It's the end of an era in American Canyon.

Palby's Restaurant served up its last steak Sept. 28. One week later, the family patriarch died.

Pete Freskan, the 82-year-old owner of the landmark at the corner of Highway 29 and Napa Junction Road, died Monday surrounded by the family that toiled beside him for many years.

Now Freskan's large family is packing up the restaurant, and picking up the pieces after his death.

"He was kind of failing," his son Pierre noted Wednesday, adding that the death was unexpected.

"He had fallen about 10 years ago, it hurt him pretty badly, and he never really was ever the same. He still enjoyed himself … we expected he would last another 10 years," Pierre said softly.

Freskan's family — wife Alba of 61 years, sons Pierre and John, daughters Paulette Griffin and Claudette Shanks, seven grandchildren and five great-grandchildren — spent the past two weeks packing up the restaurant that was a labor of love for so many years. They have to be out by the end of the month.

The "corner" will still house a restaurant, Pierre said, but the new owners are changing the cuisine from family-style American fare to Mexican cuisine.

"I walked in there Monday and said to (Paulette), 'This is really sad,'" said Lori Luporini, vice mayor and owner of Lena's Tavern, a watering hole that sits on the opposite end of Napa Junction Road from Palby's. "Everything was coming apart and it was like 46 years of history and basically the landmark for American Canyon. Lena's is the last one left, and I don't know how long I'm going to hang in there."

From Pete's to Palby's

The south county area was still known as Napa Junction when Freskan's parents, John and Clemance, bought the property and opened a mom-and-pop grocery store. World War I had just ended, and Freskan was still an infant. By World War II, Freskan was grown and working at Mare Island.

When he was 21, he bought a liquor license and turned the small store into "Pete's Club," a nightclub and roadhouse. That same year, he married his neighbor Alba Turchet, and they moved into the home attached to the restaurant.

In 1956, the Freskans started serving dinners, and Pete's Club gave way to Palby's. The moniker is a combination of their names, "Pete" and "Alba." It was one of the few restaurants for miles on Highway 29, and the wait for a table was often two hours.

"I don't think American Canyon would have even existed without certain businesses in the area," American Canyon Mayor Don Colcleaser said. "Palby's was the landmark of this area along with Mid City Nursery. (The Freskans) were an integral part of founding anything that is remotely related to the city.

"I don't know how you could even talk about American Canyon without talking about Palby's," Colcleaser said.

The nights were hopping at Palby's, especially during the 1970s and '80s.

"We would do about 800 dinners on Friday and Saturday and 1,000 on Sundays," Pierre said.

"Back then we just had a couple of steaks, ribs and big, chuckwagon dinners. If you took too long eating, a waitress would be there with her hand on her hips."

People came for the cheese bread, and the bunches of grapes draped over their glasses of Chardonnay. But they stayed for the spectacle.

The entrance is an ode to kitsch, with Griffin's doll and Christmas ornament collection.

In the mid-90s, the San Francisco Chronicle's Sunday magazine used the restaurant's plush booths for a photo spread on the retro-swing craze, where everything old was cool again.

But most spectacular were the birds — peacocks, pheasants, doves and pigeons. Pierre remembers when his dad built the giant, glass-enclosed showplace.

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"They built the pond in the back, with all kinds of flowers and shrubs. I helped plant them. When we got the birds, the peacocks just started eating all the plants I helped put out there, they just ate everything in sight," Pierre laughed. "I didn't really understand why they were eating everything."

How it ended

Despite the restaurant's popularity, the growth of commerce in Vallejo and Napa started to pull customers away. And after working seven days a week for more than four decades, the family was ready for a break. Freskan's friends mourn the fact that he never got to savor the retirement he worked so hard for.

"It's very hard to take because you see the guy with the potential to get from under Palby's Restaurant and go on with his life in other ways and it doesn't happen," Colcleaser said.

The birds went to a new home this week, a ranch in Carneros. Griffin's been packing up the miniature Christmas village and Ferris wheel that's graced the front window for years. Mostly everything else, from tablecloths to flats of glasses, is up for grabs. Pierre put a few items in front of the restaurant last week, along with a "for sale" sign. What followed was an impromptu garage sale of titanic proportions.

"We had about a hundred people here last weekend," Pierre said.

The family will still live in American Canyon, and maintain the strawberry fields they own next to the restaurant.

"I've been here all my life," Pierre said. "I'm still going to be around."

Pierre and his wife share their parents' love of the open road, and are looking forward to spending their days traveling in their new motor home.

"More or less like my dad did," he said.

Correspondent Scott Hankins contributed to this story.

Roseann Keegan can be reached at 256-2220 or rkeegan@napanews.com

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