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June 26, 2022

Despite the Name, the Elephant Is a ‘People Pub’

There’s a widespread sentiment in the wine industry: “It takes a lot of good beer to make a good bottle of wine.”

So when Paul Stokeld suggested the name, “Elephant in the Room,” to co-owner KC Mosso for their planned watering hole in Healdsburg, Mosso thought it was perfect. “So here we are in wine country and we’re featuring beer,” said the 47-year-old Mosso.

“We’re all about the beer.” Since they’ve taken over the small tavern at 177 Healdsburg Ave., it has attracted beer lovers (and winemakers) to the casual atmosphere, deep beer list and live music—this last being the specialty of Mosso.

Photos by Christian Kallen

Mosso grew up in the penumbra of Los Angeles, in Glendale, and moved to Sonoma County when he went to college at then-Sonoma State. He’s been a familiar face around Healdsburg for almost 25 years, and wherever he goes—the former Bear Republic Brewing, Ravenous on Center Street, self-promoted shows at the Raven Performing Arts Theater—Mosso brings the music.

He brought ska pioneers the Skatalites to the Raven, as well as The Wailers, the Coasters,  ’60s hitmaker Booker T. Jones, comedian Emo Philips and others, picking up where former Raven owner Don Hyde left off when he moved to Europe.

All the while, he kept his own musical impulses going in a number of local bands, including Pumps Fire, Fatt Sack and, most successfully, Crazy Famous.

“We were right on the edge of blowing up,” he said, perhaps accurately. They were voted Best Rock Band by the North Bay Bohemian in 2014, the year they played Bottle Rock and opened for A Flock of Seagulls. But personality conflicts eventually split the band, and they went their separate ways.

All through that period, Mosso brought his gregarious personality to bear on his every workplace—doing what he calls “the bartending game.”

After all, it was the lure of beer that drew him up the 101 to Healdsburg, where a college friend worked as a brewer at the Bear Republic. Mosso got a job pulling drafts and, once he got the hang of it, producing a live open mic night on alternate Thursdays for “five or six years, something like that.”

Then he was recruited to bartend at Ravenous on Center, a respected Healdsburg cuisine mainstay where Bravas is now. They didn’t anticipate having music, but as Mosso said, “They would shut the bar down at 10 o’clock. I said, ‘Boy, you know, your license goes till two. Can I stay open?’” Naturally, he added craft cocktails to his repertoire, and started bringing in after-dinner bands.

“So I got to meet a lot of really cool people they were tight in with, like Tom Waits and Charlie Musselwhite and all these, you know, rock stars and movie stars showing up in our little town. And they went to Ravenous.” But in 2012, Joyanne Pezzolo took Ravenous back to its original location, next to the Raven Theater lobby (hence the name). There was no room for a bar, or live music, and Mosso’s bigger-than-the-bar personality was quieted.

If rock’n’roll dreams die hard, Mosso—now married with two dogs—is keeping the dream alive for others. Five years later, he opened the Elephant in the Room, the very definition of a watering hole. The small stage in the Elephant’s cozy open patio area doesn’t seem like it could support a thriving living music scene, but it has been no obstacle to Mosso.

“My partner was a beer guy, and I don’t think he realized the passion I had for music,” he said. “I said, ‘You know I’m going to turn this into a music venue.’ He said, ‘I don’t know if that’s gonna work, mate.’”

Paul Stokeld is from “a long line of publicans,” according to Mosso, using the English word for tavern keepers. His uncle, Chris Stokeld, ran the popular Old Vic on Fourth Street in Santa Rosa (where Russian River Brewing is located); among his own endeavors are Toad in the Hole in Santa Rosa. It’s described as a “pint-sized hangout offering British tavern eats & brews,” which sounds a lot like the Elephant in the Room.

Except for the food part. Cuisine has never been the strong suit of Elephant in the Room. In fact, early customers wryly remember their single choice of edible—peanuts, the archetypal elephant food. Things have thankfully improved, with “chips” and hot dogs, and the recent addition of Toad Hand Pies, English meat pies (aka pasties) from a Stokeld family recipe.

Toads… Elephants… the Cock and Bull that Uncle Stokeld opened in Occidental after losing his Fourth Street lease: a theme emerges.

Maybe that comes with the territory if you’re opening a pub—second in importance behind the beer. The Elephant’s chalk menu board is a multicolored circus of brews: from Lagunitas L’il Sumpin’ to Henhouse’s The Walrus is Paul, Russian River’s Pliny the Elder (and when it’s in season, the Younger too), plus brews from Belching Beaver, Laughing Monk, Anderson Valley and, what’s this, Hamm’s. (The elephant in the room: the wine list isn’t bad either.)

What sets the Elephant apart is its steady stream of musicians, from every corner of the Pacific Coast bar band tour route and beyond. “We’re right in the middle of this beautiful touring district, right. And everybody wants to play Northern California,” said Mosso. “We get a lot of cool bands that tour through… I’m starting to get a reputation up here.” Coming up next month is Trulio Disgracias, a project of former Fishbone bassist Norwood Fisher with Sonic Youth players—a 15-piece band packed on the small stage. The Pitchforks, the Pulsators, Pete Delaney and Friends, Steve Pile and many other local favorites have all shown up, or will soon.

Usually the cover is $10, and sometimes it’s more; the pub is open five days a week, and there’s music about half the time. The capacity is only 120, but Mosso’s reputation and the music he books brings a uniformly diverse turnout. “One thing about this place, we get everybody. You know you’ll have from 21 year olds to 91 year olds out there dancing together. That just makes my whole day. That’s the way it should be.”

As a musician himself, Mosso knows the importance of treating the bands well—there’s a “green room” in the space formerly occupied by a children’s consignment store—and he follows through on a promoter’s number one obligation: “And you gotta make sure you pay these guys… And so once you start paying them and you get respect in the industry and you follow through and it sounds good and you feed them and water them—it’s like horses. You show them a good time and then they’ll come back.”

The music, the beer, the vibe: the location has never been as successful as it is now, and Mosso is pretty pleased with the way it is. “I could just break even with the bands and make money at the bar, I’m happy.

“It’s the people pub, right? So I just kind of watch and see what they need… It’s like I feed the monster, feed the Elephant.” As long as it’s more than just peanuts.