2018 was a great year to eat in Petaluma

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In the past decade, Petaluma has seen a renaissance in its food scene, bringing diners an excellent breadth of choices, from fun to fancy. It was a trend that continued in 2018, bringing a slew of delectable eateries to town.

Right off the bat, What a Chicken opened its doors in January, and not even the cold or rainy weather could keep fans away. Some Petalumans were already familiar with the wares through the Tuesday east side farmers market, but the expanded menu blew the minds of longtime fans’ — and palettes. With just one or two complaints from neighbors, the city took issue with the amount of beautifully delicious smoke What a Chicken created with its grills. The owners agreed to move the cooking offsite to a commercial kitchen close by, and the business went on to earn the coveted “Best New Restaurant” award at the 2018 Petaluma Peoples’ Choice Awards. What a Chicken was also one of the highlights in my recent fish taco guide, with an honorable mention going to all their tacos, especially the shrimp tacos.

Chef Glen “Gator” Thompson moved from his very successful burger food truck into the space formerly occupied by Slam Burger, next to Sugo Trattoria, in March. He expanded his menu deep into his Louisiana roots. As Chef Gator’s Rustic Burgers & His Creole Friends, Gator has been wowing guests, with a special nod coming from some native Louisianans who say this is as good, if not better, than what they would find back home.

In April, Pearl quietly moved into the Luma’s former space, offering what is described as Eastern Mediterranean food, with dishes ranging from Greece to Turkey to Palestine to Israel and then down around the Mediterranean into North Africa. I had never heard of most of the dishes on the menu and so I took an expert with me, who used to live in those areas, and he was duly impressed with what we tasted. With clean, fresh and healthy ingredients, Pearl is reintroducing their take on historic recipes, much to Petalumans’ pleasure.

Pearl also introduced something new to Petaluma in regards to tipping. Unlike when Sauced tacked on an additional service fee of 20 percent to every bill, Pearl simply prices each dish accordingly, and then does not allow tipping. Any change in the tipping scheme seems to get ruffle a lot of people’s feathers but the truth is that when I check my credit bill at the end of the money, my meals at Pearl, with no tip allowed, are no more expensive than comparable meals elsewhere, where tipping is expected. (See the recent article “Pearl in Petaluma has banned tipping in favor of living wage” at petaluma360.com).

After quite a few months of build up, Chili Joe’s opened in June in the space formerly occupied by Le Bistro. Not that anyone could fill Le Bistro’s shoes, but Chili Joe’s brings something totally different than fine French cuisine, but no less delicious. Owners Wendy and Mark passed up on other locations, waiting a long time to get this spot, because they just felt it was right for what they wanted to do. Diners seem to agree. Not only does the throw-back cuisine fit in well across the street from Sax’s Joint, but the owners have paid honorable homage to the famous chili bars of our past.

Just one month later, in July, the humorously titled Stockhome Swedish restaurant opened at Shree Indian’s old location, at the corner of Western and Liberty. Nobody seemed to know what to expect from Swedish food, other than pickled fish, but owners Andrea and Roberth Sundell (who also own the well-respected Swedish restaurant Plaj in San Francisco) really hit it out of the park. Here you can find authentic Swedish dishes such as gravlax and shrimp skagen, as well as the eclectic mix of world cuisines known as “Swedish street food,” all of which are just as beautiful to look at as they are delicious to eat. Being veteran restaurateurs as well as local parents, the Sundell’s seem to know what Petaluma is looking for, which is both interesting food as well as food that appeals to the whole family. They have already hosted several special event meals, some that introduced us to Swedish delights, while others paired with local craft brewers.

Butcher Crown Roadhouse started smoking its specialty south-of-the-border cuisine in December and has been educating guest about Central and South American cuisine ever since. While still finding its legs, so long as they keep mixing things up, they will add an interesting twist to Petaluma’s food culture.

New locations

Lemongrass Thai Noodle opened in March at the corner of Petaluma Boulevard North and Washington. Just to clarify, these are the same folks as the cross-town Lemongrass Thai Cuisine, however this west side location has swapped some of the east side’s menu items for more noodle-related dishes. They also have a great happy hour. Lunn Yar Moe is another new Thai restaurant that opened in the former Osh shopping center, and is getting good reviews.

Dunkin Donuts opened right at the end of 2017 in the Friedman’s shopping center, much to some East Coast transplants’ delight, but I still prefer treats from our other three donut dispensaries, Keny’s, Sunrise and Donut Den.

On the river

Red Brick took over Graffiti’s spot at the foot of B Street in January, and immediately revamped the space and the menu. They were getting mixed reviews but are now consulting with some restaurant veterans so will likely have things turned around in no time.

River Front Café slid into the Apple Box’s river front space in June and was immediately drawing quite a crowd on their patio in the evenings for live music. With the cooler weather, things have moved inside, but keep an eye out for more outdoor music once the weather warms up.

Just down the street, in Theater Square, Pho Sonoma Vietnamese Cuisine opened in March and started off with mixed reviews, other than for their stellar service. Recently I have only seen good things about them, so will have to give them another try.

Out in Penngrove

Unfortunately, Yanni’s Sausages served their last sandwich in February, but handed off their tiny shop to a fellow Greek, who in June reopened as Yia Yai’s – the Grateful Greek. Thankfully, it still sources sausages from Yanni’s. Since that time, Yanni’s has moved over to the food service side, supplying local restaurants with their full line of sausages, and deeply into the retail market, distributing to just about every grocery store in the North Bay.

After two years, Penngrove Market re-opened and other than the name, is completely revamped, with a full remodel and four new owners, all of whom have a vast array of food, retail and grocery experience. Along with an excellent selection of local food purveyors, Penngrove Market also has an impressive coffee bar, hot and cold food bar and fresh sandwich and pizza menu. And with a rare on-sale and off-sale alcohol license, guests can enjoy food and adult beverages on the inviting front patio.


Several restaurant rose from the ashes this year.

Beyond the Glory closed down unexpectedly earlier this year, but the Inglins, who are partners in Seared, just reopened the restaurant under the same name. They want to keep the neighborhood feel that BTG always had.

The William Tell House reopened in downtown Tomales at the end of the summer, but is expect to close for some revamping soon and reopen for good sometime this spring.

Although under new ownership and a new name, Coastal Kitchen has given Dillon Beach cuisine that is actually worth the travel. The menu is limited, which is not surprising when you see the size of the kitchen, and learn that many suppliers will not make the trip all the way out that dead-end road for such a small restaurant. The chowder, although unconventional, is a real winner. It’s a big change from the cheap eats that long occupied that waterfront space.

Non-alcoholic sips

Taylor Lane Organic Coffee opened next door to Whole Foods and Quickly opened in River Front Plaza (formerly known as the Golden Eagle Shopping Center), offering bubble tea and other “treats.”

Sweets retreat

Supreme Sweets closed their store front next to Brewsters in October, but still offers custom cakes from their commercial kitchen.

Down a block and over in American Alley, across from Petaluma Pie Company, who is going strong, Bump City Bakery has announced the end of their café service as of the middle of December. They will still offer their gluten-free desserts through retail outlets such as Lunchette, Aqus, and Petaluma and Penngrove markets. Keeps an eye out for baking classes in the New Year.

Changes afoot

The Drawing Board has closed through February so current bar manager Danielle Peters and her partner and fiancée Erin Clossey can remodel and rebrand the space into more of a cocktail lounge, while still offering a healthy menu of snacks, small bites and shared plates.

One sweet shop that is here to stay, even though ownership has recently changed hands, is the Sweet Zone. The new owners are Heidi Reed and her fiancé Brian Grady, with 6-year-old daughter Phoebe in charge of quality control. They all look forward to more events in an effort to liven up Theatre Square once the holiday season is over.

Another change in ownership happened over at Everest Indian, located down from Taps. Rumor has it they will drop “Indian” from the name because they will also offer other cuisines from all over the Himalayan region and first reviews are that the food is even better than before, if that is even possible.

If P-Town Pastry seems like a new bakery on Kentucky Street, right where it transitions from Fourth Street, it is in name. It converted over from being called CBC Café which stood for “coffee, bakery and confectionary café” and never quite fit right.

Gone and nearly forgotten

Tup Tim Thai had taken the place of the ailing Thai Isaan but did not last long, closing in January of 2018. (Lemongrass Thai Noodle filled the spot.)

Shortly after that, Namaste, in the Osh shopping center, closed up, leaving room for Lunn Yar Moe Thai to open in its place.

Almost immediately after being mentioned in my fish taco guide, which highlighted their four different fish taco options, including chicharrones crusted fish tacos, El Dorado Grill (the green taco truck always parked in front of the fairgrounds) closed up and left town.

Not so surprising after the terrible food, pricing, and service we received at their soft opening, Izakaya Kitaru shut its doors this fall, roughly a year after first opening. The Bagel Mill is taking over that space, a place that has had a hard time sustaining restaurants recently.

The Patio Group, out of San Diego, had a tough year trying to break into and establish themselves on the Petaluma restaurant scene. They first opened Cultivate, next to Gator’s and Sugo on B Street, in May 2017, while working on getting a bigger restaurant, Chicken Pharm, up and running. Cultivate closed down in March, only to reopen roughly a month later as Harvest Eatery & Gourmet Pantry, which seemed just a bit too contrived. It closed its doors just four months later in August. It could not have been easy to compete with Lunchette, which is around the corner offering a similar, yet superior, menu.

Chicken Pharm finally opened in November 2017, but struggled right off the bat, in large part because Petalumans were not happy with the idea of counter service for a sit-down priced meal. They tried to adjust to their customers’ suggestions, but things just never seemed to click, and they too shut down their shop in September, leaving that space vacant again. As an interesting juxtaposition, Stockhome also opened recently, and with counter service, but has found immediate success, likely because their food is excellent and because they have owners on site to make sure that everything is running smoothly.

Lakeville Garden Sushi changed names and moved to the far north end of McDowell Boulevard a while back, but the owners of the original space recently attempted to revive the sushi joint, and rumor had it was doing a pretty good job. Oddly, they appear to be closed down again and are not answering calls.

Another restaurant that seems to be having staffing issues is Rubio’s, in the Friedman’s shopping center. Although not a confirmed closure, the hours have been spotty as of late, and most recently they had a handwritten sign in the window stating the business was closed. That shopping center has not had good luck with restaurants, with Togo’s and Dickey’s BBQ both not lasting long.

The restaurant class of 2018 is truly unique in cuisine and service and adds to an already impressive list of Petaluma restaurants that draws diners from both near and far.

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