[ 'Best of' Index ]
"Alice had got so much into the way of expecting nothing but out-of-the-way things to happen, that it seemed quite dull and stupid for life to go on in the common way."
Photograph by Rory McNamara
Best Goldmine of Useless Little Plastic Toys
Bins and bins and bins of them, all lined up along the front counter: pregnant woman key chains, pooping rubber cows, sci-fi robot men, menacing scorpion monster women, pinkie nail-sized baby dolls, gigantic high-bounce balls. Every splendidly useless stocking stuffer and fleeting desktop distraction ever made is at this shop, as well as every novelty candy, oddball light fixture, Emily the Strange T-shirt, and anything else that would normally occupy the shelves at Spencer's Gifts in the mall--only minus the truly tacky stuff. The Sausalito Ferry Gift Co., 688 Bridgeway, Sausalito. 415.332.9590. --S.B.
Photograph by Michael Amsler
Best Weekly Polka Jam
An old-fashioned dance hall with a well-worn dance floor, Little Switzerland plays host to bands of all kinds--from swamp stomp to Latin dance--but on weekends, polka rules the roost. Little Switzerland's legion of faithful dancers (a mature but vivacious crowd) come out, often in full lederhosen regalia, to cut a rug. Who would have guessed that a hotbed of accordion activity exists in one of the sleepiest sections of Sonoma? Laden with Old World charm, the venue was first established in 1904 and was later owned by Austrian expatriate Al Gruber, whose Al Gruber Band played there an average of 18 hours every weekend. In 1991, Gruber and his wife sold Little Switzerland to Tony and Alina Garcia (the Garcias first met at Little Switzerland over 30 years ago) .Where else can you go for dinner, dancing, and a beer garden? Big Switzerland, I guess. 401 Grove St., Sonoma. 707.938.9990.--S.B.
Photograph by Rory McNamara
Best Place to Show Your Face
Ever since last October, the hottest place to show your face is Heebe Jeebe in Petaluma, where owner Drew Washer has proven herself the queen of all that is cool by installing a gloriously retro, black-and-white photo booth in the front corner of the store. To aid subjects in creating their $3, four-frame vertical masterpieces, Washer keeps a basket of hats and wigs near the booth, along with a piece of clear Plexiglas so folks can be photographed with their faces all squished against the glass. "People have been really creative with it," Washer says of the nifty contraption (serial number 13578, built in 1991, and until recently employed at a restaurant in Apple Valley, where Roy Rogers and Dale Evans lived). "I like to think Roy and Dale had their own kind of fun in this booth before they died," Washer says. (Shown: Tyler Fitzgerald.) 47 Kentucky St., Petaluma. 707.773.2880.--D.T.
Best Political Dirty Trick
You've got to give Santa Rosa mayor Mike Martini credit. When he plays politics, he plays to win. Case in point: the ruthlessly effective way in which the mayor used the Pledge of Allegiance to eliminate a liberal foe on the city council. The story starts in 1954, during the height of the Cold War, when Congress revised the pledge to include the words "under God." Champions of the change believed this would smoke out commie spies, since Reds can't reference the Almighty without an Exorcist-type head spin. Then, last summer, some smartass in Sacramento decided to take the pledge to court for violating the separation of church and state. When the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals said he had a point, the nation reacted with outrage and confusion, and Mayor Martini sprung into action. The Santa Rosa City Council does not usually salute the flag at meetings. But on July 2, as public officials around the country were pondering pledge-related legal liability, Martini abruptly informed the council that they would be reciting the full pledge--"under God" included--when they entered council chambers. He broke the news minutes before the meeting, naturally. Some council members, including environmentalist Marsha Vas Dupre, balked. The other shoe dropped in November when Vas Dupre came up for reelection. One of her opponents (who, like Martini, was backed by business interests) attacked Vas Dupre's patriotism in a brutally effective mailing to voters shortly before election day. Vas Dupre lost her seat by a slim margin, and Martini now faces one fewer council opponent. Meanwhile, down in hell, some Italian guy named Machiavelli is burning with envy.--P.S.
Best Way to Bring Shoppers--and Their Horses--Across the Great Divide
For years, the city of Santa Rosa wrangled over the question of how to lure skittish shoppers to patronize the languishing merchants of Railroad Square. The obstacle: a previous brainstorm, the Santa Rosa Plaza, a labyrinth that for more than 20 years has cut downtown in half. For a time, Rosie the trolley careened around, dejectedly searching for passengers to take on a nickel ride to the other side, her cheerful pretensions fading to a jaded smirk. Finally a plan was hit on. Last May, at a cost of over $600,000, Fourth Street was squeezed to the size of a bike lane and a grand promenade of old-fashioned lamp posts installed. The route is still far from intuitive. One weaves to the left through the mall, followed by the eyes of dozens of teen cell-phone salespersons. One jogs to the left, underneath low, ugly slabs of parking garage, and straight through a menacing rectangle of dead space, enlivened only by grave-plot type landscaping. After crossing a street where cars have just exited at freeway speeds, there is yet one more bend in the road. At first I thought the short, metal bollards with bulbs on the top were there for the safety of pedestrians, but a friend pointed out how they might be equally useful as horse-hitching posts. Taking this into consideration, I found that this section of Fourth Street now provides hitching facilities for up to 28 horses. Clearly, Santa Rosa is now on the right track, with this blend of the old and the new: the generic, commercial, modern-day "street of crocodiles" that is the mall, and the train-deprived nostalgia of Railroad Square.--J.K.
Best Advertising Campaign
It was the end of a long, long, long day of Christmas shopping, and the woman in front of me at the cashier couldn't make up her mind about the blue shirt. "It's cute don't you think? I guess I should get it? Oh, OK let's do it. You know what, maybe not. Oh, you have to void the whole thing? I'm so sorry." All the while I was fretting and fidgeting and worrying about getting a parking ticket any second. But I was almost there, and just one more minute and I'd be completely finished with all this shopping. Then followed that sprint to my car and the feeling of my heart sinking as I saw the paper fluttering on the windshield. Bless the folks at G&C Auto Body who left a note on my windshield telling me that they put more money in the parking meter so I wouldn't get a ticket.--M.W.
Best Place to Find the Shirt of Your Dreams--For Cheap
One thing about going thrifting is that after sorting through all those dingy records, books, and clothing in various states of disarray, you kind of feel like you need to take a shower. Some thrift stores are tidier than others, and some look like a hurricane recently tore through. It's all part of the game. These are the sacrifices a thrifty shopper makes to score a pearl-snap plaid cowboy shirt for $3.50, right? Well, while the entire Goodwill family of stores tends to have a higher standard for store orderliness than most, their store on Industrial Drive in Santa Rosa is amazing: the prices are low; the clothing is organized by gender, then by size, and then by type; and the furniture and appliances are not just jumbled in one big mess. Sure, some thrift stores have better stuff in a tidier setting, but their prices reflect that. At this Goodwill, it's the best of both worlds. 3535 Industrial Drive, Santa Rosa. 707.545.2492.--S.B.
Best Picture of a Stoned Tiger on a Pool Table
Red's Recovery Room has received a fair amount of attention from the music community, getting props from both Tom Waits ("Filipino Box Spring Hog") and the Clodhopper's album Red's Recovery Room. What Red's has not (as far as I know) been noted for, however, is its most creepy and simultaneously alluring aspect: those aging color photos that hang framed above the bar, picturing a tiger laying across one of the pool tables. First off, what was a tiger doing at Red's? And how did Red's get the tiger to go up on the pool table without biting anyone's head off? And why does the tiger have this cloudy, stoned look weighing down its eyelids? Red's is known for cheap and stiff drinks. After a few of those, sitting at the bar and looking up at those photos, the fate of that doped-up tiger gets mighty intriguing. I could just ask the bartender what's up with those photos, but somehow I'd rather just leave it a mystery, thank you. The truth is often dispassionately mundane. Or just too gory. 8175 Gravenstein Hwy., Cotati.--S.B.
Best Behaved Former Members of Murderous Avian Conspiracy
At the end of Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 thriller, the birds would seem to have won. The random terror of nature has even overcome the human characters' threatening Oedipal complexes, and it's birds, birds, birds as far as you can see. The Birds is still a must-see, as much for the local scenery as for the drama between the not really likable characters when they are on the verge of pecking each other's eyes out. Whether you laugh or cringe at the predigital effects simulating avian onslaught, you're glad that a Sunday on the coast is never like this, that the birds, are in fact "gone." But you're wrong. A small garrison of two crows has been confirmed to be holed up in the Casino bar in the hamlet of Bodega. They've been holding the bar for 40 years, since they were given to the owners by members of Hitchcock's crew who were fond of the watering hole. Papier-mâché props that look like crows, they don't inspire terror. Quite the contrary, they have been enlisted in the defense of the nation. Since 9-11 their perch above the bar has become a patriotic red, white, and blue display over which the crows preside, ever vigilant, and this time--one hopes--on our side. Check out the barbecue oysters on weekends starting in April, when the historic bar becomes a favorite stop for our two-wheeled, fine leathered friends. 17135 Bodega Hwy., Bodega. 707.8786.3185.--J.K.
Best Rubbernecking Spot
Out on Lakeville Highway, a couple of miles outside the town of Petaluma, the hills are frequently alive with the sounds of sheep, cows, horses, and the occasional crash of metal and glass as cars slam into one another because the drivers have been staring out the window at all the scampering animals on the happy hills. It's a dangerous spot indeed, second only to the annual freeway-clogging corn maze--off Highway 101 near the Petaluma Boulevard North exit--in rubbernecking popularity. It's hard to believe that a few dozen baby lambs trotting beside their fluffy mothers would make so many of us slam on our brakes for a closer look, but we do, don't we? Of course, the lambs are nothing compared to the little critters scampering through the pastures of Winners' Circle Ranch. Located on several acres right along Lakeville, Winners' Circle is one of the world's leading exporters of show-quality miniature horses. No higher than a tire--not one of them grows taller than 34 inches--the hand-raised, champion-stock equines look like tiny, magical, animated toys, skittering about on the green hillage just east of the road. It's a breathtaking site, as if you'd turned a corner and found yourself in Oz or Narnia or the R&D department of Mattel. Just remember, they are real--and so is that truck coming at you down the road. So if you really want to take a look, check the website at www.winnerscircle.com. It's a lot safer.--D.T.
Best Riverfront Driven Over in 'Howard the Duck'
According to the information-packed website www.visitpetaluma.com, "the Riverfront at the foot of Western Avenue was where the police car splashed into the water in Howard the Duck." And you can easily go and see this cinematic landmark, along with many others, in a self-guided movie tour of Petaluma, which is all outlined on the website. See St. Vincent's Church, which was used for the TV remake of Shadow of a Doubt with Mark Harmon, as well as Basic Instinct with Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone. The quaint look of downtown Petaluma--the Mystic Theatre, some houses on Howard Street--has been immortalized in many decent to excellent Hollywood films. You could make a day of it: Go to all of the spots, then to the video store, and then have your own mini Petaluma film festival, which could include American Graffiti, Mumford, Phenomenon, The Horse Whisperer, and the 1998 remake of Lolita. Howard the Duck is optional.--S.B.
Best Place to Pretend to Be a Fighter Pilot
What's the fun of looking at old airplanes if you can't climb into them and make believe you're flying? The Pacific Coast Air Museum understands this need, so every third weekend of the month they host their Climb Aboard Weekend, where children young and old can go into a select historic plane. Recent planes include the mean-looking F-16N Viper (the Navy's version of the F-16, the hot rod of Air Force jets), the F-14A Tomcat, and the HU-16E Albatross. Guides are on hand to handle the history and specifics of the planes, and to explain what all the little buttons do. The museum also has a permanent display of historic planes open several days a week. Kids are admitted free. 2330 Airport Blvd., Santa Rosa. 707.575.7900 or pacificcoastairmuseum.org--J.L.
Best Road Mistaken for a Roller Coaster
Straddling the Mayacamas Mountains that divide Napa and Sonoma counties, Trinity Road and the Oakville Grade meet up to make one of the narrowest, twistiest, turniest, panorama-heavy drives this side of the Sierras. The half-hour route affords breathtaking eagle's-eye views of both valleys, and deals out more dips and swings than the Tilt-a-Whirl at the fair. Passage across the Oakville Grade is technically free, though it does come at a price--and that price could be your lunch. Once, friends and I had gone winetasting in Napa in the afternoon, eaten sushi, and driven over the grade to Sonoma. All of those hairpin turns sloshed the raw fish and red wine around in my stomach pretty badly. Cookies were nearly tossed. So take this as a warning: Raw fish and tannins don't mix, but don't let that discourage you from taking one of the best drives ever. From Highway 12 in Glen Ellen drive east on Trinity Road to Dry Creek Road and on to Oakville Grade.--S.B.
Best Indy 500 Experience
It's only the professional drivers on closed courses (as the small print of the TV commercials reminds us) who have the opportunity to drive the switchbacks and hills of Route One in a way that we'll never experience (lacking a death wish or a desire to kill bicyclists). But the experience--the wind in one's hair, the bugs on the windshield--can be had on a certain stretch of a certain decidedly unclosed course directly north of the Golden Gate Bridge. From the end of the bridge, swooping into the leftmost lane and gaining speed as you climb to the Waldo Tunnel, then taking the corners tight, tight, like Mario would, and dropping down toward the Mill Valley exits, you can perhaps just imagine that you're suited up in your sponsorship outfit, feeling the adrenaline of the race. This does not, however, apply to commute hours. For an added thrill, stay in the left lane in Novato, while passing the University of Phoenix buildings on the right. There are two smooth bumps on the road that might, just might, get you air.--D.B.
Best Place to Find Out About New Bands That Would Be in 'Spin' Magazine in Four Months, If 'Spin' Was That Cool, But It's Not
What do the following bands--the Epoxies, the Briefs, the Stitches, the Distraction--have in common? Besides having members who wear skinny ties and razor sunglasses, they've all done in-store shows at Red Devil Records. And, yeah, they may have been invite-only (it's a small store), but it's worth palling up to owner Barry Lazarus to see high-energy shows in such an intimate setting. Red Devil Records is the place to find the latest punk-rock music on the punk-rock medium of choice, the vinyl 7-inch. A lifelong fan of bands who play loud, fast, count "One-two-three-four!", and chant "All right, All right!", Lazarus also has a column in local music rag Section M and a new show on KRCB on alternate Thursdays. He's the person to talk to if you want to find out about music with a little more balls than that Polo-shirt-wearing dude from Dashboard Confessional. Know why music sales are down? It's not because of file-sharing; it's because major labels are releasing super-crap! 170 Kentucky St., Petaluma. 707.769.8999.--S.B.
Best Rail System in the North Bay
This one's a toss-up between the Napa Valley Wine Train and the Old Main Street Saloon in Sebastopol. In the Napa Valley, passengers sit on a train, sip wine, and watch the wine country go by. Their friendly, curious faces peering from the windows of the train are a regular feature for Highway 29 motorists. At Old Main, patrons can sit and drink, and watch a train go by. The model train runs on a track about 10 feet up, in a loop around the establishment. The Napa Wine Train costs upwards of $70 for a three-hour tour. The Old Main Street train sets you back 75 cents. A reclining nude figure can be glimpsed on one of its flat cars. No similar claim has been made in Napa. In the Wine Train's interior of "hand-rubbed Honduran Mahogany, polished brass, and grape-motif etched glass," guests are treated to "a deliciously crafted culinary and complete wine experience." Old Main Street has pool tables and free popcorn. In either case, passengers end up right where they started: in a parking lot in Napa, or on a bar stool in Sebastopol. This is as good as it gets, folks. If and when a real passenger rail service serving North Bay commuters gets running, I sure hope it has free popcorn as well. Napa Valley Wine Train, 1275 McKinstry St., Napa. 707.253.2111. Old Main Street Saloon, 153 N. Main St., Sebastopol. 707.829-1172.--J.K.
Best Place to Watch People Pick Their Noses
Downtown Santa Rosa in general is premium people-watching territory, with all the punkers and panhandlers and businesspeople walking to and fro. The Sonoma County Central Library, though, is in a class of its own, slicing through every ethnic, economic, and educational profile possible, proving that libraries indeed do serve as society's idealized neutral zone. There are people there who can't read, and there are people who read nonstop from open to close--things like astrology manuals or books on South American art. There are also a lot of homeless dudes who are crazy and smelly and talk to themselves (remember to look at the seat of any given chair before sitting down). But the homeless dudes are mostly harmless, and probably the main reason they hang out there--besides that it's, um, free--is because they too know it's good for people watching. Isn't that circular? Third and E streets, Santa Rosa. 707.545.0831.--S.B.
Best Evidence That North Bay Drivers Have the Minds of Toddlers
In beginning psychology class or any child development book, you learn that children have "preoperative" cognition as regards spatial relations and so on. They think, for instance, that a tall glass holds more water than a short glass, even after you show them it's the same amount of water in each. Apparently, drivers on our increasingly congested highways and streets suffer from a latency condition. It goes like this: Left lane is almost bumper-to-bumper, driving 65 mph. Right lane is slower, but a space opens up. The genius behind you whips into the right lane and zooms ahead. He then discovers for the 17,000th time that the right lane is generally slower than the left. He slams on his brakes and cuts in front of you at the last minute, seeing that you have lagged two seconds behind the rest of traffic. More often than is humanly comprehensible, this driver usually cuts off someone else in the right lane to get off at the next exit. Remember "safe following distance," people? Or were you too busy rolling joints in the back of driver's education class? Two seconds. Say "one thousand one, one thousand two." See you at the stop light, preop.--J.K.
Best Weird Souvenir
At Seagull Gifts and Deli in picturesque Jenner, you can pick up various doodads and souvenirs, ranking in quality from the classy to the tacky. The strangest collectible, however, is a refrigerator magnet emblazoned with the words "Jenner by the Sea" and featuring a full-color illustration of one of Jenner's famous . . . chimpanzees. Actually, there are no chimpanzees in Jenner. The magnet was a mistake. The shop ordered a bunch of similar magnets, some with whales or sea lions or seagulls or sea otters, all of which Jenner does have. They received a big box of the chimp magnets by accident. Oddly, the offbeat refrigerator adornment has now become one of the shop's briskest sellers. 10439 Hwy., 1, Jenner. 707.865.2594.--D.T.
Best Name for a Bail-Bond Service
You've got to love a bail-bond service called Zig Zag. Inexplicably named for pot smokers' favorite brand of paper products, Zig Zag Bail Bonds is a bail-bonding emporium of sorts, with locations in Napa, San Francisco, Richmond, and beyond. The San Rafael outpost is conveniently located right across the street from the Marin County Civic Center and courthouse, right above the kitschiest diner in town, named Bogies. As in Humphrey Bogart. As in "Don't bogart that joint." Coincidence? You decide. 48 N. San Pedro Road, San Rafael. 415.479.6636.--D.T.
Best Place to Architecture-Gawk
You're there to fill out forms or bail out a friend or pay off a ticket or apply for a license. So why are you thinking almost without cease about the soft undulations of the lovely female breast, one that you'd suddenly like to see covered in gold? Must be because famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed the Marin Civic Center and its adjacent Post Office and Marin Center to mimic the bosomy contours of the sweet, near hills. The 770th commission Wright obtained in his assuredly illustrious career, these government buildings were posthumously completed from 1962 to 1969, but the architect's mark remains certain upon every waste receptacle, every door knob, all the official outdoor signage, and each of the elevator buttons, making the ordinary round of tedious errands suddenly as illuminated as the daring (for their time) atriums that spine the entire course of the Civic Center's interior. Wright believed in architecture for democracy (huzzah!) and allowed that he was "proud to make the buildings of this county characteristic of the beauty of the county." For the proudly inspired, docent-led tours of the Marin Civic Center are available every Wednesday at 10:30am, no reservations required. Groups of eight or more can arrange a private tour--no form, bail bond, laggard ticket, or license necessary. 3501 Civic Center Blvd., San Rafael. 415.499.6646.--G.G.
Best Locally Observed Bumper Stickers
Spotted on a PT Cruiser in Novato: "What Would Scooby Do?"
Spotted on at least a hundred vehicles in Petaluma: "Save the Potholes."
Spotted in Novato: "Militant Agnostic: I Don't Know and You Don't Either."
Spotted in Santa Rosa: "Jesus Loves You--Everyone Else Thinks You're an Asshole."
Spotted in Napa: "Sheets Happen" and "Visualize Creamed Corn."--D.T.
Best Music to Shop By
The Russian River Blues Festival and Jazz on the River audiences can be divided into a well-defined circular stratum that would make Dante proud. Highest of all are those aficionados who attend simply to hear the music; below them are those who enjoy reading the paper while listening to the music; next are those revelers who like to read the paper and dip in the river while enjoying the music; and then there are those leisured hordes who like to drink beer in the sun while eating a picnic and reading the paper before dipping in the river while enjoying the music. The lowest rung of all is reserved for a very select few: those who like to shop while enjoying the music--sun, beer, newspapers, river, and picnics be damned. Featuring what can only be delicately termed a kick-ass boutique fair, these festivals are eagerly awaited by the prudent. As the day progresses, a mad build-up of covetry emerges as one gorgeous woman after another sashays by wearing, say, an enormously overbuilt straw hat, the proportions of which trump the interior of any ordinary midsized car. Mine is a modest apple green, tends to stain my forehead a curious yellow, and must travel by lap. Russian River Blues Festival, June 28-29; Jazz on the River, Sept. 6-7. Both at Johnson's Beach, Guerneville. 510.655.9471.--G.G.
Best Recent Movie Theater Trend
Knowing that popcorn exists primarily as a conduit for salt and that melted butter exists solely as edible glue to stick the salt in place, we who love salty popcorn are always happy when we enter a movie theater that provides piles of those little individual salt packets. Nothing is worse than sprinkling a layer of salt from a stingy theater's paltry little salt shaker--almost always chained to the straw dispenser so we can't take it into the movie with us--and then having to eat nine-tenths of the popcorn with no salt on it at all. Bah! By having those little packets of sodium, we can salt the popcorn layer by layer as we work to the bottom of the bag. Our arteries may not appreciate this trend, but we still think it's the best thing since, well, popcorn.--D.T.
Best Bad Movie Theater Trend
Whoever thought that add-it-yourself butter flavoring was a good idea should be boiled in butter-scented vegetable oil and buried with an overcooked hot dog through his heart. Pacific Theaters, we mean you! While we enjoy applying our own salt to our popcorn, there is nothing so unappetizing as pumping warm goo onto our favorite snack from greasy dispensers in which a puddle of unnaturally yellow slime has accumulated. Like pork sausages and congressional tax bills, some things are better when you don't have to see how they're made. Pacific Theaters: Put the flavoring back behind the counter where it belongs!--D.T.
Best Place to Find the World's Most Knowledgeable and Chatty Used Bookseller
Art Kusnetz knows books like almost nobody. Within the subterranean used bookstore beneath the main floor of Copperfield's in Petaluma, Kusnetz operates in a surreal, highly literary nether world. His underground shop is decorated with a large plywood cow (don't ask) and an unofficial exhibition of strange public assistance signs and other literary notices--"Tom Cruise has braces; We have books." Most importantly, it houses a huge collection of unforgettable and often hard-to-find used volumes and other collectibles. Check out the autographed typewritten program from a public address by Martin Luther King or test Kusnetz's knowledge of old nautical textbook authors. While the upstairs of Copperfield's is pretty cool too--check out the children's books section and browse a copy of Chris Van Allsburg's new book Zathura--there is more to the place than what exists above. In other words: Those who know, go below. 140 Kentucky St., Petaluma. 707.762.0563.--D.T.
Best Decorated Automobile
Have you seen the "Oh Pa Pa Do" truck? The primary-colored magic machine of Petaluma artist Cadillac Fred Holiday, this little pickup truck that could--and does--is known to many by those strange words painted on the back windshield, by the friendly stuffed frog wired to the rack overhead, and the cartoon painted on the tail gate, depicting a happy, optimistic fish about to be swallowed by a bigger, even happier fish. As it so happens, though, Cadillac Fred has just started driving a new truck. "It's beautiful," he says. And it is. Painted in fresh colors, the new truck is mainly an as-yet-undecorated canvass waiting for inspiration--and beautiful madness--to strike. You'll know it when you see it. Like its predecessor, it carries the words "Oh Pah Pah Do" right out where everyone can see them. If only we knew what that meant. --D.T.
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From the March 20-26, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.