Downtown Santa Rosa wraps itself around the city’s historic Courthouse Square like the old favorite blanket you can’t quite let go of. There is a comfort here, a familiarity which keeps the loyalty of its residents going strong, while taking the (mostly) gentle nudge of modernity and the resulting influx of visitors in stride. After much hullabaloo and a long-pondered debate among locals over the reunification of Courthouse Square, the verdict came in for unity. Often, the rest is history. Not in the case of this determined district of downtown.

Amanda Janik

Photography by:
Laura Schneider

Travel Back To Square 1

Reinvention isn’t new to this neighborhood, having been pummeled by two major earthquakes in 1906 and again in 1969, plus the division of the old Courthouse Square in between. But a survivor she is, and a thriver she has become. Now, on this spot there stands a perfect blend of fresh energy and old-school nostalgia; from the eclectic mix of architectural styles to the retail, restaurants and work spaces. Courthouse Square is a neighborhood in motion, and we are totally along for the ride.

In the early 1900’s, this part of town was known for its live entertainment, elegant restaurants and vaudevillian culture. While sure, it’s taken some time to find its way back to that former glory, Santa Rosa’s Courthouse Square has again made its mark as a trendy meeting spot with enough unexpectedly varied personality to raise more than an eyebrow or two. For example: on one side of the ‘hood there’s the bar at Ca’ Bianca (835 2nd St), classy and comfortable with perfectly-dimmed lights and soft Italian opera or jazz playing overhead; this is the place you bring your grandma for a gin fizz on her birthday. On the other side, you’ve got Kozy Kar Bar (404 Mendocino), where you do NOT bring your grandma, ever, unless she is super freaky…in which case, by all means make some memories to share on Thanksgiving, you two! This place is small but with a huge, tawdry personality with its vintage Playboys on the walls, a waterbed here and there, some very adult-only viewing on the TV, and all of it mixed with a time capsule’s worth of memorabilia from the 70’s and 80’s. Variety is a staple in this hood, no doubt about it.

Hold Court With The Old-Schoolers

Give yourself a few extra minutes to chat up people who have been a part of the scene since before there was scene. Treehorn Books (625 4th St), the greatest dark, musty, jam-packed book store any bibliophile could ever hope for, opened in 1989 with the same hours as today – 10am until 9:30pm – and was the first store downtown to stay open past 6pm at the time. “When we moved in, it was mostly just people who came in for work and then left; there wasn’t really a nightlife,” co-owner Michael Stephens said. Who knew a bunch of book lovers would become the neighborhood’s trend setters, right?

There are several old gems like Treehorn downtown, with unexpected glimpses of the quaint bygone Courthouse Square still standing strong. An outdoor lunch or cocktail affords a killer view of what was, is, and is yet to be. Next to the Doyle Building’s early 1900’s aesthetic, Corrick’s Stationery and Gift store still sports its 70’s facade. Kitty-corner, past the likely-there street musicians, the old Rosenberg Building holds onto its outwardly swanky character despite being taken over by a more middle-aged crowd, and the Empire Building, a long-time landmark on the Square itself, will soon house a boutique hotel within its stately, classic 1908 frame.

Looking Up From Downtown

All that old, square stuff being said, the new enthusiasm flowing into the Courthouse Square district shouts from the rooftops that the times they are a-changin’. A far cry from the days when a used book store was the most happening example of a nightlife, today tourists and locals alike love choosing a spot to post up, belly up, meet up and eat up. With restaurant options from Pizza to Peruvian, Ramen to Ethiopian, French to Franks (okay, you get the idea) offered both day and night, infused with plenty of sidewalk dining and people watching, Courthouse Square is abuzz like never before.

Santa Rosa is all about being capital-L Local, and the Courthouse Square district has perhaps the largest concentration of showcased community talent in town. Farm-to-table food, wine from up the street, ooh la la jewelry, not-your-uncle’s art, sustainable, hip, and everything-in-between clothing, cutting-edge design, beer at every turn (and recently named the microbrew capital of the US, thankyouverymuch); you name it, you’ll find it. Do yourself a favor and explore the beaten path (i.e. 4th Street), but also venture off, as there are countless way-cool places throughout Downtown. And seriously: go into nearly any business in the Courthouse Square area, and you’ll be hard-pressed to not find at least a little something showing off the regional pride of this area.

Ode to Oldschool, and Welcome to New Neighbors

Asef’s Appliance – (709 4th) At the very least, just take a peek. Asef’s answers that age-old question of “where can I find that obscure part for my vacuum while having my toaster fixed and a new set of keys made while I’m shopping for a new lamp?” We’ve all pondered these things, admit it.

Corricks – (637 4th) This is where you get your wedding invitations designed. Or choose your china pattern, or get that monogrammed stationery you’ve always wanted, or pick up a baby shower gift. Or, just finally find the perfect pen. They’ve been in business since 1915 so…they know what’s up.

La Vera Pizza – (629 4th) Opened in 1983, this place remains an intimate, brass-and-brick-and-booths solid pizza spot. And, bonus pro tip: they’ve got gelato!

Ralph’s Hot Dog Stand has been a Courthouse Square rolling institution for twenty-five years, and because this is Sonoma County, there’s even a vegan hot dog on the menu. Yes. A vegan hot dog.

Perhaps the most revered spot for locals to meet, eat, and greet, however, is Mac’s Deli, (630 4th) which has been a beloved Santa Rosa deli since 1952. That’s a lotta pastrami on rye, you guys.

Made Local Marketplace – (529 4th) An entire store devoted to showcasing impressively varied items like art, clothing, body products, jewelry and even food, from over 600 local artists and farmers.

Bohlux – (638 5th St) A “sophisticated leather workshop” –  where you can watch the elegant owner, LuLu Comora, expertly trim some leather, hand-stitch some alligator, or craft a designer handbag made from ostrich. Ostrich!

Portobello Hats – (311 D St) Specializing in both custom made and widely imported hats of all kinds, from fascinators to fedoras and well beyond. Bohlux and Portobello Hats prove that newer downtown shops can still offer an elegant nod to time-honored quality.

Jimmy Girl – (422 Mendocino) Restyled Vintage Decor on Mendocino Ave – this place is so Sonoma County, so homey and milk-painty-chic, and owner Denise Showalter clearly has a great eye and natural talent for refinishing old relics into new pieces of functional, conversation-worthy art.

Soulriders – (404 Mendocino) Part vintage surf homage, part skateboard museum (with boards dating back to the 60’s), part record shop (with about 3,000 in stock), part hot rod appreciation spot, this place also stocks vintage Hawaiian shirts and boho-sailor-surf inspired clothing for the ladies.

All of the surf and skate brands are owned by guys in the hot rod and skate world – nothing corporate here, just good old fashioned rootsy Southern California beach-loving collectible greatness.

Wilibees Wine and Spirits – on the corner of 3rd and D Streets – buy offsale beer, wine, liquor, cigars and even chocolate truffles. Stay a little longer, though, and check out their wine bar in the back. With 24 local and worldwide wines and 12 beers on tap, plus a great little snacking menu that extends beyond basic bar food with its flatbreads, salads, cheese and charcuterie plates, it’s an easy spot to settle in to try something new. Not only that – if you find a wine or beer in their retail shop you’d rather be drinking, they’ll open it up for you for a crazy small corkage fee.

Local Barrel – (490 Mendocino) Serving up beers while patrons play shuffleboard, ping pong and video games in a comfortable spot surrounded by repurposed redwood fence boards on the walls, beer growlers as lamps above, plenty of board games to cozy up with, a monthly rotating art show on the walls, and live music every Sunday night.

*Shout out to La Rosa Taquileria & Grille…an easy place to meet up with an old friend or for a casual business lunch…and if that ‘business lunch’ is just one person drinking a margarita while writing this article under the jivey crooning of Marvin Gaye and Tammie Terrell singing “Ain’t no Mountain High Enough”, so be it.

The small urban park next to Russian River Brewing Company, Jeju Way, pays homage to Santa Rosa’s sister city in South Korea, Bukjeju, showing off murals of its namesake on one side, and a typical Sonoma County cow-filled hillside on the other. The adorning water sculpture, ‘Woman with Water Jar’ was gifted to Santa Rosa in 2006 to honor 10 years of being sister cities. They aren’t exactly ‘Seoul’ Sisters, but they’re close. GET IT?!

Agent Ink Gallery – (531 Fifth St) One-quarter retail space and three-quarters gallery – this spot houses ultra cool screenprint art curated by owner Curt Barnickel. In the front, find small-run presses on apparel, prints and posters, including a collection by Shepard Fairey, of the now-iconic Obama Poster fame.

Don’t leave this neighborhood without checking out the Museums. One is more history-focused (Sonoma County Museum, on 7th) while the Art Museum of Sonoma County (on B St) showcases a rotation of artists from around the world, and a handful of art and permanent installations on the outer walls to admire just by walking by.