For some, the word “roadhouse” conjures memories of the Patrick Swayze movie of the same name in which he plays a philosophical bouncer to whom Sam Elliott memorably croaks “I’ll get all the sleep I need when I’m dead.” For others, it’s a Penngrove bar recently reimagined into a bustling roadside attraction.
Twin Oaks Roadhouse clearly relishes the word “roadhouse” and whoever penned its website copy cracked open a thesaurus to expand upon it: “Whatever your definition of a tavern, honkytonk or roadhouse, rest assured there’s a bit of each in here.”
There’s also more than a bit of an investment in the tavern-turned-eatery-and-live-music-venue, which is on Old Redwood Highway, just before the Cotati-Penngrove split. Restaurantrepreneur Dean Biersch, known locally for his Hopmonk pubs, recently acquired the 92-year-old establishment and began the arduous task of retrofitting a beloved local landmark whilst respecting its cultural legacy.
“You can never be that local – there’s no way to accomplish that unless you grew up in the neighborhood,” says Biersch, who lives in Sonoma and has a keen awareness of what a place like Twin Oaks means to its local population who are perhaps wary of an “outsider” (from all of 15 miles away) plunging his palette knife into the local color.
“I certainly respect it,” says Biersch, who has opened restaurants in Hawaii, Seattle and San Diego, Las Vegas, besides his Hopmonk locations in Sonoma, Sebastopol and Novato. “I love them all, every place is a trip. I love it. This is old Redwood Highway, it was here when my dad drove up years ago. There’s a lot of change that’s come up around this place but that building has been here.”
Indeed, the building has seen a near-complete cultural overall in the county. Besides Sonoma State University’s arrival in the ’60s, Sonoma County evolved from its identity as the “Redwood Empire” to a tonier “Wine Country” concept over the past couple decades. In some ways, Biersch is helping preserve an oasis of the old school that might otherwise vanish.
“My intention was to really respect what’s there and to have some fun with a space that’s been there through the decades,” he says. The “big overlay” Biersch explains is beer – a subject he knows well (he is, after all, the “Biersch” in Gordon Biersch Brewing Company). Biersch installed a new tap system with a menu that boasts a bevy of local brews.
“It really is a great time and place for beer. Petaluma, deservedly, it really getting its roots into the food and beverage movement and what a perfect place for that,” says Biersch. “We’re the center of the universe. Lagunitas is right here, Hen House is doing incredible work, Petaluma Hills too.”
The venture hasn’t been without its critics. Biersch recently encountered a gentlemen who preferred the Penngrove bar of yesteryear.
“I had a guy mistakenly call us out for not having air conditioning. We just spent $20,000 on an air conditioner,” says Biersch with a smile. “What he didn’t say was ‘You have free music, six nights a week with four to seven piece bands. How do you do that?’ There’s also a piece of the story that’s not appreciated even for the former business. For me, it’s kind of a cultural assimilation and I want to add the layers in of the stuff that we know and keep what I can of the things that were here.”
Among those things is the kitschy bar ephemera from the ’70s, like neon and the Schlitz Girl wall sconces. “I love this old school cheesy stuff because it’s part of beer culture,” says Biersch. He’s not alone. “These are all people who appreciate a bar with a little divey quality to it. We rebuilt the sound system, put a dance floor in, raised the ceiling. It’s a very cozy place,” he says. “We’re just trying to say ‘Hey, you know, this is a great community place.’”