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Petaluma’s Aquarium stays afloat with 1960s style

History lives on at classic ‘neighborhood bar,’ though horses no longer stop in for a beer


There really aren’t a lot of fish in the Aquarium.

Two home-sized tanks, one slightly larger than the other, filled with a small variety of colorful active swimmers, are built into the wall behind the traditional polished bar, a link between the Aquarium bar/restaurant of the 1960s and today.

Among most who line the bar enjoying themselves and their friends, the tanks are hardly noticed. They have been seen before.

Tucked between a laundromat and the Alano Club, an Alcoholic’s Anonymous meeting hall, the Aquarium is one of those special places known in every town as a “locals bar.” It doesn’t attract the tourist crowds that explore the Kentucky Street eateries and watering holes, nor the trendy crowds that savor the latest craft beers at the increasing number of breweries.

You have to look to find the Aquarium, officially at 1030 Petaluma Boulevard North, but more easily accessible off Payran Street through the Lucky’s Market parking lot.

“We are pretty much a regulars bar,” says Jackie Cakebread, speaking for owner Dennis Scarpete as he busily works in the kitchen, preparing the traditional Italian dishes to be served to the increasing number of patrons who have discovered that the Aquarium is more than a gathering place for locals to imbibe and socialize. It is also a small, old-fashioned family restaurant.

Scarpete and wife, Karen, have owned the Aquarium since 2008.

Cakebread says today’s regulars can range from the 21-plus crowd, to those in their 70s.

“We get a wide range,” she says.

Cakebread does issue a word of warning for singles entering the Aquarium.

“We’re called the ‘Love Bar,’” she chuckles. “For some reason, we have a lot of marriages start from people who meet here.”

Although times have changed over the years, the Aquarium has remained much the same as when it was originally opened by Jake Mischel in the 1960s. The real aquariums are still in place; the rattle of dice and the serious talk of sports and politics still mingle with the laughs and jokes at the bar, and the outside sign is the same as it has been for four decades.

“Dennis wanted to keep the same tradition that Jake established,” says Cakebread.

And, he has pretty much succeeded, although it has been many years since a comely cowgirl rode her horse into the bar and asked that it (the gender of the horse has been lost in time) be served a beer.

“That was happening all over town back then,” Cakebread observes. “Those days are long gone. Now they’re more likely to push someone in on a shopping cart.”

But the Aquarium is far from a rowdy bar.

Laughter is much more prevalent than shouts, unless they are shouts of joy when the 49ers finally make a touchdown on a Sunday afternoon when the 49ers finally score a touchdown.

If there are cries or shouts, they are likely from those winning at the card game of King Pedro, a popular avocation at the Aquarium. The game has caught on to the point where the bar often holds dinners featuring food and the card game.

The Aquarium is, in every sense, a traditional bar, with a large selection of beer on tap and in the bottle, a full array of spirits, a selection of wine, a blaring juke box, and two clicking pool tables.

History lives on at classic ‘neighborhood bar,’ though horses no longer stop in for a beer

But, there is another side to the Aquarium.

It is also a restaurant that offers a combination of Italian and American cuisine.

Daily specials are handwritten on a homemade calendar posted on a wall near the kitchen. The menu is heavy on Italian entrees ranging from traditional ravioli to pork chops and tripe. But on any given day, diners might find anything from fried chicken to pan-fried catfish featured.

This is in addition to the traditional American hamburgers, salads, hot sandwiches and fish and chips.

Appetizers are favored by many bar patrons.

The restaurant does a strong lunch business pretty much every day, and is serving more and more family dinners as the town bids farewell to some of its traditional restaurants, such as the recently closed Mr. McGoo’s.

As Petaluma loses these landmarks, the Aquarium remains a link between the past and the now.

“I’m happy we are keeping alive the traditions that have been here for years,” says Scarpete. “I appreciate the clientele that has supported us for years.”

(Contact John at johnnie.jackson@arguscourier.com)