In an instant, a drunk driver changed the trajectory of Chef Travis Day’s life.
Though he was nowhere near Petaluma when an impaired motorist plowed into the storefront of Thistle Meats in early 2016 — all but destroying it — little more than a year later, he would officially reopen it to the public.
In mid-May, Day took over the downtown artisan butcher shop from founder Molly Best. It had been a rough year for the business.
The drunk driver had done so much structural damage to the building that it had been “red-tagged” as uninhabitable. Best was forced to sell her bone broth and meats to loyal customers from behind their Petaluma Boulevard shop for months.
When Day’s childhood friend and former Thistle butcher Aaron Gilliam said the shop was for sale, Day pounced. After a two week shutter, Thistle was reborn.
“People were breaking down the door for bone broth,” said Day. “We couldn’t stay closed.”
More than just a butchery, the space has been opened up to include a small seating area serving sandwiches, soups and charcuterie plates that go far beyond deli fare.
The open butcher table remains, and a charming brick patio has become the setting for Day’s monthly Sunday suppers with some of San Francisco’s top toques. Day has kept on the former staff.
“I wanted to buy Thistle because I just love the product. I want this to be the best butcher shop in the Bay Area,” Day said. Continuing to focus on ethically raised meats from local ranches, Day knows his purveyors personally, describing everything from their animals’ feed program to how they are processed.
“Meat tastes bad because of stress to the animal,” Day said. His pork comes from Rancho Llano Seco in Chico where pigs are allowed to forage and wander. Other ranchers he works with include Monkey Ranch in Petaluma (lamb), Stemple Creek and Magruder Ranch for beef, Marin Sun Farms for chicken and Liberty Duck.
With years of study as a salumist and butcher, Day is a chef’s chef — working his way up the kitchen ladder with the kind of intense focus and passion that results in 25 journals filled with business plans and recipes, traveling to 20 countries with his chef’s knives and developing a resume that includes some of the best restaurants in the world. Not that he’d really tell you that. Day and his staff are usually too busy learning Argentinian butchering techniques or describing “secreto” or “secret” cuts of pork.
“I used to cure duck prosciutto in the rafters and stay up until 3 a.m. translating old French cookbooks,” Day said.
“I feel like this is the natural progression.” Part of what Day hopes to improve at Thistle are recipes and its prepared dishes like the simple-but-not-simple Jambon Royal sandwich with Humboldt Fog cheese, wild arugula and mustard aioli; heirloom melon with guanciale, cucumber and Italian burrata; or gazpacho with herbs and pan-fried bread. Each showcases the meat and the techniques of the chef.
Monthly dinners are intimate gatherings that amount to Day hanging with his chef besties that happen to be highly sought-after restaurateurs: Brandon Jew of Mister Jiu’s (recently nominated as “Best New Restaurant in the West”), Jason Fox of Michelin-starred Commonwealth (August 20) and Christie Peters and Kyle Michaels of Primal and The Hollows, in Saskatoon, Canada (September 10). Details on joining the dinners here.
It’s also a way to make use of 100 percent of the product, because it’s not all filet mignon.
On the open butcher table, there’s a whole lot of, well, it’s hard to say other than its a lot of fat, sinew and meat. It will all find a home somewhere in the case or on the table. Cows aren’t just big steaks, after all. There are organs, gristly bits and fat that need to be utilized.
Day says he reduces the prices on lesser-known cuts and offal (organs) for customers to try.
Some cuts are unique, like the velvet steak, from the heel of the cow. Filets come at a premium.
“I’ve worked for years at restaurants trying to find new creative ways to use products and reduce waste,” Day said. “It all starts with the animals. We pay more for the animals because they are pasture-raised,” he said. “We try to use every scrap and do the right thing for all the farmers.”
If you go:
- Thistle has daily specials, so you won’t always know what’s on the menu.
- The shop will continue to source grass-fed, pasture-raised meats and offer a charcuterie program featuring handmade pates, salumi, terrines and other house-cured meats.
- Day plans to also offer an expanded, new menu of prepared foods including sandwiches, salads and soups, along with marinated and seasoned meat cuts and other local items.
- We were fascinated with the preserved duck eggs, which look like little apricot gelees. Shaved over sandwiches, they’re divine.
- There’s also bread from Red Bird and Della Fattoria, local cheeses from Andante and Cowgirl Creamery, honey, bone broth and other local goods.