Marisa Gomes is a waitress at Seared, a restaurant in downtown Petaluma. Walking from her table station to the kitchen on Thursday evening, she stopped to let a white Tesla pass.
For the past month, this steak and seafood establishment backing onto Water Street, just south of the Washington Street Bridge, has been open only for alfresco dining — about 20 tables set up on cobblestones, overlooking the river.
This new wrinkle has complicated things for the staff. Along with the much longer trips to the bar and kitchen, Gomes has to deal with those cobblestones — “which can be tricky, when you’re carrying martinis,” she said — as well as train tracks , not to mention the traffic on Water Street.
“It’s like an obstacle course,” Gomes said. And what does she think of working in these conditions?
“I’m really happy that we can be open,” she said. “Look what a beautiful night it is. We are lucky to be here.
His gaze fell on Seared’s alfresco dining areas and its waterfront neighbors to the south: Risibisi, Cucina Paradiso and the Water Street Bistro, just across the arched beams of the Balshaw pedestrian bridge. Valuable square footage once used for parking had been repurposed – with the help of the city – into additional space for additional tables. Flames from patio heaters bathed the area in golden light that reflected off the river.
That glow, along with the chatter and laughter from diners, is an unexpected dividend from the coronavirus. While there’s no mistaking this slow waterway with the Seine, the rise of alfresco dining has transformed this stretch of Petaluma’s waterfront into something more cosmopolitan, more European.
“It’s like Italy,” Dale Richardson said after lunch Friday at Cucina Paradiso. “It’s beautiful.”
With the pandemic disease still spreading through Sonoma County, restaurants remain limited to outdoor dine-in service, eliminating their primary indoor business. Petaluma has joined Santa Rosa, Sonoma and Healdsburg in paving the way for restaurant owners to set up shop outdoors to stay open.
The revitalization of this paved corridor coincides with the start of the long-awaited dredging of the Petaluma River, which began on September 5. The $10 million project will clear mudflats that have clogged the downtown corridor of the river and forced repeated cancellations of beloved traditions like the Holiday Light Boat Parade and the Petaluma Yacht Memorial Day Regatta. Club.
While Petaluma officials have been trying for more than a decade to bring the waterfront back to life, said Nancy Sands, the town’s economic development specialist, “sometimes it takes a business need and a community need” to reach this goal.
To help restaurants and storefronts weather the pandemic, Petaluma unveiled its so-called free-range permit program in May. The brainchild of City Manager Peggy Flynn, this fast-track program allows apps to help businesses expand to sidewalks and parking lots while COVID-19-related public health orders restrict their ability to operate indoors.
Petaluma has issued 45 free range permits, and not just to restaurants. In addition to transforming the waterfront, the program has helped stabilize the health of many businesses.
With 22 outdoor tables, Cucina Paradiso brings in about 60% of its business in the pre-pandemic era, said Malena Hipolito, who owns the business with her husband, Dennis Hernandez. But the restaurant was able to rehire its entire staff of 29 – who, by the way, are working much harder than before the pandemic.
All those tables, umbrellas and service stations need to be set up in time for the lunch rush, she pointed out, and then brought inside each night.
It’s like setting up and taking down a separate restaurant, every day, said Risibisi owner Marco Palmieri.
Servers have much longer journeys between customer tables and the bar or kitchen. At Seared, Gomes logs 7 or 8 miles per shift, she said.
Risibisi general manager and maitre d’hotel Jacob Gamba, who tracks his steps with his Apple Watch, said he and his fellow servers walk an average of 8 to 10 miles per shift. His personal best: 12 miles.
The Free Range program cannot help everyone. Central Market, just south of the Water Street Bistro, has no parking spaces to annex, so to speak, and is surrounded on other sides by benches and bike racks.
This did not prevent him from opening a patio space with around ten tables, on the north side of the restaurant, where there is no barrier between guests and pedestrians, which can be a problem.
“Sometimes you’ll have a kid skateboarding,” said Sarah Martin, senior waitress and restaurant manager.
Despite these drawbacks, regulars at Central Market are delighted to be back, she said – and hope the restaurant will make alfresco dining a permanent option. “There was a clamor to keep it available throughout the year.”
The city has long tried to improve and beautify the waterfront, said Suzanne Cunha of Petaluma, as she and a friend waited to be seated at Cucina Paradiso on Friday.
“Maybe COVID is when they finally get there.”
You can contact editor Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or [email protected] or on Twitter @ausmurph88.