SAX'S JOINT IN PETALUMA, A MODERN CLASSIC DINER
Sax’s Joint just celebrated their four-year anniversary but one visit and you would swear this Petaluma Boulevard South diner has been in operation for decades. The warmth of service, reasonable prices, and delicious food all harken back to what many might think of as a bygone era, but Sax’s Joint is keeping the idea of a neighborhood diner alive and well.
A modern iteration of the classic diner, the staff dress in 50’s attire, but with a shot of biker mixed in. In fact, it is not unusual to see one of the owner’s pink Harley sitting out front, accenting the pink highlights that have been added to the traditional black and white diner motif.
We have been dining at Sax’s Joint since it first opening, and have loved every meal. In fact, mine was the first Yelp review back in 2013 and we have been fans ever since. Shortly after opening, I was lucky enough to meet the owners while I was helping to organize the Great Petaluma Chili Cookoff fundraiser, which is just one of many fundraisers that Sax’s now participates in.
Sax’s Joint is the joint venture of sisters Tiffany and Kimberly Saxelby, with a lot of help from mom, Julie Saxelby, as well as just about every family member and friend. Mom’s family is from Louisiana, which means comfort cooking is in her blood. In fact, many of the recipes are hers, including all the jams, which can be purchased, as well as the incredible cinnamon rolls, coleslaw, and potato salad.
Tiffany has always been in the restaurant industry, working restaurants in both the front and back of house, running her own taco truck, and specializing as a baker. Sister Kimberly has also been in and out of the restaurant industry throughout her life, finally settling with Tiffany as the bakers at Pepper’s, a home-style restaurant that used to sit in front of Safeway on the east side.
It was while working at Pepper’s that Tiffany and Kimberly’s father, came down with cancer. Born Conrad Saxelby, he picked up the nickname “Sax”, likely because his biker buddies did not want him being confused with his tea and crumpet sounding name. Having seen his daughters work so hard in order to make others’ dreams come true, one of his final wishes before passing away was for them to open up their own diner. As luck would have it, Angela DeCarli was a regular customer of theirs and informed them that her Marvin’s property, next to Pinky’s Pizza, was available.
“Everything here has always been good,” says Tiffany, referring to their Sax’s Joint location. “There’s just something in the walls about this place that makes it feel like home.” With the help of the whole extended Saxelby family, including kids, cousins, and friends, the diner opened to rave reviews in the summer of 2013 and has been gang busters ever since.
After visiting several times over a couple month period, we got to know the sisters well, in large part because they are always present and engaging with their guests. At that time, we were in the process of planning the next Great Petaluma Chili Cookoff and the ladies wanted in. Moreover, once signed up, they asked me to let them know of any and all food fundraising events around town because they wanted to join them all.
Without ever being prompted, the ladies of Sax’s Joint knew how to participate in our community, and in the last four years have certainly achieved that goal. They not only attend all the local events, but even hold benefits at their shop, including a recent fundraiser for the Petaluma Animal Shelter. Along with winning awards at events like the Chili Cookoff and the Mac n’ Cheese Challenge, their recent efforts to help feed firefighters and evacuees and fundraise for fire victims have been incredible.
“We wouldn’t be living out our dream without all these people,” says Kimberly. “These are our people.” From organizing a homemade cookie drive to selling Sonoma Strong t-shirts to delivering food and coffee to evacuation centers, Sax’s Joint, like so many other great restaurants in town, really stepped up.
When asked what she attributed Sax’s success to, Tiffany says, “it’s like what you said in your article. Having the owners present makes a huge difference because we can address problems immediately. Petalumans really like knowing and seeing the owners on-site.” Kimberly, giving credit to her chef sister, says it is a combo of having great food and a great staff. Not surprisingly, the majority of servers are either relatives or friends, including Tiffany’s daughter Bailey, who as a teenager was jokingly admonished that she better not mess up our order because she was serving the “local food writer.” Of course, she was great, but not just because she is good at her job. She was great, as is the rest of the staff, because they all love each other and love what they have helped, and continue to create for their guests.
In fact, when we last visited, it happened to be in the middle of a weekend of Halloween dress-up days. Everyone was having a great time and customers were really enjoying the festive atmosphere. But this vibe is a constant throughout the year, which along with excellent from-scratch cooking, makes Sax’s a local favorite, and helps explain the long line out front on the weekends.
A chalkboard on the wall reads “We don’t have WiFi. Talk to each other. Pretend it’s 1955.” Although subtle, this helps sum up the Saxelby’s and what they have helped create. They are fun and like to interact with their guests, most of whom are now regulars.
High on the wall above the hallway leading to the back dining room is simple shrine to Papa Sax. It is nothing extravagant. His spike-studded helmet is hung with care, along with several signs with sayings like “family – neighbors – friends” and “In this house we are real, we are happy, we love, we say ‘I’m sorry’, we forgive, we hug, we are family” and “Papa – the man, the myth, the legend.” There is also a large poster of Sax sitting on his Harley, looking back over his shoulder and smiling. It is hard not to wonder what Sax was like, but I feel like after getting to know his wonderful wife, incredible daughters, and helpful and gregarious grandkids, he must have been a really special guy.
Sax’s menu can be a bit deceiving in that it is not only massive, but is reasonably priced. Some may jump to the conclusion that this means average diner fare, but that could not be farther from the truth. I had to ask Tiffany how she does it, when everything is made fresh, much of it from scratch. Apparently, it comes down to volume. “We aren’t trying to get rich off individuals,” says Tiffany. “We want everyone to have a great time and enjoy some great food, so we keep it reasonably priced. Enough people dine with us that we can afford to keep the prices low.”
Although the whole menu is great, there are definite favorites, like the Chicken Fried Steak, sourced directly from Petaluma Market and the French Toast made using cinnamon Challah bread from Full Circle Bakery in Penngrove. “All our suppliers are great,” continues Tiffany. “When we have an emergency, they’ve brought us even the smallest order of bread, no questions asked.” I also know that when they ran out, just as I ordered the Chicken Fried Steak while researching an upcoming article, before I knew it they had jetted over to Petaluma Market to restock.
A visit to Sax’s Joint is not complete without one of Mee Maw’s Homemade Cinnamon Rolls and an order of Grits, oh, and a side of thick cut bacon. Because there are so many items we love, we always order one of each for the table to share, just so we do not get backed into a corner where we have to start choosing what not to have. Moreover, portions are so generous that we rarely go home empty handed, enjoying leftovers for at least the next day, if not longer.
However, if truth be told, we usually look to Sax’s Facebook posts and specials board to help guide our dining decisions. Whether it is a chorizo hash, fried catfish with grits and bacon gravy, or a freshly made crab cake benedict, we are always blown away by what comes out of Sax’s kitchen.
If you have not seen the crowds standing out front of Sax’s on weekend mornings, be warned, but do not be intimidated. They are packed for a reason. But they seat people quickly and the wait is always worth it.
As I left from a recent visit, I overheard a young family weighing the option of having to wait against how great the menu looked. They had just biked in from I Street and were hungry. I could not help but suggest they stick it out, not just because they would enjoy the food, but because their young child should experience how diners used to be, with friendly staff and home cooking. If we keep exposing the next generation to all the great experiences available to them in Petaluma, hopefully they will help carry our values forward, keeping Petaluma what it is. Sax’s young servers certainly have taken up this torch and make me proud to be a Petaluma.
The back of Sax’s menu reads, “Daddy always said, ‘You girls work too hard to be doing it for someone else. We should own our own place.’ Well Daddy, WE DID IT!” However, they have done so much more than simply open a success eatery, which is no small feat on its own. Anyone can make great food, but it is the ambiance that the Saxelby’s have created that is the true homage to their father. The owners, staff, and customers have not only made Sax’s dream a reality, but have helped create a favorite dining spot that adds to the definition of what it is to be a Petaluman. Papa Sax would be proud to see his girls feeding both the bodies and souls of so many happy Petalumans.