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Petaluma’s new Chicken Pharm worth the wait

After much anticipation, the recently opened Chicken Pharm is a surprising breath of fresh air in a downtown Petaluma that seemingly had everything.

The fact that Chicken Pharm is owned by an outside group has ruffled a lot of feathers locally — Petalumans are naturally suspicious of absentee owners. However, San Diego-based The Patio Group seems to understand that a large part of what makes Petaluma so great is how its residents and businesses interact with each other. After dining there twice, I am convinced that they have as good a shot as anyone to finally make this space work.

The local concerns were on the minds of the Patio Group management when they purchased the property after Social Club’s epic failure. Hilary Rossi, Senior Vice President of Food and Beverage for The Patio Group, fell in love with Petaluma from her very first visit.

“Petaluma reminds me very much of where I grew up, other than the occasional palm tree,” said Rossi, a country girl from Pennsylvania. “But it is more than just how Petaluma looks. It is about how involved the community is, which is why Chicken Pharm has been a labor of love for me. I get excited every time I get to check in on the restaurant.”

Rossi was given free rein to get to know Petaluma in order to find out what the city and its residents are all about. The Patio Group was not going to make the mistake of trying to impose their will, unlike Social Club, the previous restaurant in the location, which didn’t seek local feedback. Petalumans, ever the opinionated bunch, prefer to retain the city’s uniqueness by balancing nostalgia with innovation.

Rossi, who visited every local restaurant she could, was committed to not only experiencing what the Petaluma dining scene is all about, but also wanted to find out what might be missing.

“We didn’t want to just be different,” she said. “We wanted to offer something that locals would like.”

During her downtown restaurant research, Rossi realized there were limited options for casual grab-and-go, while also offering sit-down accommodations. She also found that although many places offer poultry dishes, the former “Egg Capital of the World” lacked a chicken- focused restaurant.

Although chicken is the focal point, Chicken Pharm also reaches out to other local purveyors to round out their menu. One such item is the burger, which uses meat from Petaluman’s historic Fallon Hills Ranch and is topped with Original Blue from award-winning Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese. Other items include a mac n’ cheese made with Petaluma Creamery’s white cheddar, and baked beans, which uses beans from Napa’s Rancho Gordo Beans and bacon from Zazu Kitchen’s Black Pig Meat Company.

We tried all three, and although the mac n’ cheese was less than spectacular one day, it had the perfect cheddar tang on our next visit. The burger was great too, but I have not stopped craving the sweet smoky flavor of the baked beans since first trying it.

Rossi spent a lot of time shopping around Petaluma to collect all the knick-knacks and artifacts that contribute to Chicken Pharm’s décor. She also commissioned local photo reproductions through the Historical Society to decorate the walls. Petaluma’s Heritage Salvage helped with a lot of the interior, including frames that help keep the TVs from being overpowering.

“We aren’t a sports bar, so the TVs needed to blend in,” said Rossi. “But we wanted to keep them, especially in the back room so guest could use them for slideshows when they rent the space for special occasions.”

Another key component of this local-first strategy was the hiring of chef Adam Mali. Formerly of Nick’s Cove in Marshall, Mali grew up in New York and has a bit of that Big Apple moxie. He attended Scottsdale’s Cordon Bleu Culinary Academy before moving to Denver, but he always yearned to be part of the San Francisco food scene.

After stopping in Petaluma while interviewing at Nick’s Cove, Mali told his wife that this is where they should raise their kids, he said. Ten years later, after stints at Nick’s Cove and in San Francisco, Mali is helping guide Chicken Pharm’s development, in part by giving them a first-hand Petaluma perspective.

The Chef admits that his favorite dish is the fried chicken.

“I’m a perfectionist so I’m always striving to make it better,” he said. “Sonoma County has such beautiful ingredients that I am careful how I innovate, so as not to insult those ingredients.”

After a positive experience during our first lunch at Chicken Pharm, we were happy to return two days later to give Sunday brunch a shot and to revisit the regular menu in order to hit a few items we missed the first time. We were pleased to find that instead of running a brunch-only menu, Chicken Pharm’s brunch is offered in addition to their regular “all-day” menu. The Crack of Dawn is a solid breakfast for just $12 and the Chef’s Benedict was perfectly cooked and required no additional lemon, which is one of our common critiques of that dish.

A common theme among members of the Petaluma Foodies Facebook group is that they do not seem to like the idea of ordering their food prior to sitting down. At first, I too was put off by this, but after our first visit, it really does not bother me. Rossi said she was already adjusting to Petaluma’s concerns by implementing a system for ordering additional drinks without having to leave the table.

Interestingly, cost was also an issue raised by some, but I do not believe they were considering the big picture. The portion sizes of all our meals were healthy and when considering the quality of the locally-sourced proteins, the pricing is more than reasonable. With sandwiches and burgers ranging from $8 to $15 and a roasted half-bird, big enough for two for only $11, having to pay for sides really is a non-issue in my book.

This is especially true when those sides include excellent sweet potato fries, deep fried pickles, baked beans, mac n’ cheese, and cheddar cornbread, ranging from $5 to $8. When compared to other lunch menus, I saw nothing out of the ordinary, especially considering the additional cost of local sourcing.

Opinions are split on the name, with many finding it to be a bit too pharmaceutical sounding, while others appreciate the nod to Tuttle Drugs, the beloved local pharmacy that occupied the location for many years. I was not a fan of the name at first, but after having such enjoyable dining experiences, I have not given it a second thought.

What does not seem to be up for debate is that Chicken Pharm has done a miraculous job of creating a comfortable atmosphere. The décor is inviting and homey, and although definitely shooting for a Petaluma country look, it stops shy of being cliché. The lighting is warm, the music is always at a decent volume, and even when the restaurant was full, it is easy to converse.

Unlike past restaurants in this space, the backroom is no longer an afterthought, and the TVs are unobtrusive.

Two more highlights are the enormous and uniquely shaped communal table, and the super plush paper napkins, which are a specialty of local Fishman Supply Company, which supplies most of the non-food items at Chicken Pharm.

Chicken Pharm hopes to break the bad luck that has haunted this location ever since Tuttle’s shut down 15 years ago. They have created an incredibly friendly space, and, although many including myself were inclined to dislike a restaurant group opening an outlet in Petaluma, guests are quickly changing their tune.

My fear that chains will start popping up in downtown has been eased by the fact that the Patio Group appears to be treating Petaluma with the reverence that it deserves. Additionally, few restaurants have the ambiance and the menu to attract my immediate return, but that is exactly what Chicken Pharm did after a few bites of their KimChicken sandwich, “Spatcocked” roasted chicken, deep fried pickles, and Baked Rancho Gordo Beans.

Petalumans are the biggest cheerleaders, especially when a restaurant embraces our values and strives above all else to contribute to our growing food legacy. Couple that with the fact that after only two visits under my ever expanding belt, I already have favorite menu items and cannot wait to enjoy their ambiance again. I believe Chicken Pharm will carve out a definitive spot in Petaluma’s downtown food scene.