By KATIE WATTS / Petaluma Towns Correspondent
Photos by CONNER JAY / Press Democrat Photographer
“Why a story now about this place?” asked bartender Chris Nardone. “It’s been here since 1923.”
She’s joking. There’s a lot of kidding around at Ernie’s Tin Bar, but it’s a good question.
Even though Ernie’s has been around 90 years, there are many locals who get a puzzled look. “Ernie’s? Why does that name sound so familiar?”
If you’re one of the puzzled, we’ll spare you the mental wrackspurt and remind you. Ernie’s is on the Lakeville Highway, at the corner of Stage Gulch Road.
For the past year, a running tally has been kept on the blackboard behind the bar of newcomers who walk in and say, “I’ve been driving past this place for years, but this is the first time . . .” Earlier in the month, the total was marching steadily toward 800.
Talking to customers about the bar is like going to a long-awaited wedding: everyone has nice things to say.
“It’s straight, honest, not trying to be anything else,” Nardone said, “a slice of Americana. It’s an eclectic crew, from locals who’ve been coming for generations to wine tour people who need a beer after so much wine, to those who’ve been driving by for 20 years.”
“The place grounds me,” says regular Regina Riguero. “It’s always been here. In the spring you can see baby lambs, hear the birds. There’s a down-to-earth feeling; these are real people.”
“It’s a real melting pot,” said Petaluman Scott Eaton, who has been dropping by Ernie’s for four years. “Everyone’s welcome, and there are certain things that don’t go down. Nobody talks politics or religion.”
“We came all the way from Vegas,” joked Tom Hudec. Then he came clean. “We were going from Petaluma to Napa and saw they had $2.50 drafts and said, ‘We’ve gotta stop.’ I love dive bars.”
That phrase no longer signifies sinister, sleazy or unsafe as it once did. Now dive bar simply means neighborhood bar, a place to drink and socialize. Or just socialize.
Sociability is the key to Ernie’s. Take the No Cell Phone rule. “Use a cell phone, buy a round,” says the sign over the bar.
The reason, Nardone explained, is “we want to encourage people to talk to each other. For the same reason, we turn on the lights and keep the music low, to encourage conversation.”
Owner Ernie Altenreuther remembers an earlier sign: “Directions 50 cents. Correct directions $1.” It was a joke and no one was ever charged, he said, but “we took it down. It used to make people angry.”
And angry is the opposite of the feeling he wants at Ernie’s Tin Bar.
At 35, Altenreuther has been running the bar 14 years. He’s named after his grandfather, the original Ernie.
One of the first things he did once he arrived was start serving draft beer. His predecessor predicted doom, he said, but his reason was simple.
“I didn’t like of the beers that were served,” he said, naming four well-known national beers. “Now 80 percent of the beer sales is draft,” with 13 beers, most from California and four from Petaluma or Sonoma. He likes to keep it local.
“This isn’t a bar in a box,” Altenreuther said. “People who drop in, if they’re local, generally we’ll see them again. But we get a lot of out-of-staters who stop, some every year.”
Ernie’s doesn’t serve wine or food, except for some packaged snacks. In the morning there is a coffee cart, and the soft drink menu includes Blenheim’s, a ginger ale with a cayenne-like heat.
In addition to good, well-priced beer, friendly staff and patrons are the draw.
“In 14 years, we’ve had one fight,” said Altenreuther, laughing. “They punched each other once outside, and five minutes later they were crying and hugging each other. They weren’t drunk, either.
“They agreed so forcefully about something they got into a fight. I still don’t understand it.”
While there’s a lot of friendly joking at Ernie’s, he said, “if anything turns mean, I put a stop to it. We want people to feel safe and comfortable, that if you use the restroom you can leave your wallet on the bar and come back and it’ll still be there.
“Heck, you could leave your wallet on the bar and come back the next day, and it’ll still be here.”
For awhile, Ernie also ran Tolay Valley Farms, part of the county Community Supported Agriculture network. It got to be too much, especially after he had kids, and he sold it. Now Tim Yahnke runs the business, but customers can pick up their weekly produce at the bar.
Altenreuther also expanded the building. Gesturing at the ceiling, he said, “We put in tongue-in-groove stuff we salvaged from across the road.” That building was part of a much bigger dance hall built in 1909.
Gloria Altenreuther, Ernie’s grandmother and the original Ernie’s widow, had more to tell about the bar’s history. “It was just a little soda water bar,” she said. “My mother-in-law bought groceries for people who lived along the waterfront. They didn’t have cars. She’d go to town once a day to get bread and milk.
“She even took the kids to school. She’d go down the road and pick up the kids every morning and take them to the Lakeville School.” The school, long closed, was just up the road toward Petaluma. “Then she’d bring them home every night.”
After Prohibition ended, “they put in beer, but it was a place to get together, where people came in the evening and just talked,” said Gloria Altenreuther. Her husband and his brother ran the garage that was now, part of the bar, repairing farm equipment for the dairy people.
The area was all dairy in those years, she explained, and very much a community. The building across the road was the Lakeville Social Hall, home to parties, card parties and dances.
Now, at 84, Altenreuther still comes in to work. “It’s more friends than customers,” she said. “All these people come every day and we visit. Most of the same neighbors are still here, just different generations. They tell me I’m the oldest one living in this neighborhood who was born and raised here.”
“She’s the heart and soul of this place,” said Chuck Haydon, also knows as Chuck the Bartender.
“The beer tastes the best when Gloria serves it,” said Zack Waldner. “It’s nothing but a joy to drink it.”
Regular Jimmy Danz summed it up, saying Ernie’s is welcoming. “It’s not work, it’s not home. It’s a good in-between.”
Ernie’s Tin Bar is located at 5100 Lakeville Highway, open daily 11 a.m.-at least 8 p.m. To subscribe to Tolay Valley Farms, visit tolayvalleyfarms.com.