The rolling hills of Sonoma and West Marin are finally turning green, thanks to this month's better-late-than-never rains. Springtime is a great time to make a day trip north, before the wine-tasting, guidebook-clutching traffic of summer backs up the backroads, and while the meandering, tree-crowned pastures are dotted with fluffy, just-born lambs and calves.
Located in Sonoma county (but close to the border of Marin), Petaluma is a good first stop that's often overlooked by wine-country browsers or beach-seeking hikers. With the highway behind you, stop, stretch your legs, check out the many antique shops, funky boutiques, and thrift stores, then, of course, get a bite to eat. Petaluma Boulevard is the town's main drag, but it's worth walking down the side streets, too; otherwise you might settle for Starbucks instead of the third-wave coffee served at the nifty Acre Coffee, which opened in September of last year. (Flying Goat Coffee in Healdsburg roasts their beans.)
Need brunch? Don't miss the challah French toast, honey-broiled grapefruit, or green eggs n' ham pizza at LUMA in the city's riverside warehouse district, where several local other food businesses, like Cowgirl Creamery and Three Twins Ice Cream, have their production facilities.
On sunny Sundays, the tables out front are particularly coveted for relaxed morning meals, perhaps recapping the previous night's music show at the Mystic Theatre. (Henry Rollins will be doing his thing at the Mystic on March 29; Mazzy Star and the Carolina Chocolate Drops are upcoming in April.)
At dinnertime, the restaurant, which opened last year, serves what owner Tim Tatum calls "eclectic American" or "global comfort food"--pizzas from a wood-burning oven, a pasta or two, lots of salads, truffled mac n' cheese, and chicken under a brick, with specials that might range from Korean short ribs to swordfish with capers, dished up by chef Jen Solomon, who worked at AsiaSF and District wine bar in the city before coming to Petaluma.
Tim, a builder and developer who grew up in San Francisco, built the mixed-use building that houses LUMA, with a plan for a restaurant in mind. The ceilings are high, the bar (where locals gather to eat, drink, and kibbitz) front and center. "We're still getting discovered by people," says Tim, who opened the place with his wife Kate hoping to create a "neighborhood joint" for locals, especially those in the 2-block-by-8-block riverfront district, where some 200 residential units have recently joined the old industrial spaces, where much of Petaluma's agricultural output was processed for shipping to San Francisco and beyond.
Without making a big deal of it, LUMA boosts many local products: coffee from the nearby Petaluma Roasting Company, cheese from Cowgirl Creamery, ice cream from Three Twins, port from Sonoma Portworks, Saison beer made in two-barrel batches in a warehouse down the road by the Henhouse Brewing Company. (Given Petaluma's history as the egg basket of Northern California, a beer company named after a chicken coop is no surprise.)
With a short but intriguing wine list in place, LUMA's now working on building up a beer program to match. "The craft breweries in this neck of the woods are phenomenal. Everyone who works here is very into beer. Up the North Coast, the Lost Coast, the beer scene is really exploding." says Tim. He hopes that, over time, the menu could adapt to accommodate these new beers, although already the Satan's Kiss pizza, topped with roasted cherry peppers, Italian sausage, mozzarella, and ricotta seems custom-made for a tall draft.
And speaking of beer, don't let the name fool you: although the company started in West Marin, the popular, rapidly expanding Lagunitas Brewing Company now brews in Petaluma. They offer tasting tours of the brewery Monday through Friday at 3pm, as well walk-through tours Wednesday through Friday at 3pm and 5pm, Saturday and Sunday at 1pm, 3pm, and 5pm.
Attached to the brewery is a lively taproom and beer garden with live music and plenty of special brews on tap. Although the whole complex is a few miles out of town, along a drab stretch of road lined with anonymous office parks, plenty of beer enthusiasts find their way here by happy hour; on a recent Friday night, parking spots were rare and nearly every outdoor picnic table was filled. (Plastic tenting and heat lamps keep the atmosphere toasty, no matter what the weather.)
For $5.50, you can create your own 4-taste beer flight, based on whatever's on tap that night. We got a mix of bright, grapefruity Lil' Sumpin' Sumpin; malty, mellow Wilco Tango Foxtrot (abbreviated, naturally, to WTF); snappy, yeasty Hop Stoopid, which smelled like baking bread and which we dubbed the "breakfast beer", and the brunch-worthy, coffee-flavored Cappuccino Stout. Pretzels and peanuts in the shell come with the brews, but there's a menu of panini, sausages, and other bar snacks, too.
Prefer a taste that's a little more Downton Abbey? Try a dessert-wine sipping at the Sonoma Valley Portworks, where you can sip port, sherry, muscat, even grappa. Deco, one of their most popular ports, is flavored with bittersweet chocolate, while the Duet cream sherry is enhanced with hazelnuts.
Inspired by all the green around you? The Seed Bank, at the corner of Petaluma Boulevard and Washington Avenue, took over what was once the Sonoma County National Bank. Now, the imposing building is packed with over a thousand different hard-to-find fruit, flower, herb, and vegetable seeds from the Missouri-based Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company, along with lots of useful magazines, books, and tools geared towards down-and-dirty home gardeners or aspiring urban farmers.
Saturday, March 24 from 10:30am-12:30pm, Marin Organic is offering a family-friendly tour of Windrush Farm in the nearby Chileno Valley, where owner Mimi Luebbermann raises sheep for wool, as well as chickens, llamas, and alpacas. (Save a pat for Daisy the Jersey cow, too!) Pet the lambs, snuggle a chicken, and learn how natural animal fibers are transformed from "sheep to shawl." Advance registration is required; the tour is $25-$20 for adults, $5 for children 2-16, free for children under 2. Can't make it this weekend? Windrush will be hosting another Farm Family Day in conjunction with the Marin Agricultural Land Trust on Saturday, May 5, from 10:30am to 1:30pm.
Photos by Stephane von Stephane