Photos by R. V. Scheide
Brewed to Order: The Third Street Alehouse in Santa Rosa offers downtown denizens a place for socializing, though it's soon to get competition from the Russian River Brewing Company.
Drinkin' and Drivin'
A select tour of the bars and byways of the North Bay
By R. V. Scheide
"Bohemians," a wizened old man by the name of Banjo Bob tells me, "only come out at night." Now, Banjo had in mind the sort of artsy dilettantes you see sipping cappuccino in Parisian cafes, but this same nocturnal characteristic can be applied to bohemians everywhere, including those who frequent the bars and clubs of the North Bay.
They only come out at night.
Banjo Bob hangs out at the bars in Cloverdale, at the far north end of Sonoma County, where the redwoods meet the vines. Between here and the Golden Gate, there must be hundreds of similar bars, catering to tastes and desires that run the gamut, from wine bars to brew pubs, dive bars to jazz clubs, roadhouses to cocktail lounges, and everything in between.
No one article could possibly survey all of these establishments (see sidebar for additional suggestions), so we selected 10 that either by word of mouth or personal experience had attracted our attention. Then, vowing to stay off Highway 101 and stick to the more than 350 miles of winding North Bay back roads that link the 10 bars together, I set out by motorcycle to catch these so-called bohemians in the act and gather some of their stories. Naturally, I started at the bottom, where the Golden Gate ends and the North Bay begins.
If I had a boat, I would have sailed into Sam's Anchor Cafe. There are at least two ways to get there, by land or by sea, and if you bring the boat, parking at the public docks is free. The land route is more of a drag. I work my way through horrible Marin traffic and canyons carpeted with high density housing to the restored waterfront Main Street of downtown Tiburon, where this one-time bootlegging palace is located.
Boat people are different than you and me. For one thing, their drinks are bigger, like the tall pint glasses of Sam's Pink Lemonade (Sky Citron vodka, 7-Up, sweet and sour, Rose's lime juice, a little cranberry juice for color) that patrons favor on hot, sunny days. For another, they're better looking.
"When you come here, especially on the weekend, there are tons of beautiful people," says Rachel Winner, who tends the inside bar at Sam's. It's all about seeing and being seen--and drinking, sometimes too much. Winner's sage advice? "If you're going to drink all day out on the deck, drink one glass of water per drink so you don't pass out."
Out on the deck is where the eye candy is. It's not unknown for some rich guy to show up in his cabin cruiser with a half-dozen scantily clad strippers on board. Of course, Sam's is also a family seafood restaurant of some note, so shorts are required on the deck, covering up all the skimpy bikini bottoms and thongs. Still, there's purportedly more silicon and collagen on display than six consecutive episodes of Nip/Tuck.
"If you're a single person, you'll have no trouble meeting somebody," guarantees Jason Zamlich, a waiter at Sam's. "It's a happening place."
Sound like bohemians to me.
But I'm a country boy at heart and yearn for wide open spaces. I catch Sir Francis Drake Boulevard just north of Tiburon and head west. The densely packed houses of southern Marin County thin out somewhere past Fairfax, giving way to the rolling, green hills of one vast open space preserve after the other. It's difficult to believe that a few short minutes ago, I was looking across the bay at a booming metropolis.
Bottleslinger: At Sam's Anchor Cafe, the beautiful people come by car, boat, or bike to play.
It starts cooling off shortly before the boulevard runs into Highway 1; a thick blanket of fog blots out the sun. By the time I reach Pt. Reyes Station, the chill that has set in makes the Old Western Saloon a welcome sight. It's situated in a ramshackle, two-story wooden hotel across from a defunct brick building where West Marin's much-vaunted libertarian spirit makes itself known: someone has stenciled over the "No Parking" signs painted on the brick so that now they read "No Barking."
Cars are lined up alongside the building, right where they're not supposed to park. Next to the saloon are three hitching posts to tie up the horses. The only thing missing are swinging doors.
"It looked like it was gearing up to be quite a party Saturday night," the hippie from Olema says to Helen Skinner, the bartender. "There were two weddings and fire dancers in the street."
"It was a zoo," Helen agrees.
The hippie from Olema, aka Jerry Lunsford, DJs at KWMR, 90.5/89.3 FM, the local radio station. In his denim overalls, he looks like he just came in from the farm. For the other half-dozen or so locals present, blue jeans and flannel do just fine. They're horse people, some of them, naturalists, who live out here in the boonies, the open spaces, because they wouldn't have it any other way--bohemians, country-style. On any given afternoon, the Old Western is where they congregate.
"This is our living room," Jerry explains.
A wooden sign on the wall reads "Please check your knives and guns at the bar." It's only half-kidding. At night, when the bohemians come out, things can get a little crazy. One guy came in the other night and pointed to a table where he claimed his daughter, now 24, was conceived. Another guy told him that he'd seen a couple humping on the very same table just a few nights ago. One time a wedding party showed up when Greg Allman happened to be playing. The wife, wedding dress trailing behind her, left on the back of Allman's Harley.
Back in the day, patrons used to ride their horses right into the saloon. Nobody's done that for several years now, so the time is probably ripe, although not for the hippie from Olema. His llamas have been banned from the bar.
Leaving the Old Western behind and heading east on Pt. Reyes-Petaluma Road, I enter cattle country. I'm still surrounded by open space, but the hills and pastures have been trampled flat. The pungent smell of cow manure hangs thick in the air. I'm reminded that milk and hamburger aren't made at Safeway. The road finally unwinds in Petaluma, ranchland giving way to outlying subdivisions giving way to D Street's majestic houses and then to downtown's pristine late 19th-century architecture.
Zebulon's Lounge is nestled among these brick and granite buildings. You'd expect to find a jazz club or a wine bar or an art gallery here, and that's exactly what Zebulon's is--all three. The brainchild of certified bohemians Trevor Zebulon Cole (weird parents) and Karen Ford, the lounge opened a year and a half ago and has been packing the house, thanks to its main organizing principle: to present the best live jazz, from traditional to hip-hop, in the North Bay.
It's nightclub dark in here, with hanging red-nipple light fixtures directly over the bar and abstract expressionist paintings by three different artists hanging on the walls. Karen, an art major, runs the gallery; Trevor books the bands. They're still waiting for their hard-liquor license, so in the meantime, in lieu of cocktails, Zebulon's serves wine, Belgian ale, and some incredibly strange sake cocktails. Karen and Trevor discovered the cocktails in New York City and, since no bohemians worthy of the name listen to jazz without a martini glass in their hand, they brought them to Sonoma County.
I sample the Green Dragon, made with Nigori sake, green tea, and ginseng, which tastes OK, though it lacks bite. The Black Irish, Bailey's, and sake, I think, tastes more like a genuine cocktail, but until the liquor license comes through, bohemians will probably want to stick to the wine or Belgian ale--there's just something about drinking beer from a brewery that's nearly 1,000 years old. There's a long list of local and European wines, as well as a good selection of apéritifs.
"The musicians love playing here because there is no other place in Marin or Sonoma like this." Karen insists. As I leave, Trevor and Karen, both avid students of bar life, point me toward the Black Cat, a short jaunt away in historic downtown Penngrove. It's open mic night, it's a lesbian bar, it's supposed to be wild, they say. But it's late and I've had enough. Time for this boho to go home.
The next afternoon at the Black Cat, I meet owner Robin Pfefer, who is quick to point out that while the Black Cat is a lesbian-owned bar, it is by no means strictly a lesbian bar.
"To me, there just wasn't a fun place to hang out in Sonoma County," says the spiky-haired, pierced, and tattooed barkeep. She opened a year ago so she could "have a little dive to call my own."
It's a cute little dive, dark, with lots of black-cat statuettes and autographed bras hanging from the ceiling--sometimes the girls get a little wild and turn themselves loose. Wednesday's open mic night (Robin plays guitar in the house band) is maybe when the crowd gets the wildest. One Wednesday, a burly, straight rancher type got up and sang country and western duets with a blue-haired transgender individual. Even though the Black Cat T-shirts Robin sells say "Where the Girls Are" on the back, that's the kind of diversity she's shooting for. In other words, all bohemians welcome.
Ride 'Em Rowdy: At the Old Western in Point Reyes Station, bar patrons do it country style.
Keeping my vow to stay off 101, I drive north on Stony Point, grab Gravenstein Highway, and cruise into Sebastopol, where, in the small, restored train station near downtown, I find Appellations, a wine bar that's been set up in a refurbished Pullman club car. Stepping inside is to enter a cooler, more sophisticated universe: the floor of the narrow car is lined with leopard carpet, the chairs and interior are elegantly reupholstered in tan and burgundy, the overhead lighting is soft and subdued. But don't let the swankiness fool you. Manager Paul Sequeira is aiming to take the mystery out of vino, not create a legion of wine snobs.
"Wine used to be everyman's drink," he says. "But at some point, it got associated with the upper crust, and so people started approaching it with timidity. The main misperception people have is that you have to know a lot about wine to enjoy it. You don't. It's earthy--it's from the earth. That's what makes it so special."
Appellations is owned by Lucas Martin of K&L Bistro fame, whom Paul has worked for as a wine buyer for many years. The duo patterned Appellations off wine bars they'd visited while traveling in Europe. The concept is pretty simple: match some appetizer-sized portions of favorite bistro dishes with a selection of fine local and imported wines that can be purchased by the glass, the flight, the half-bottle, or the bottle. But which one to pick with my braised lamb, polenta, and peas appetizer? No problem. There are no stupid questions at Appellations.
Paul selected Artadi Rioja "Viñas de Gain" for me, explaining that it was made with tempranillo grapes, which are known to go well with lamb. It turned out to be a fairly bold red wine that functioned as advertised. It was the missing piece to the puzzle of sensations sliding across my palate. The only thing missing was movement--this train never leaves the station.
But I did, blasting down the Bohemian Highway to Occidental, where the Cock and Bull sits in a pristine, white two-story cottage on the edge of the road. The owners and operators, Chris and Maude Stokeld, will be familiar to many in Santa Rosa, since they ran the Old Vic for years. Forced out of their city digs, they set up shop in the country, bringing many of their longtime employees as well as their son with them.
"He's done a lot of things," Maude says of her husband, who was away in England, "but even when he was an engineer, he always made his pies." He's still making 'em. Steak pies braised in Guinness. Fish and chips with cole slaw or mushy peas. Bangers and mash. It's all very British, right down to the Union Jack, Guiness on tap, and, prominently displayed on the far wall, the large portrait of Chris in his younger years, wearing a dress, pudgy little bulldog at his side.
On Friday and Saturday nights, Maude says the wait for a table is up to 30 minutes, and that's on word-of-mouth alone. Or perhaps it's by way of nose. The fish and chips smell fantastic, but this boho has to roll. I ride the Bohemian Highway, past the thick grove where those Moloch-worshipping goofball billionaires meet every July, into the starry Sonoma night.
Bohemians sleep late. I arrive at Third Street AleWorks in Santa Rosa on a hot Friday afternoon. All the stools at the bar are taken and a line is forming at the cash register. Giant stainless-steel vats behind the bar seem to cave in as the thirsty crowd sucks down microbrew. Third Street has been in business eight years now, and the place is obviously addicting.
"We get a really diverse crowd economically and agewise," says manager Aleksandra P. Grozdanic. "It's really nice. It means people feel comfortable."
There are bohemians here, disguised as lawyers, accountants, students, bikers, waiting for the night. The industrial interior--corrugated metal sheeting, bicycles hanging from steel beams, the coiling pipes and tubes of the brewing apparatus--is a subliminal reminder of a harder, dirtier past, when work really sucked and there weren't more than a dozen house-made lagers to choose from. Now that there are--well, hey, work still sucks, so let's pound one!
The Cat Calls: By many accounts, Wednesday open mic nights are when the Black Cat gets going.
Because they sleep late, bohemians usually don't get to eat breakfast, so naturally I'm starving. Good thing Third Street has the best kitchen and most complete menu of any brew pub I've been in. My Baja fish tacos, washed down with light and easy American wheat ale, are toothsome. With energy to burn, it's time to head to 1351 Lounge in St. Helena.
Calistoga Road corkscrews up through the hills separating the Sonoma and Napa Valleys, quickly leaving Santa Rosa behind. I stab right at the St. Helena Road cutoff, flashing past hillside stands of manzanita, oak, and redwood, crossing the Napa County line down Spring Mountain Road, into downtown St. Helena, where the weekend traffic already stretches from one end of Main Street to the other. I park, walk past sidewalk sales through thick throngs of tourists into the solid granite bunker that is 1351.
Situated in what was originally the Bank of Italy when it was built in the 1890s, 1351 is as dark as a mausoleum and perhaps spookier, thanks to black lights in the stone overhead that set things to glowing, especially the drinks.
Let me tell you about the drinks.
They're made using fresh fruit (owner Sayle Lynn's concept), sliced up and blended before your eyes. There are about a million custom cocktails to choose from. I choose the Charbay cream soda: locally produced Charbay blood-orange vodka, fresh-squeezed orange juice, vanilla syrup, and a dash of soda, I think, served in a large martini glass. The first sip . . . O, drop of golden sun! O, kiss of morning dew!
1351 serves beer and wine too, but when the cocktails are this good, why bother? Just crank up the blender and kick it while Buddy Craig does his psychobilly slam-grass country thing. Live music, house DJs, drinks that glow in the dark and taste like the sweet nectar of life itself. What could be more natural . . . or, say, bohemian?
"We actually like it to be darker in here," says bartender Krissy Harris from behind the concrete slab bar. The streaked forelock on her close-cropped dark hair verily screams bohemian. She points up. "These lights here dim."
On weekends and special occasions, they open up the old bank vault. Has anybody ever been locked in? There's no time to ask. I'm almost to the end of the road, and I've saved the best part for last. Highway 128 from Calistoga to the Alexander Valley slithers through wine country like a slippery eel, shimmering in the windowpane blaze of hilltop mansions. At the Alexander Valley Store, 128 takes a hard right, and it's easy to miss Barbie's, tacked on to the back of the store like an afterthought, the only hint of its existence a neon sign that says "Open Cocktails."
Inside, game four of the Cubs-Marlins playoffs is on, and two guys at the end of the bar are watching.
"Corky's coming up!" says the guy in the Ben Davis work shirt, whose name turns out to be Ed.
"Corky?!" says the other guy, whose name I don't get. "He grabs one bat by accident, and you call him Corky!"
Sammy Sosa steps up to the plate and swats a two-run homer out of the park. Ed shakes his head in disbelief.
"I've been drinking here since I was 16," says Ed, a hulking fifty-something farmer who recalls years ago getting eighty-sixed for peeing outside by his bicycle before he rode home. For locals like Ed, Barbie's is an oasis, the only place to get a drink for six or seven miles. It's a crossroads for construction workers, hotel and restaurant employees, and all the people who keep this end of wine country going.
There are, of course, occasional passers-through. Like the foursome who walk in decked out like a Vegas lounge act. The redhead has a green dragon tattoo covering almost her entire back. They're headed to River Rock Casino, just a couple miles down 128. They look like bohemians to me.
"Usually, they just walk in and ask directions," says bartender Kelly Curtis. "But the other night, the casino did send a couple of ladies who wanted drinks our way."
On the way home to Cloverdale, I pass the casino, perched on a knoll just north of Geyserville, hovering above the Alexander Valley like an enormous flying saucer.
End of the Line: At the Dante--equal parts heaven, hell, and purgatory--pretty much anything goes.
The Dante is the last bar in northern Sonoma County. The most infamous dive in Cloverdale, it's within walking distance of my house. Situated on the ground floor of a dilapidated two-story wooden hotel built in 1887, it takes its name from the famous Italian poet, and like his best-known work, it is equal parts paradise, purgatory, and hell.
Never has a place been so conducive to drinking. There's a plank slanted at a 30-degree angle grafted along the entire length of the bar, so patrons can really lean into their drinks. The goings-on here at night, when the bohemians come out, are legendary and would make Hieronymus Bosch himself blush. Anything goes. Remember that smoking ban in bars that went into effect a few years ago? It hasn't gone into effect here--everybody smokes.
"Have the cops ever come in here about the smoking?" I ask Banjo Bob on a Saturday afternoon. He's sitting on his customary stool at the far end of the bar, sipping a Tom Collins.
"Yeah, once," he says.
"What did you do?"
"I put it out."
Banjo Bob is smart like that. He doesn't want any trouble. With that Panama hat and ZZ-Top beard of his, he's got to be part bohemian. For him, the Dante may be the closest thing to heaven on earth. For the rest of us, well, it may be closer to hell. Pop in for a few beers after work, and the next thing you know, you're in jail facing $10,000 in drunk-driving fines, if not worse.
Banjo Bob has an answer for that, too. After he retired, he got rid of the car and moved closer to the bar. "I don't drive anymore," he says. "Too dangerous."
Sage advice. I'm grateful that I can heed it. I finish my beer and walk safely home without incident.
Ten Places We Went
Sam's Anchor Cafe
27 Main St., Tiburon
The Old Western Saloon
11201 State Hwy. 1, Pt. Reyes Station
21 Fourth Street, Petaluma
Black Cat Bar and Cafe
10056 Main St., Penngrove
6761 Sebastopol Ave., Sebastopol
The Cock and Bull
3688 Bohemian Hwy., Occidental
Third Street AleWorks
610 Third St., Santa Rosa
1351 Main St., St. Helena
6487 Hwy. 128, Healdsburg
133 Railroad Ave. E., Cloverdale
Ten Places to Go Next Time
41 Wharf Road, Bolinas
Murphy's Irish Pub
464 First St., Sonoma
Jack London Lodge
13740 Arnold Drive, Glen Ellen
8445 Sonoma Hwy., Kenwood
Stony Point and Roblar roads, Cotati
Red's Recovery Room
8175 Gravenstein Hwy., Cotati
135 Fourth St., Santa Rosa
The Martini House
1245 Spring St., St. Helena
John and Zeke's
111 Plaza St., Healdsburg
236 S. Cloverdale Blvd., Cloverdale
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From the October 23-29, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.