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Hallie’s Diner in Petaluma is worth the wait


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Despite ownership changes at Hallie’s in Petaluma, the little diner remains beloved in the hearts and stomachs of locals and visitors alike. This is thanks in large part to the fact that the new owner has been a server at Hallie’s for well over a decade and so knows exactly what her customers have come to expect from this downtown diner.

Since day one, roughly 20 years ago, Hallie’s has been a hometown favorite. Clay and Ann Stark named the diner after their daughter Hallie, who as a young child used to sleep inside the glass display case at the front end of the counter. Jenn (Braga) Cromwell joined the crew roughly 16 years ago, after working for a decade at Petaluma’s famed Marvin’s. Two years after joining Hallie’s, Chris and Louie Tsamoudakis took over and were daily fixtures until the recent sale to Jenn and her parents, Nancy and Jim Braga.

Thanks to Mark Gerhard on Facebook, I learned that Hallie’s was on the brink of being sold to some investors out of L.A. who were affiliated with Panda Express. We will never know just how close we came to losing our beloved Hallie’s, but thankfully for Petaluma, some of the investors fell out and Jenn and her parents stepped in.

“This place is all about the people,” says Jenn. “We are so glad to be able to keep the same staff and serve the same customers as we have for so long. It’s as if I get to visit with family every day.”

Jenn and her parents have only made a couple small changes, but nothing that would disrupt the regulars. In deference to supporting other local businesses, Hallie’s now stocks only Clover Sonoma for all their dairy products, from milk to cheese to sour crème. They have also started offering English Muffins, whose absence from the menu all these years has grown into a bit of a running joke among patrons.

The Braga’s have a long history on the local food scene, both employed with food distribution companies as well as running their own catering company.

“My sister Erin and I used to spend a lot time in the kitchen peeling carrots,” says Jenn about helping her parents every weekend with catering jobs. “I look forward to having my kids help at the restaurant because I want them to learn the same great work ethic that my parents taught me.”

Nancy and Jim have partially emerged from retirement to help Jenn run the restaurant. Nancy helps with a lot of the behind the scenes organization while Jim is in the kitchen for a couple hours each day keeping up on inventory and creating the specials menu.

It is the rare occasion that I am actually eating a restaurant’s food while sitting at my computer writing their article, but that was the case with Hallie’s. Most of my food crew was unavailable on the weekend I visited Hallie’s to do research, however, that did not stop me from ordering a good portion of the menu. I visited a consecutive Saturday and Sunday afternoon, having only recently discovered that Hallie’s serves lunch. “On the weekends, just about everyone orders breakfast,” says Jenn, “but during the week, we get quite a few people who meet here for lunch.”

As Jenn and our server Karen both proclaimed the Reuben to be one of their favorites, I may as well start there because as I started working through my photos and notes, I was enjoying reheated leftovers of those two dishes. Hallie’s kitchen bakes the brisket themselves in house, and it is excellent. The lean corned beef, along with sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and Reuben sauce are wedged between grilled rye bread, sourced from Basque Boulangerie Café, which is the second iteration of the Sonoma French Bakery, started on the Sonoma Square in 1956. I have since returned for the Reuben, because it had been on my mind since devouring the last bite and thankfully, it lived up to expectations. It is simply that good.

Because it would be unfair to asses a chef’s dish if I’ve asked to leave things off, I refrain from doing so when researching articles. For this reason, I crossed my fingers and hoped that the mushrooms in the sauce would not be detrimental to what would normally be one of my favorite comfort foods – meatloaf. Not only was the house-made meatloaf incredible, but the marsala and mushroom cream sauce takes this dish to a whole other level.

In fact, it was so good that I immediately regretting how big my initial mouthful was because within moments of that first bite, I knew I wanted to save the meatloaf for later, away from the prying forks of my fellow diners. When eating both dishes later, I devoured the Reuben first, and saved the meatloaf madness for “dessert.”

I would not normally order tacos, especially at a diner, because I do not usually like all the garnish that comes with them. I prefer my tacos with just meat and cheese. But having never tried Hallie’s before, we added Steak Tacos to our order. I know that “build your own” is not a new concept, but nonetheless really appreciate that Hallie’s serves their tacos clean and lets patrons do as they please with the included cheese, sour cream, and two salsas. Left to choose quantities for myself, I actually tried something new and added a bit of both salsa to my tacos, and loved it. These are the same two salsas, one savory and one fruit, that come with the ever-popular Latin inspired breakfasts.

When the question of which dishes should not be missed was posted to the Petaluma Foodies group on Facebook, it appeared that favorites emerged. That was until I reviewed the menu and saw that diners seem to like everything on the menu, from the Maya Tipico, to the French Toast to the Salmon Scramble, and that was before we even discussed the lunch menu, which included honorable mentions for the Tuna Melt, Grilled Ham and Cheese, Chicken Quesadilla, and last but certainly not least, the BLT.

“I’ve never seen a dish like Maya Tipico on any other breakfast menu,” says Esther Garel Oertel of Petaluma Foodies. “I initially tried it because it seemed like an interesting novelty, but I return to it because it’s delicious! I love the different salsas served with it and the plantain is such a treat.” The Maya Tipico is two eggs, fried plantains, black beans, tortillas, sour cream and two salsas. Morgan Kimes confirms this with an emphatic, “Maya Tipico - all day long!”

Niki Jelks told me the Cinnamon French toast was amazing, and I am happy to confirm this. The Huevos Ranchos is another huge hit, with two fried eggs on a tortilla, topped with cheese, avocado, and two salsas, with black beans and sour crème on the side.

Chef Nicholas Williams of FeastFit Meal Prep reminded me about the Cornmeal Pancakes, which have a grainy texture and sweet flavor. It is rare that I do not order at least one as a side to any breakfast I order. Other favorites are the Biscuit and Country Gravy, Corned Beef Hash and the Eggs Petaluma, which are poached eggs with ham or spinach, topped with lemon herb sauce. Petaluma City Councilmember Kathy Miller suggests the Chorizo Omelet, which is at the top of my list for next time.

We rarely pass up the Crab Cake Benedict or the Bay Shrimp Scramble when they grace the “specials” board as both are always excellent. And on the lunch menu, we have really enjoyed the Patty Melt, with added bacon, of course, and a cup of Lentil and Ham soup is the perfect chest warmer on an overcast day.

However, by far, my favorite meal has to be the newly discovered Salmon Scramble. Trusting the palette of Amber Balshaw (Preferred Sonoma Caterers), I could not resist trying this dish once she informed me it was her favorite. Apparently, the staff knows Amber well, and always includes a special side of black beans for her, but I tried it straight, and the smoked salmon, green onions, cream cheese, and eggs are devilishly delicate while being deliciously divine. No wonder it is Jenn’s favorite too.

The coffee aficionado among us pointed out that she never would have discovered Petaluma Coffee and Tea’s Guatemalan blend had it not been for Hallie’s, and has been ordering it for home ever since. Another nice touch is that Hallie’s goes without those little creamers on the table, instead supplying fresh dairy for both coffee and tea alike. I also regularly enjoy the huge hot chocolate, and on occasion indulge in one of their mouthwatering milkshakes.

Regardless of the weather, you can expect to wait to be seated, even on a weekday morning. However, as evidenced by the large crowds always huddled out front of Hallie’s, it is clearly worth it. One of our tricks is to dress extra warm and then opt for one of the two outside tables, which are usually available in short order on our short and cold winter days. If you still are not convinced that the wait is worth it, Hallie’s has taken home the Petaluma People’s Choice Award for “Best Breakfast Venue” dating all the way back to 2005, when the contest first started.

Hallie’s clearly picked up the torch which blew out when the iconic Marvin’s left Kentucky Street. Only Hallie’s seems to appeal to a broader cross-section of veteran Petalumas and those that venture to our town for the great food. Appealing to everyone from Sunday morning’s elderly church-goers to young hipsters, the restaurant truly feels like Petaluma. Additionally, it is the rare visit where guests do not run into at least one other person they know, which gives Hallie’s a very communal vibe. The staff seems to remember patrons, even those that have may have been absent for years, although it is rare that one can stay away that long between visits because the food and the company simply put, recharges the soul.

When going down the list of staff, Jenn counts eleven people, naming them off in succession - Fredy, Jesus, Jose, Juan, Karen, Kelly, Lora, Renulfo, Stephanie, and Toni. I have to chuckle when I ask if she is the eleventh, because of course she is. Little has changed since taking ownership of the restaurant in regards to her own involvement as she continues to work side-by-side with the coworkers who have become like family to her. “I’m working a little more but it has been a very smooth transition thanks to the staff,” says Jenn.

Just as with Hallie’s owners in the past, guests are hard pressed to be able to identify the owner, because the entire staff takes that level of pride in what they are doing. Additionally, the owners of Hallie’s have always worked the floor alongside their staff, treating them more like family than employees. This is no different with Jenn, who is a constant blur around the restaurant seating tables, refilling coffees, and saying a quick ‘hello’ to all the regulars, which seems to be just about everyone, even if it is only their second or third visit.

My normal advice to those purchasing an existing restaurant is to redefine and rebrand. Often, a restaurant sale is spurred by owners looking to retire, which can sometimes mean that a place has slowly gone downhill. This is usually accompanied by lackluster service, a stale menu, and a waning in ambiance. It is the rare restaurant that is so popular that it makes sense to leave everything untouched after a change of ownership. However, Hallie’s is the exception to that rule.

Thankfully, Hallie’s food is excellent, because regardless, so long as Hallie’s staff keeps doing what they are doing, Petaluma can count on Hallie’s bringing us all together for decades to come. And you will find no better representation of why Petaluma is unique among unique small towns than the Braga’s, who will surely keep us happy and healthily feed whenever we are looking for great food and good company.