Not-so-Jolly Roger

It’s a new week, which means a new debate is brewing over the decor of a Plaza business.

This time it’s Burgers & Vine – the recently-opened restaurant located at 400 First St. E., right next to Grandma Linda’s notorious pink door – that’s raising eyebrows with its pirate flag.

Codi Binkley, who founded the restaurant with co-owner Carlo Cavallo, said he raised the flag there with no special plan in mind – but now has no plan to take it down.

“I did it as a joke originally, because Carlo always claims he’s a pirate. … He’s the rum aficionado,” Binkley explained.

The Jolly Roger – a skull and crossbones on a black field – was flying high over Burgers & Vine’s front door for the restaurant’s opening day on Feb. 22. Besides the Cavallo-as-pirate reference, the flag alludes to the restaurant’s “Jolly Roger burger” and the fact that it serves a Jolly Roger brand ale.

But for Binkley, the flag now represents a principle he believes is worth fighting for. After a year’s worth of wrangling with the city over design elements and other particulars, he says he’s tired of what he considers its heavy-handed approach with small businesses.

“It’s just like the pink door thing,” he said, referring to the recent fight over whether a shade of pink at Grandma Linda’s Ice Cream shop was appropriate for the Plaza. That argument ended last Monday, when City Council members upheld a decision by the city’s Design Review and Historic Preservation Commission to approve the color.

The front door of Burgers & Vine sits about 50 feet from that pink door – and over it, on a flagpole built into the structure, flies the Jolly Roger.

“People don’t want change. And change is inevitable,” Binkley concluded.

“We’re not going to fall on this one. We’re going to make a stink about it.”

But Councilmember Ken Brown, a longtime friend of Binkley, draws a distinction between the pirate flag and the pink door.

“Grandma’s ice cream went through the process,” he said. The store’s owners “Came up with the design and laid it all out. There was a long meeting about it, and there was a decision.”

By contrast, Brown said, the owners of Burgers & Vine never sought approval. Instead they raised the Jolly Roger for the opening day event, then left it up.

“The city allows a certain leeway for grand openings and ribbon cuttings, that sort of stuff,” he said. “But there’s a timeframe to those sort of things, and then they have to come down.”

Brown believes this flag qualifies as such an adornment. But he agrees that other flags – such as the American flag, Bear Flag or city of Sonoma flag – are fine to leave up.

“There are 17 flags on the Plaza alone,” Binkley noted. For example, the Swiss Hotel has four flags, Murphy’s has an Irish flag, the Church Mouse has a Mexican flag, and of course, “the Bear Flag’s pretty much everywhere.”

For Brown, those are all fine. “If the Swiss Hotel wants to fly the seven flags of Sonoma, that’s cool,” he said. However, “Is the pirate flag the appropriate flag?

Many residents don’t think so, he said: “They hate it. And it’s not just old folks.” Rather, Brown said, it’s people with a “deep and abiding love for the Plaza and how it looks.”

But Brown – who already had a talk with Binkley, when he discussed the complaints coming from some residents – gave the other side of the argument as well.

“There are those that say Sonoma’s a pirate town,” he said, mentioning the Bear Flag Revolt and the overall rebel spirit that he says is “alive and well.”

In that sense, the Jolly Roger fits, Brown said. However, “The Jolly Roger flag wasn’t one of the seven flags over Sonoma.”

“Codi and I have been friends since he was a little rug-rat,” Brown joked. “I don’t think there was a council member who was more proactive, more willing to help them with their issues than I was. But like I told Cody, the flag is something else.”

For Binkley, leaving the Jolly Roger up has become a gesture of defiance after a year of difficulty getting his restaurant open.

“I wouldn’t want to have any of my friends start a business here in Sonoma,” he said. “This project was a nightmare.”

As to what happens next, “I have no idea,” Binkley said. “We have our lawyers involved.”