For New Year’s Eve, we’re highlighting the story of a truly historic drinking hole, located amid the hills of wine and dairy country in Petaluma, California. Washoe House is the state’s oldest roadhouse, having first opened in 1859 as a stagecoach hub before turning into a bar. It once allegedly distracted a militia from its mission with its beverages, and while the Confederacy is now gone, Washoe House’s role as a gathering place continues. General Manager Julia Sommerville walks us through the history and a new signature drink.
The bar’s history goes back so far that it’s hard to recount all the things it was. I know that way, way back in the day, it was a brothel and a post office. I think there was a restaurant on the corner for a while. But the location, on the crossroads for people who are coming from and going to the California coast, is what’s made it so important. We get all kinds of people coming through with stories of their own. Some can’t believe they’ve never stopped in, despite driving by for 20 years. Others have family who have been coming here for decades. It’s amazing to hear people react to this space for the first time — the old wood, the floral wallpaper, all the dollar bills and yellowed cards stapled to the ceiling.
Keeping the building up is a lot of work. I came onboard when Larry Peter, who owns the Petaluma Creamery and other local businesses, took over from the Drews, whose family turned this place around. Larry’s got a heart of gold, and he’s a fixer who’s obsessed with taking old things and making them great. Helping take care of that vision is huge, and I just hope the next year brings in a lot more new faces. We have so many regulars, and they’re so loyal to us. They’re definitely keeping the lights on right now, I’ll tell you that.
Legend has it that people would write their name on a dollar and pin it to the ceiling so that they made sure they’d have enough for a drink the next time they came in. You still see people coming in, looking for something pinned to the wall — from a loved one, or one they did a long time ago. The regulars are diverse, from bikers to young locals, and this is a place where they feel a sense of family. They come to have a few and tell each other the day’s stories before going home, like Cheers.
I love the people, and I’m driven about details. I’ll go all the way until it’s done right. Larry let this old place be my baby, so I feel really good that it’s become a place for everyone out there to love again. We’re slammed busy on the weekends now. Honestly, it gives me chills seeing this space and talking about it.
Speaking of chills — beside it being the oldest roadhouse in California, the big thing about Washoe House is that it’s haunted. Or so they say. A few things have happened that I’ve witnessed, plus stories people have told me. I know the spirits aren’t mean, but hey, they’re definitely here. I truly believe that.
My story is about the phone lines. It was me and one other girl and something had happened where we needed to make a call and we went to pick up the phone and it said, “Line in use.” There was nobody else here, just us two. We thought, Well, that’s weird, when all of a sudden, the phone has a loud dial tone to it. You know when the hair just stands up on the back of your neck? That’s the feeling we both got at the same time. It felt crazy. Then I had another girl go in the beer closet and literally scream and drop her phone because she said she saw a hooded guy that’s in there. I mean, she totally broke her phone, so she saw something [laughs].
We’ll be pretty mellow for New Year’s Eve. We’re a little bit on the outskirts of town, and people don’t want to drive. But our regulars will be out here, and we have an awesome guy named Brian who will play solo with a guitar and do country, rock ‘n’ roll, that kinda down-home stuff. We’ll have some people who will get excited when the ball drops and others who will drink by themselves. We’re doing some kind of special drink, maybe champagne with a strawberry puree or something. But a lot of people will crowd in on New Year’s Day for breakfast and our Bloody Marys. It’s something I developed, and it’s a drink I’ve always loved, with the taste of tomato juice and all the spices that go into it. I’m a spicy kind of girl. I was determined to make a drink that nobody can say “I don’t like it” to, and I think we’ve gotten maybe one complaint since.
But I can’t tell you what goes into it. Other than a big ol’ dose of love, I guess! You’ll have to try it yourself.
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The House’s Secret Bloody Mary
Sommerville won’t tell us the recipe — but basically, the goal is a potent Bloody Mary with seven garnishes and a spicy afterburn. We think the secret is olive brine and horseradish. Either way, combine all the drink ingredients, stir well and pour over ice in a tall glass. Tuck in the bacon strip and place the citrus wedges and shrimp on the edge of the glass. Use a cocktail stick to impale the remaining garnishes and lay them on the rim of the drink.
3 ounces vodka
6 ounces tomato juice
Juice of 1/4 lemon
1 tablespoon olive brine
2 dashes Worcestershire sauce
2 dashes Tabasco sauce
Pinch of prepared horseradish
Pinch of black pepper
Dash of celery salt
1 crisp strip of bacon
1 boiled shrimp (tail on)
Thin lime wedge
Thin lemon wedge
Pickled green bean