For years, Petaluma, California, has been bisected by Highway 101. Most people would drive right through without noticing the town. With only a few off-ramps, it was easy to pass by without taking notice. On either side of the highway, there are chicken ranches and dairy farms supplying milk, eggs, and cheese to consumers all over the state. Petaluma was once known as the “egg basket of the world” because of the millions of laying hens. Today, farms, pastureland, and auto malls line the highway, obscuring the authentic charm of this sleepy Bay Area town.
Fifty miles north of San Francisco, Petaluma has been a well-kept secret. However, now people are discovering the charm of the old Victorian-style houses, the shops, rejuvenated Petaluma River frontage, and of course Petaluma restaurants. Plus, Petaluma has been called “Hollywood North” because of all the movies filmed here (American Graffiti, Basic Instinct, Peggy Sue Got Married, and even Howard the Duck, to name a few).
Petaluma has also quietly developed as a foodie destination. There are many fine restaurants to choose from, a few listed in the Michelin Guide. Vineyards are springing up in the valley, and wineries now produce full-bodied wines that rival the best Napa Valley offers. It’s no wonder that the food and wine scene is flourishing!
Some of Petaluma’s best eating establishments (and my favorites) are featured below.
10 Must-Try Petaluma Restaurants
109 N McDowell Blvd // +17077899777
Housed in a quaint old building in downtown Petaluma, Lemongrass Thai Cuisine offers authentic flavors and dishes from Thailand. The atmosphere is casual, with Thai decorations and thoughtful and attentive wait staff. The owners are from Thailand and bring authentic Thai cuisine to downtown Petaluma.
I look forward to the light and delicate flavors of the Lemongrass menu. Each dish is authentic, just as I remember Thai food in Bangkok. The freshness of the food, combined with the spicy goodness, makes dining at Lemongrass a special treat.
Just as with any country, Thailand has its own “comfort foods.” Noodle dishes and curries are my favorite. My wife loves the Duck Noodle Soup that warms her on a chilly evening.
I usually order curry with vegetables and chicken and a bowl of rice. Most of all, I love the appetizers they offer, like Veggie Samosas, Deep Fried Tofu, Chicken Satay with peanut sauce, and Coconut Prawns. I usually make the mistake of eating too many appetizers when we go.
Over time, we’ve gotten to know some of the employees. When we planned our trip to Bangkok, we went to dinner at Lemongrass to ask for recommendations while in Thailand. And we brought back a small gift for them when we returned and talked about our trip.
Lemongrass Thai Cuisine restaurant is an accurate reflection of authentic Thai food. If you love the incredible fresh tastes of Thailand, you can’t go wrong with the great menu at Lemongrass. Or order to go. We often do!
114 Petaluma Blvd N // +17077821130
Just as we arrived at the door, a couple was coming out of the restaurant. The woman asked me if we had been to Cucina Paradiso before. I said we had, and she replied, “we drove up from South San Francisco to eat here again. We love it!” That’s a 70-mile trip one way. A ringing endorsement if I ever heard one!
Located smack dab in the downtown area of Petaluma Boulevard, Cucina Paradiso is one of our go-to favorites for a nice Italian meal. Everyone we take there has commented on the service and the delicious food. The bar is the perfect place to order a drink and wait for a table.
The restaurant ambiance is welcoming, and the waiters all smile and greet the customers; a rare thing these days, but a welcome start to what will lead to a delicious meal. Wine racks along the walls hold Italian and Sonoma County bottles. White table cloths cover the rows of tables, and the kitchen is open and bustling with activity. Just feet away from your table, chefs prepare sumptuous meals for the hungry diners.
Start off with an appetizer of Bruschetta Al Pomodoro. The toasted bread and sweet, ripe tomatoes, fresh basil, and olive oil with a hint of garlic could be a meal in itself. Or sample the grilled calamari with cannellini beans on an arugula salad topped with vinaigrette dressing. The Caprese with fresh mozzarella cheese and sliced tomatoes, olive oil, and basil are equally good.
Try the Capellini Al Pomodoro E Basilico, angel hair pasta with fresh tomatoes, basil, olive oil, and garlic. We order one plate and ask them to split it. It’s just the perfect amount for each of us. And it leaves room for what is to come!
Order the Spaghetti Alle Vongole (pasta with fresh clams in white wine and garlic sauce) for your il Primi selection if you fancy some seafood. Or choose Fettucine Con Gamberi E Rucola (homemade pasta with shrimp, tomato, and arugula in a lovely white wine sauce).
Choose to eat inside, on the back patio, or at a table along the Petaluma River. Fresh bread and focaccia are excellent.
Cucina Paradiso has been rated one of the top Sonoma County restaurants by Zagat based on their delicious food, exemplary service, and the authentic feel of the restaurant itself.
154 Petaluma Blvd N // +17077667600
Just down the street is Risibisi, a charming restaurant that serves up authentic Italian cuisine with ingredients sourced from a local farm. Risibisi has been awarded a spot in the Michelin Guide for twelve years in a row. Previously rated as the best restaurant in Petaluma by the Zagat Guide, Risibisi is a good choice for family dinners.
Our reservation was for 7:30 PM, and the waiter took us outside to sit along the Petaluma River. We hadn’t dined outdoors before and enjoyed a comfortable table near a radiant heater. Being a Saturday night, the restaurant was busy, although seemingly shorthanded. All of the restaurants are currently having staffing problems—all the more reason to be patient, sit back, and enjoy the view.
We started with a light, tasty butternut squash soup. It was very good with the drizzle of balsamic vinegar and olive oil on top. We also dove into the tomato-topped bruschetta, which was so fresh tasting that I would have eaten more if there were any left on the table. Alas, I only ordered two, thinking that would be enough to stimulate the appetite. Next time!
My wife ordered the Orecchiette Salsiccia, a spicy pork fennel sausage, broccoli rabe, olive oil, and Parmesan cheese. It was just spicy enough to take notice. The pasta is called “little ears” and is typical of the Apulia region of Southern Italy. This dish is slightly bitter from the broccoli rabe and spicy from the sausage. I thought it a great choice when dining outside. My wife loved it.
I ordered the Eggplant Alla Parmigiana. Layered slices of eggplant with a tangy tomato sauce. This dish is very light and doesn’t fill me up like heavy pasta items. It was served on a very hot plate, the perfect companion dish for an evening at a table by the river.
For dessert, we chose to share a Pistachio Crème Brulee. It was slightly warm and had just the right amount of sweetness to cap off a lovely meal.
Risibisi offers vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free menu options. I plan to return to sample some more of the menu.
170 Petaluma Blvd N // +17077625997
Located at Washington Street and Petaluma Boulevard, Seared is a classic steakhouse serving tempting grilled meats and seafood. The restaurant is big and open and has a familiar feel to it. The wait staff is attentive and friendly, making for a great dining experience.
Since it was Happy Hour, we started with The Wedge. A wedge of baby iceberg lettuce covered in smoked bacon, shallots, tomatoes, sunflower seeds, and an excellent buttermilk blue dressing made from Pt. Reyes blue cheese. A Negroni to top it off, and all is right with the world. Plans to return for another Wedge salad are already in the works!
Deciding what to order is challenging because of the beautiful steakhouse smell coming from the kitchen. All I could think about was a filet mignon cooked to perfection or a Wagyu ribeye. The mouth-watering smells overwhelm. Ultimately I chose the Short Rib Gnocchi with wild mushrooms and butternut squash with tarragon. The meat was fork-tender and went well with the house-made gnocchi.
We also ordered the Surf & Turf, a 5 oz. filet with scallops and spinach, mashed potatoes, and shiitake jus. The chef cooked the tender, aromatic steak just right. The scallops were a lovely brown color, having been “Seared” and cooked to perfection.
5 Petaluma Blvd S B // +17077829298
Casual Italian restaurants are always a welcome addition to any town. Sugo Trattoria opened in Petaluma in 2007. Sugo seeks to honor old-world traditions of Italian cooking while capturing the wine country lifestyle.
Sugo’s owners have a long history with cheese, salumi, and pasta in their family and bring recipes passed down from their mothers and fathers. Sugo seeks to keep the old-world way of cooking alive.
220 Western Ave // +17079818511
Stockhome is one of Petaluma’s Michelin Bib Gourmand restaurants. While they serve traditional Swedish favorites, Middle Eastern food has become popular in Scandinavia. The menu reflects this, offering Pita and Kebab choices, along with salmon, chicken, or beef Greek Souvlaki.
Stockhome has a fun vibe and atmosphere, with counter service and a selection of the famous cuisine that you would find in Sweden. Candies in jars tempt the sweet tooth, especially the black licorice,
The Little Gem salad is a bowl of artichokes, fresh greens, sunflower seeds, fried garbanzo beans, and shredded manchego cheese topped with a light but tasty buttermilk tahini dressing that was perfect for a starter to the meal. I was delighted with the taste and the textures, but sorry to see it gone! I’ll order it again.
The Swedish meatballs were delicious. Silky smooth mashed potatoes and brown gravy were the perfect complements to the dish, along with lingonberry sauce that adds a sweet and tangy taste. The pickled sliced cucumbers added a nice contrast to the rest of the plate. Swedish food as most of us have tried before (maybe at IKEA?) but much better.
Everything from pickled herring with potato, leeks, carrot, and dill, to grilled filet mignon with bearnaise, to frankfurters makes up the classic Swedish portion of the menu. We chose the cured salmon with mustard dill sauce and sliced cucumbers and weren’t disappointed. The salmon went perfectly with both. The cracker strips added a pleasing crunch to the dish.
Stockhome offers tables inside, with a large communal table inside to share your meal with 10 or 20 of your new best friends. Outside there are tables under umbrellas to evoke a European feel. Great food and lovely atmosphere are a testament to their listing in the Michelin Guide.
42 Petaluma Blvd N // +17077789900
Petaluma has a nice pedestrian bridge that leads to a cluster of restaurants in the old downtown area. Just over the Petaluma River bridge is Central Market restaurant. Since 2003, Central Market has been a favorite of locals and out-of-towners alike. My most recent visit revealed a remodel of the restaurant. The layout is big and open, with towering ceilings and a U-shaped bar with a wood-fired pizza oven in the middle of it all.
Naturally, I had to try the pizza. I ordered the Salsiccia, which came with spicy fennel sausage, red onions, black olives, and mozzarella with tasty tomato sauce. I would order again next time. The crust was thin and light and baked perfectly for that soft center and pleasing crunch towards the crust.
My wife was intrigued by the Gemelli, twisted pasta with a kale pesto sauce. She loves kale and was excited to try it. Upon sampling, I can confirm that the sauce had a strong taste of kale. I much prefer basil pesto, but I can see where kale lovers would be right at home with this dish.
I enjoyed the open décor of Central Market. We will return for more pizza or a sampling of the other menu items. The Grilled Wagyu Sirloin Steak caught my eye, but my lust for a wood-fired oven pizza won out. Next time I’ll go hungry and try both!
317 Petaluma Blvd S // +17075593021
Constructed in an old house along Petaluma Boulevard, Sax’s Joint is owned and operated by two sisters who wanted to have a place of their own. Sax’s Joint is named after their father, Conrad Saxelby, and Sax is the moniker his friends assigned him.
The restaurant consistently ranks as #1 on lists of Petaluma’s best eateries. The food portions are large, the prices are reasonable, and the food tastes great. People line up for tables starting in the morning. The line moves fast, and the wait is brief and so worth it.
The décor inside the building is a 50’s style diner, with black and white checkered floors accented with pink signs, waitress outfits, and a big pink front door. A chalkboard sign reads, “We don’t have WiFi. Talk to each other. Pretend it’s 1955.” That pretty much sums it up.
One of the favorites is the chicken fried steak smothered in gravy. There is little doubt that Sax’s Place knows how to make great comfort foods. I ordered the Eggs Benedict and was pleasantly surprised at how good it was. Some potatoes go along with it, and thick slices of ham. Not the type of plate you get every day. I left feeling full and satisfied.
Sax’s Place is open every day for breakfast and lunch. More popular than ever, they’ve built a happy, well-fed clientele. Definitely worth the wait!
100 Washington St // +17079817891
Petaluma has been missing a restaurant like The Shuckery. Up until now, there hasn’t been a real oyster bar-restaurant in the area. Long overdue. The menu is full of fresh seafood favorites that bring in hungry customers.
We tried the Happy Hour menu and ordered the clam chowder. It was thick and creamy and perfectly suitable for dinner on a cool evening. My wife loves good clam chowder, and she wasn’t disappointed.
The Shuckery is a part of Hotel Petaluma. The restaurant has seating inside and table service in the hotel’s courtyard.
134 Petaluma Blvd N // +17077746567
When the meal is over, and the check paid, there is one final place to go in the downtown Petaluma restaurant District. Lala’s Creamery has become the place to go after dining out at any restaurant along Petaluma Boulevard. Walk along the Petaluma River from Risibisi, Seared, Cucina Paradiso, or Central Market, and in a few minutes, Lala’s Creamery comes into view.
Organic ingredients make all the difference in the taste of the ice cream, brownies, cookies, and waffle cones. Lala’s Creamery is famous for its fresh, organic treats. All of the items on their menu are locally sourced and freshly made daily. Ice cream is the perfect end to a fabulous meal. Stop in for a cone, cookie, cup, shake, or brownie. The 50s soda fountain feel makes everyone nostalgic and happy. A stroll along the Petaluma River with an ice cream cone in hand is the perfect end to a memorable dinner at Petaluma’s finest eateries.
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