***This is an extended version of the article that appeared in the Argus-Courier newspaper on November 6, 2014.***
My first foray into Jamison’s Roaring Donkey came one warm and sleepy August afternoon. Barkeep Justin knew his stuff and suggested a Petaluma Hills Porterluma…which scored huge points as it is one of my favorites. Although pleasant and comfortable, when I looking around I had trouble figuring out what kind of bar Roaring Donkey was trying to be. To top it off, I was not even sure what to call it…Jamison’s, JRD, The Roaring Donkey, or maybe just The Donkey? There are big screens, like a sports bar, but there is also a separate room for hosting bands, open mic nights, or a DJ, like a club. There is a booth in the back, like a lounge, but there are also darts and a pool table, like a pub or tavern. The dual-station bar has a massive list of hip cocktails, serves Jameson’s Whiskey on tap, and has a “shot” counter on the wall, kind of like a college bar, but is complemented by an impressive tap station, like a brewpub taproom, even sporting multiple nitrous taps…one of which is always pushing out Guinness.
Initially, I thought the Roaring Donkey was having a bit of an identity crisis. However, the more I sat back and enjoyed my beer the more I realized how serene the space was. Although comfortingly dark inside, like a good bar should be, the huge picture windows gave a panoramic view of Kentucky Street, a “window to the world,” so to speak. The warm, bright, and bustling day outside pushed a few feet in through the open doors before the cool and calm interior arrested its advance. The sounds of the street died out before getting deep enough into the bar to interrupt the relaxed and melodic conversations between patrons and barkeep. As afternoon turned into evening, the scene at the Roaring Donkey transformed, just as a photonegative comes to life as it takes on color. As the sky darkened and the cool fog settled in and quieted the street, the Roaring Donkey started to warm up and take on a life of its own.
The large picture windows give a view into the bar, where pleasant lighting brings the wood accents and whiskey barrel tables to life. The sights and sounds of the bar spill out onto the sidewalk and beckon passers-by to join in the camaraderie. The crowd is a mix; business folks and bikers, young and old, hipster and hickster, all elbow to elbow. On one side I am flanked by an older woman, enjoying a glass of chardonnay while on the other side sits a leather-clad biker. All three of us discuss the Giant’s chances in the playoffs. In the back a group of youngsters is urging the “shot counter” up, while at the opposite end of the room a couple is enjoying “date night” at a single table tucked into a front corner. Others are alternating between their turn at the pool table and the dartboard. The band is about to start so the barn doors separating the music room from the rest of the bar are eased shut. The rest of us settle in to watch the game, barely noticing that we are just one spoke in this wheel of activity.
For years, this same location housed a pair of misfit of bars. First named “Infusions Lounge”, it later changed names to “The Rocks.” Although the only place in town for dancing, the architecture lent nothing to Petaluma’s heritage and the clientele of mostly out-of-town patrons appeared to equate drinking with fighting. Police visits were the norm. Other local bars viewed The Rocks’ patrons with suspicion, as it wasn’t unusual for them to start trouble. In fact, the powers that be imposed a month long liquor license suspension on The Rocks for no other reason than to allow the bar to cool off and get their act together (and maybe to give the police a bit of a breather.) The Rocks simply never fit in, not by a country mile, if for no other reason than that it took no heed of what locals wanted from a downtown watering hole. What may work well in Santa Rosa or even San Francisco does not automatically work in our unique and storied Petaluma downtown.
Not surprisingly, the closing of “The Rocks” in early 2013 met with a collective sigh of relief. Fast forward to this past spring and for some that relief turned to skepticism as renovations started on a new bar. Raising more than one eyebrow was its name – Jamison’s Roaring Donkey. However, a peek in the door during construction soothed some of those anxieties. The former cold neon club space was not simply whitewashed over but was instead being stripped down to its roots. The use of reclaimed lumber and steel transformed the space into something more befitting of the neighborhood and the natives.
At first thought, opening a bar named Jamison’s Roaring Donkey in a location known for frequent police visits and alcohol license suspensions might seem like a bad idea. Owners and childhood friends, Brian Tatko and Kelton McMullen, admit that investors bristled, envisioning frat boys doing keg stands and the occasional barstool flying through the front window. However, the name wasn’t born of a desire for publicity; its origins add character to an endearing and likely enduring downtown public house.
Spelled differently than the Irish whiskey, “Jamison” is a touching tribute to the friend Brian was helping open a bar in San Francisco before his untimely death. “Roaring Donkey” was the name of a pub in Cobh, Ireland, down the street from where Brian lived with his girlfriend. One night Brian needed a corkscrew to open a bottle of wine for dinner. Having none in the house, he headed down the street to fetch one from the local pub. After a long delay, and still in need of a corkscrew, Brian’s girlfriend found that he had made it to, but never left the Roaring Donkey. The name was a natural choice for his new bar as it was likely to become his second home.
Brian and Kelton grew up in Novato, attended Chico University together, and always knew they wanted to open a bar. Friend Bob Waegner, with a background in bar management, rounds out this team of three, and plays an equal part in its success. Humbly explaining that he is not a true “partner”, Brian and Kelton immediately interrupt to point out that Bob is as much a partner as either of them and they would not have considering opening the bar without him. “Bob is the voice of reason when we start throwing out crazy ideas,” admits Kelton. Although, Brian and Kelton admit that more often than not Bob can actually turn those crazy ideas into a reality.
The partners looked at locations all over San Francisco but license moratoriums, landlord issue, and a questionable political climate sent the boys north. Brian is well known among locals from his time in Marin at such institutions as the Station House Café and rediscovered the charisma of Petaluma while bartending at McNear’s Saloon. Although attracted by Petaluma’s downtown layout and architecture, Kelton says, “We were blown away by the sense of community. We have received a warm welcome from all the restaurant and bar owners we’ve met so far.” Instead of trying to ride the coattails of a successful bar that might be up for sale, and possibly ruin a Petaluma institution, ruining good will in the process, the partners asked around to find out “which bar does everyone hate?” What better way to charm the locals and show that you want to be part of the community than to replace a bad bar that doesn’t care with a good one that does?
Since day one, this sense of community has permeated all aspects of Roaring Donkey. Inconspicuous to some, but a “Petaluma stamp of approval” to many, was a sign in the window during constructions, which read, “MAD Architecture.” Mary Dooley’s firm is adept at what I call ‘local camouflage architecture’; her work blends in so well that it appeals to eye even though we may not consciously notice it. Dooley has been designing and rehabbing great spaces in Petaluma for years. She is responsible for local civic projects such as the Petaluma Visitors Center, the Downtown Façade Restoration, and the rusty steel accented Water Street Promenade. Having her fingerprints on the Roaring Donkey lent local credibility to this new venture. Additionally, Dooley’s expertise in the permitting process and local zoning ordinances meant the bar’s inspections went smoothly and there were no delays in opening. Hiring Dooley was also the first of many clues that the owners of Roaring Donkey “get it”…as in “get Petaluma.”
The Roaring Donkey shares a penchant for community involvement that infuses most Petaluma businesses and residence. They have already started hosting charity events. They rarely charge a cover for music but when they do it is somewhere in the $2-$3 range and goes to whatever charity they are currently supporting. Moreover, they do not simply pick the most popular or well-known charities; they do their homework to make sure it is a worthy cause that spends donations wisely. For Breast Cancer Awareness Month Roaring Donkey featured local wines, beers, and distilled liquor from female vintners, brewers, and distillers and donated a portion of their sales to Gateway for Cancer, a charity which pledges $0.99 out of every dollar donated goes to cancer research.
The partners have heeded the advice of a legendary Petaluma saloon owner who told them that their best chance at success is to “listen” to Petaluma. They are constantly tweaking their layout as well as their menu items at the request of their newfound and growing group of regular patrons. They also reciprocate good will at every turn. When another downtown business’s fridge broke the Roaring Donkey offered up some of its cooler space. Along those same lines, Brian gave deference to the pub across the street and stayed away from the standard Irish pub look, even though he is quite fond of the community character of pubs common to Ireland. He also checked with Ray’s Deli and Tavern when planning the Roaring Donkey’s “Open Mic” night. Perfectly fitting in, Roaring Donkey scheduled their open mic session after Ray’s closes at 9pm and has quickly turned into the go-to after-Ray’s open mic spot. Additionally, like a growing number of downtown restaurants, bars, and shops, Roaring Donkey has an “industry night” each week (Sunday) where local business owners and employees can enjoy drink specials as a kind of “thank you” for making Petaluma such a great environment to shop and work.
These are all things that locals appreciate and have quickly earned Roaring Donkey a loyal following. Also popular are the much-loved “Leave a Drink” board and the Legion of Mad Fellows, which is a beer club of sorts. “We wanted patrons to try all our beers…plus everyone likes being part of a club, right?” says Brian. The first fifty Mad Fellows that finish all 25 beers on tap will receive their very own personalized mug and a discount on future pints.
Although proud of their beer and liquor selection, what usually catches the eye upon entering Roaring Donkey is the stack of copper mugs behind the bar. These are the traditional serving vessels for Moscow Mules, a “buck” cocktail of vodka, ginger beer, and lime. The Roaring Donkey has about a dozen variations on this cocktail, with ingredients ranging from mescal to peach bitters, and from fernet to a variety of house-made infusions. Anda buck or mule cocktail made with vodka, ginger beer, and lime served in a copper mug garnished with a sprig of mint. a buck or mule cocktail made with vodka, ginger beer, and lime served in a copper mug garnished with a sprig of mint. And in true Petaluma fashion, they adapt to and incorporate local ingredients and seasonal changes. Along with several other bar patrons, I was invited to taste a few experiments at reshaping the Mule with some fall flavors, like cinnamon or other chest-warming spices. It’s just that kind of inclusion in the decision making process that will make loyal fans of Petaluma patrons.
The bar has a diverse list of libations and hopes to add a “Bling Box” for displaying a variety of top of the line elixirs that are not usually available by the glass. “We will offer shots at our cost,” says Brian. “We want people to celebrate their special occasions with us.”
It took Brian, Kelton, and Bob surprisingly little time to “get” Petaluma and Petaluma is returning the gesture by flocking to the space these three partners have created. This “clubhouse for adults” is quickly becoming a local favorite. In mere months, Jamison’s Roaring Donkey has already succeeded in helping us forget the bad memories of the previous bars in this location. Just as the bar’s laminate floor was stripped away to reveal beautiful original wood flooring, these three have done more than simply redesigned this space; they have transformed it into a community gathering place. Jamison’s Roaring Donkey is destined to become a valued and beloved addition to the downtown culinary and bar scene.
Nightly – happy hour specials
Monday night: Monday Night Football
Tuesday night: Trivia
Wednesday night: 9pm – Open Mic
Thursday night: Comedy (check schedule – usually once or twice a month)
Friday – Sunday night: Music (check schedule)
For more information visit: www.roaring-donkey.com