I was skeptical at first of the reviews on Petaluma’s newest diner, Chili Joe’s. They simply seemed too one-sided, with only excellent reviews, touting the great food, service and atmosphere. All this about a chili, burger and dog joint. But at first step into the restaurant, we’re already seeing promising signs, and by the time we left, we too were all raves about Chili Joe’s.
The first thing that caught our eye upon entering Chili Joe’s were two of the bottles of beer on display. One was Texas favorite, Shiner Boch, which is about as good as it gets when looking for a good chili-pairing beer. The other was Köstritzer Schwarzbier, a hard to find German import black lager that drinks much smoother than it sounds. The second thing we saw was a menu large enough to give even the vegan in your party tasty options, while being easy to understand, although hard to choose from due to so many offerings.
The husband and wife team behind Chili Joe’s, Mark Yuwiler and Wendy Travis, met a decade ago at the former Finbar Devine’s trivia night, an activity they still enjoy today. They would go on to participate heavily during the Moose Lodge’s recent heyday, putting on large dinners and competing in the chili cook-off.
Yuwiler was born in Santa Monica and cooked his way up the coast with a stop at the Santa Cruz pier seafood restaurants while attending university. He received his French cuisine training while at the Stanford Court Hotel in San Francisco, where had the opportunity to chef alongside icons such as Julia Childs and Jacques Pépin. He then made his way to Petaluma, where he helped open Central Market, ran the banquet room at the Sheraton, along with his own catering.
Travis is a third generation Petaluman on both sides of her family and graduated from Petaluma High, as did her grandmother back in 1925. Her 86-year-old aunt still lives on the family farm on Skillman, where Travis picked walnuts as a kid to earn pocket money. In her 30s, she returned to college to earn her teaching credential and has been teaching third grade for 19 years now, currently at Monte Vista in Rohnert Park.
Yuwiler always reveled in all the burger joints that abounded in Southern California during his childhood, which is where iconic chains such as McDonald’s, In-N-Out, Carl’s Jr. and Jack in the Box got their start. But Original Tommy’s was always his favorite, and became the inspiration for Chili Joe’s.
“Even though he is French trained,” says Travis, “Mark has always talked about opening a joint based around comfort food.”
Yuwiler adds, “We looked at a lot of spots over the past few years, but always wanted this one,” he says of their Petaluma Boulevard South location, which previously housed Le Bistro.
“It has just the right vibe to give it that comfortable feel,” Yuwiler said. It also compliments Sax’s Joint across the street, which quickly became Petaluma’s new-nostalgic diner. While redesigning the restaurant after taking over what was Le Bistro, the couple kept the chili parlors of the 1920s and ‘30s in mind, in search of a Normal Rockwell ambiance.
What Yuwiler and Travis have put together is so much more than just a burger and dog joint. Sure, their menu has plenty of burgers and dogs, but Chili Joe’s sets themselves apart by offering a wide variety of chili, which when done right, is every bit as much an American comfort food classic as mac ‘n’ cheese, biscuits and gravy or fried chicken. Although the dish rarely gets top billing these days, Chili Joe’s plans to change that, and from the five chili’s we sampled, it’s well on their way.