Outdoor food service transforming Petaluma’s waterfront

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Marisa Gomes is a waitress at Seared, a restaurant in downtown Petaluma. Walking from her table station to the kitchen on Thursday night, she stopped to let a white Tesla pass.

For the past month or so, this Water Street-backed steak and seafood establishment just south of the Washington Street Bridge has been open only for outdoor dining – about 20 tables set on cobblestones, overlooking the river.

This new wrinkle complicated things for the staff. Along with much longer trips to the bar and kitchen, Gomes has to deal with those cobblestones – “which can be tricky, when carrying martinis,” she said – as well as tracks. railroad tracks, not to mention the traffic on Water Street.

“It’s like an obstacle course,” Gomes said. And what does she think of working under these conditions?

“I’m really happy that we can be open,” she said. “Look how beautiful it is one night. We are lucky to be here.

Her gaze swept over the alfresco dining areas of Seared and its seaside neighbors to the south: Risibisi, Cucina Paradiso, and the Water Street Bistro, directly across from the arched beams of the Balshaw Pedestrian Bridge. Valuable square footage once used for parking had been reused – with help from the city – into additional space for additional tables. Flames from the 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 has been no confusion between this lazy waterway and the Seine, the increase in alfresco dining has transformed this part of Petaluma’s waterfront into something more cosmopolitan, more European.

“It’s like Italy,” said Dale Richardson, after having lunch Friday at the Cucina Paradiso. “It’s nice.”

With the pandemic disease still spreading in Sonoma County, restaurants remain limited to outdoor food and beverage service, suppressing their basic indoor activity. Petaluma has joined Santa Rosa, Sonoma and Healdsburg in paving the way for restaurateurs to move 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. This $ 10 million project will clear mud flats that have clogged the downtown river corridor and forced repeated cancellations of beloved traditions like the Illuminated Boat Parade and the Petaluma Yacht Club Memorial Day Regatta.

As Petaluma officials have tried for more than a decade to restore the shine to the waterfront, said Nancy Sands, the city’s economic development specialist, “sometimes it takes a business need and a community need” to achieve. 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 sprawl onto sidewalks and parking lots as public health orders related to COVID-19 restrict their ability to function 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 her 22 outdoor tables, Cucina Paradiso represents around 60% of the business she did 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 full staff of 29 – who, by the way, are working much harder than before the pandemic.

All those tables, umbrellas and gas stations need to be set up in time for the lunch rush, she stressed, and then brought back inside each evening.

It’s like setting up and taking down a separate restaurant every day, said Risibisi owner Marco Palmieri.

Servers have much longer journeys between customers’ tables and the bar or kitchen. At Seared, Gomes travels 7 or 8 miles per shift, she said.

Risibisi general manager and butler Jacob Gamba, who follows in his footsteps with his Apple Watch, said he and his fellow waiters average 8-10 miles per shift. His personal best: 12 miles.

The Free Range program cannot help everyone. Central Market, just south of Water Street Bistro, has no parking spaces to annex, so to speak, and is surrounded on the other sides by benches and bike racks.

This did not prevent him from opening a patio area of ​​ten tables, on the north side of the restaurant, where there is no barrier between diners and pedestrians, which can be a problem.

“Sometimes you’ll have a kid skateboarding,” said Sarah Martin, a senior waitress and restaurant manager.

Despite these drawbacks, regulars at the Central Market are excited to be back, she said – and hope the restaurant will make alfresco dining a permanent option. “There was a clamor to keep him available throughout the year.”

The city has long been trying to improve and beautify the waterfront, said Suzanne Cunha from Petaluma, as she and a friend waited to sit in Cucina Paradiso on Friday.

“Maybe COVID is the time when they’ll finally get there.”

You can contact editor Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or [email protected] or on Twitter @ ausmurph88.


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