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A visit to Petaluma’s iconic Mario and John’s Tavern

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The unobtrusive little tavern on D St. seems a little different than it did when Mario and John Figone first put their name on it 72 years ago. For one thing, the place now has big windows. For another, the bar opens at 3 p.m. these days, as opposed to 8 a.m., its opening time for decades.

The large double doors that serve as the entry point to Mario & John’s, however, are more-or-less exactly as they’ve always been — windowless, unadorned, and slightly-imposing, for years allowing casual passersby to imagine that the interior of the place must be dark, cramped, and secretive — a private place for private drinkers. Perhaps the kind of place that the character Nick describes in “It’s a Wonderful Life” when he says, “We serve hard drinks in here for men who want to get drunk fast and we don’t need any characters around to give the joint atmosphere.”

If any of that were ever the case at Mario and John’s, those days are long gone.

On a Friday afternoon in late June, around 5:30 p.m., there are about a dozen folks present, some at the bar, some scattered here and there throughout the place, many near the windows, some availing themselves of the pool table or shuffleboard. The interior is clean, spacious and uncluttered, those big, new windows allowing plenty of light inside, on this still sunny summer day. The 375 bottles on display behind the bar are like a kaleidoscope of color, reflecting the light of the tavern’s original hanging lamps.

“See all of these old Jim Beam decanters?” asks Danny Ojinaga, Mario & John’s Beverage Director (aka bartender), gesturing to a row of ornate antique bottles on top of the high shelf. “Most of those were here for years, from back when the original owners had the place, though a few of them have been donated by old customers and neighbors.”

Tucked into a residential neighborhood a block off of Washington St., Mario & John’s is an iconic slice of Petaluma history, a throwback to the days when most neighborhoods had their own corner bar. At one point, over half-a-century ago, the brothers Figone owned and operated Mario & John’s, an adjoining grocery store and barber shop, and the nursery across the street. John passed away many years ago, and Mario died in 2010, by which point the grocery was gone, allowing the bar to expand. The building is now owned by Mario’s sons Donnie and John, who sold the bar business to Micah Porter and Nicholas Diego about five years ago.

Ojinaga was brought in from the beginning, and he’s become an integral fixture at Mario & John’s ever since.

“I admit I never used to come in here before,” says Ojinaga. “It seemed like, I don’t know, a place for regulars, for the cats who’d lived in this neighborhood for years. But the neighborhood has changed, and now the bar has changed with it. People who come in here today are almost always surprised. It’s hilarious. People will walk in and say, ‘I didn’t expect this place to be so nice. I thought it would be more of a dive!’ It’s crazy.”

Ojinaga explains that in terms of trends and labels, the management simply considers Mario and John’s to be a neighborhood bar specializing in craft cocktails. To that end, the wine and beer list has a large number of Sonoma County labels, and the enormous shelf features a number of spirits made right here in Petaluma, including gin from Griffo Distillery.

“We’re really not a dive bar, though we embrace the dive bar history of this establishment,” allows Ojinaga. “We just hold a certain historical integrity. Some people use the ‘hipster’ label for what the place has become, and that’s okay, too - but we basically just consider ourselves a bar for anyone between 21 and 90 years old, and beyond.”

Pointing to couple sitting at a nearby table, he says, “Check it out. Right now, we’ve got some older cats over here,” and indicating a group of twenty-somethings at the pool table, he adds, “And these other cats are young professionals. We’ve got lots of both here, and some young hipster kids, and some neighborhood folks, and everything in between.”

As for the drinks he spends his evenings creating, Ojinaga is proud of the tavern’s reputation for well-made cocktails.

“The whole ‘Cocktail Revolution’ thing has been happening, right?” he says. “Now everybody who used to drink beer or wine or shots have been exposed to what cocktails are, and a lot of these young cats are starting to experiment with drinking the old classics. It’s an interesting time to be a bartender.”

Should someone not know what they want to drink, exactly, Ojinaga says with a grin, all you have to do is name an ingredient or two and the kind of mood you’re in, and the bartender on duty will tailor-make a drink for you, right on the spot.

“I love it,” he says of the evolution toward quality drinks that has transformed the bar-and-tavern industry like some sort of an alcohol-enthused social movement. “I started doing this 20 years ago, in the days when bars served crappy sweet-and-sour mix, and everything was Malibu and Midori, and you didn’t see a lot of crafts spirits on the market,” he says. “Now, we’ve got all kinds great spirits out there, and the cats who come in here want really great ingredients in their drinks.”

As if on cue, a newcomer take a seat, and asks Ojinaga to improvise a drink.

“Something summery, but not too summery,” the customer says. “A little sweet, but not too sweet. Strong, but not too strong.”

As he steps off to assemble his sweet, strong and summery cocktail components, Ojinaga’s grin returns.

“Like I said,” he nods, “it’s an interesting time to be in the cocktail business.”

(To contact Community Editor David Templeton, write him at david.templeton@arguscourier or call 707-776-8462)