It’s incredibly rare for a restaurant to come along at just the right time, in the right place, with the right food and the right talent.
Easy Rider is that rare bird that fits with the moment, with their approachable Southern-inspired menu, elevated flavors and damn good cocktails on the bustling corner of Kentucky and Washington streets in downtown Petaluma.
The warm glow from inside spills onto the sidewalk outside. Tables are in short supply at the scandalously early seating of 5:30 p.m., a hint of the restaurant’s early popularity. We sat at one of two semi-enclosed booths — a quieter, more intimate space than the bistro tables or bar area. It’s worth requesting.
Most striking is the easy mix of classic Southern and Low Country dishes like shrimp and grits, crab cakes (with blue crab), collards, Cajun-spice fish and fried chicken that draw you in gently rather than forcefully with an overblown caricature of Southern cuisine. Curated local ingredients and California flavors punctuate rather than dominate, accented by Anson Mills grits from South Carolina, Gulf shrimp and Atlantic blue crab.
Easy Rider isn’t a South-meets-California-style restaurant, but a comfortable marriage of the South and West.
The team behind Easy Rider, Chef Jared Rogers and Dustin Sullivan, aren’t newcomers to the North Bay food scene. Rogers, who grew up in the shadows of the Blue Ridge Mountains, founded Marin’s Guesthouse restaurant with Sullivan in 2018, serving a well-sourced modern Cal-Italian, wood-fired cuisine. Both also worked at Larkspur’s much-loved Picco. Easy Rider extends that experience but lets Rogers loose with his native cuisine of rural Virginia.
“I’ve spent thousands Fed-exing grits here,” the baby-faced Rogers said. He’s passionate about using produce sourced from nearby but isn’t shy about bringing in Gulf-caught seafood from Sausalito’s Gulfish to get authentic flavors.
Portions are hearty, almost surprisingly so for the price, but Rogers said he wants guests to experience generous Southern-style hospitality and share around the table.
Dishes range from about $12 for some appetizers and smaller plates and top out at $38 for a New York strip steak. Mixed drinks are $13 and worth the price. We tried four appetizers, two desserts, one salad and three entrees, costing $193 before tax, tip and a $12 “living wage” fee. That’s a gut-busting amount of food for under $200.
It all works brilliantly, if not always perfectly, with heart and soul and the right stuff at just the right time.
Bacon and Cheddar Hushpuppies, $12: Hot, crispy and with just the right amount of cornmeal for its barely there cheesiness and bits of bacon. Strawberry jam with a prickle of jalapeño cuts the savoriness like a champ.
Low Country Crab Cakes, $19: Blue crab has a far more delicate flavor than Dungeness, and it shows in these well-crafted cakes. The addition of Old Bay seasoning plus rémoulade and pepper coulis could overpower but instead merely enhance.
Smoked Trout and Baby Lettuces, $17: My favorite trout salad in the world is at Blue Ridge Kitchen in Sebastopol and is more of a chopped salad with smoked pink trout. This version is equally impressive, though it includes far more greens, an impossibly light lemon dressing, apple, fennel and pecans. It’s luxurious, airy and a great foil to heavier dishes.
Southern Fried Chicken Dinner, $29: Joy, elation and clapping were in order when this impressively huge dish of fried chicken, beautifully browned mac and cheese, collard greens and a gravy boat (no kidding) came to the table. Chile honey on the fried chicken and gravy studded with bacon and an intense perfume of truffle were a little showboat-y but not unappreciated. We agreed the chicken could have used a brine for slightly moister meat, but generally steer clear of saying anything ugly about someone else’s fried chicken.
Shrimp and Grits, $30: Rogers learned grits as a young chef and knows how to make them. The perfectly cooked (no grittiness) Anson Mills grits are topped with slices of andouille sausage, pickled veggies, asparagus and Gulf shrimp. The dish comes together with a savory-spicy Creole sauce made with bell peppers, onion, herbs, butter and hot sauce that makes the dish sing. We did agree that the grits were a little loose, and personally (every Southerner has an opinion about this), I like my grits with more butter. But such minor gripes hardly stood up to our unanimously positive impression.
Sticky Toffee Cake, $11: It’s buttery, sticky, sugary, salty, gooey happiness with a scoop of ice cream. Save room.
Cajun Spiced Catch of the Day, AQ: We may be splitting hairs a bit on this, because the red rice jambalaya with crayfish and a lovely pool of dill butter was perfect. We’d give it another chance for sure. The Cajun-spiced flounder was well-cooked, but what should have been a crisp sear ended up a little gummy. Otherwise excellent.
New Orleans-Style Beignets, $11: We were too full to appreciate these fried bits of dough with hot fudge, raspberry coulis and vanilla cream, but we recommend them highly for brunch.
Pork Belly Biscuits, $16: We really wanted to love these biscuits, with crispy pork belly, Bourbon glaze and pickles. The tiny biscuits impressed, but the belly was tough and dry, making them hard to nibble without ripping the meat with your teeth.
There are plenty of Southern-inspired drinks here, along with modern takes on classics. Each was better than the last — weird, that.
Tan Lines, $13: Think margarita with a kick of green chile.
Gin-gin Gimlet, $13: Gin and ginger with sage, lime, grapefruit and tart elderberry. It’s excellent to whet your appetite.
Pisco Punch, $13: Pisco, pineapple, vermouth and bitters, this drink is like a velvet-gloved slap in the face, in a good way.
Easy Rider, 33 Washington St., Petaluma, 707-774-6233, easyriderpetaluma.com. Open 5 to 9 p.m. daily, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. for Sunday brunch, reservations recommended at resy.com.