-causing detail of the Ernie’s Tin Bar experience. Case in point, a pair of travelers who’ve stopped in, by chance, have just asked which way to “the ladies room.”
“The blue boxes out in the parking lot,” Fields says, pointing through the open door to a conspicuous assemblage of port-o-potties in the distance. “Maybe I shouldn’t say blue boxes, though,” she adds with a smile. I mean, how do I know you’re not colorblind? They could look green to you, and then you’d never find them. My apologies. Whatever color they are, the port-a-potties are that way.”
Ernie’s Tin Bar — though established two whole years before Volpi’s, in downtown Petaluma— just misses the honor of being the oldest bar in town, by not technically being in town. Originally a blacksmith shop, the location has been a working auto repair garage for decades. The 1947 Chrysler with its hood open, and the adjacent room full of tools and automotive detritus, is a testament to the place’s history.
“It’s not just history. Cars do still get worked on here from time to time,” says Chris Nardone, co-owner with her cousin Ernie Altenreuther, for whom the place is named. “Back in the early days, ranchers used to stop by at the end of the day for a beer. A lot of them still do.”
For many years, it was the farmers and truckers and residents along the river who primarily frequented the place, and passersby on Lakeville did just that. They passed by.
But in recent years, with the addition of a covered patio, a first-rate assortment of craft beers on tap, and a number of others touches — all the peanuts you can eat, for example — the best kept secret in (or just outside of) town is no longer a secret. Ernie’s Tin Bar, which really is covered in tin, is so steeped in authenticity and old-fashioned charm, it’s actually become popular again.
And not just for the beer list and the peanuts, or the décor.
“It’s a friendly place,” says Chuck Hayden, a longtime regular, and likely the one who’ll answer to phone — a landline near the door — if you call for a ride.
That’s another detail that distinguishes Ernie’s from a lot of other drinking holes. Not only will the establishment pay for a taxi trip home if you find yourself in no shape to drive at closing time (generally around 9 p.m.), they’ll send a car to pick you up, too.
“This is a place where you know that everyone has everyone’s back,” Harden explains. “We don’t let things get heated and out of control. If someone gets a little too hot, and wants to start something, it doesn’t last long, and it’s usually the other customers who step in to cool things down. People come here to talk, tell stories, relax and fell good. You want to fight about politics or religion, then go someplace else.”
Part two of our series on the historic bars (and yes, sometimes the ‘dives’) of Petaluma