1 day, 3 meals, 40 bucks

Eat and drink your way through California’s capital city for a pittance!

Photo By Jill Wagner

Welcome to Sacramento!

The capital of America’s most populous state makes for a fun and affordable day trip. Sacramento is steeped in history—the Transcontinental Railroad, the Pony Express and the Gold Rush all helped to shape this once-sleepy frontier town. Many famous Americans have called Sacramento home—including Ronald Reagan, who was governor from 1967 to 1975.

I’m here to show you all of the most interesting places to visit in the city, but, more importantly, where to get the most value for your dining dollar! Just because Sacramento is the capital of the world’s fifth-largest economy doesn’t mean you can’t find small-town prices here. In between exploring the city’s major sightseeing attractions, I’ll ask the locals to recommend the best places to eat … and I’ll prove that you can have three meals a day in Sacramento for less than $40. Let’s get started!

For breakfast, all fingers point to the Fox & Goose, a converted brick warehouse that doles out European ale by night and fantastic omelets by day. It’s busy on this Wednesday morning, but a friendly hostess seats me right away. I tell her that this is the first stop on my $40 eating extravaganza, and she tells me I’ve come to the right place. The Fox & Goose has been voted best breakfast by all kinds of publications in Sacramento. Scanning the menu, I can see why. Look at these choices! The granola sounds terrific: oats, walnuts, almonds honey, raisins and spices. This place gets bonus points for having plenty of vegetarian options—like scrambled tofu, tempeh strips and tofu-rice patties—to replace traditional meat and dairy products. And talk about variety! I bet this is the only place in town where you can get Welsh rarebit cheese sauce on your omelet, fresh olallieberries on your granola or Devonshire cream on your bagel. And look at this: You can choose from 35 fillings to make your own “creative omelet.” And the prices—nothing is more than $8! I could sit here all day trying to decide, but I think I’ll keep it simple and order the “pub grill”—a plate of two eggs, country potatoes and a crumpet, for just $5.25. I pay an extra 40 cents for free-range eggs and order a large cranberry juice. This is a comfortable place. Some students are studying over breakfast to my left, and to my right two men in suits look to be having a casual business meeting. Here comes my meal! Mmm … these potatoes are fabulous—perfectly grilled with onions and bell peppers. And this crumpet is just scrumptious, with plenty of nooks and crannies to absorb the butter. Not only was that breakfast delicious, it was hearty enough to hold me over for a few hours of sightseeing!

Pub grill $5.65
Cranberry juice $1.95
Tax & tip $2.09
Breakfast $9.69

Now let’s explore Sacramento! Just six blocks from the Fox & Goose is the California State Capitol. It’s a beautiful building, and you can take a free tour every hour on the hour. That fits perfectly into our budget! The tour starts on the black-and-white checkered floor in the basement rotunda, and includes a visit to the opulent senate and assembly chambers, restored to their turn-of-the-century appearance in an $86 million renovation project. I don’t get a chance to see California’s famous celebrity governor, but I enjoy learning all about the political process just the same! After the tour, I meander east through the 40-acre Capitol Park, an oasis of palm trees, camellias and other greenery. It’s so beautiful here! At the east end of Capitol Park is Midtown, Sacramento’s prime area for shopping, dining and nightlife. Let’s stroll up J Street, the “main drag” here in Midtown. There are all kinds of boutiques here—clothing, gifts, even candy. It’s a shopper’s paradise!

All this exercise is making me work up an appetite! I asked a few of the shopkeepers along J Street what they would recommend for an excellent but affordable lunch. Almost unanimously, everybody says The Bread Store has the best lunch for under $5. That fits right into our budget, so let’s check it out!

I’ve been told to ask for the combo, even though it doesn’t appear on the menu. It’s a half sandwich, a bag of chips and a soda (free refills) for $4.95. The sandwiches here are so big that one half is plenty, I’m told. And the bread, made fresh on the premises, is the best in town! Mmm … I can choose from varieties like multi-grain, thick sourdough or herbed ciabatta. I opt for the veggie sandwich—lettuce, tomatoes, sprouts, cucumbers, onions and a tangy dill sauce—on a thick slab of multi grain. I just order at the counter and wait for my number to come up. There it is! Wow, if this is a half sandwich, I’m glad I didn’t order the full size. Even a talker like me is going to have a hard time opening my mouth wide enough to accommodate this! This place is bustling: It’s clearly a favorite here in Midtown, and I can see why. The service is fast and friendly, and the food is just delicious. In addition to these great sandwiches, they have some salads and a great vegetarian chili, plus two different soups each day.

Half-sandwich combo $4.95
Lunch $4.95

Now that I’m refueled and rejuvenated, I’m ready to head to the shall we say pièce de résistance of Sacramento tourism: Old Sacramento. This 28-acre National Registered Landmark and State Historic Park contains the greatest concentration of historic buildings in California. This neighborhood was one of the first settlements in Sacramento and it thrived during the Gold Rush. In the 1970s, it was restored to its 19th century appearance, complete with wooden sidewalks, cobblestone streets and even a periodic Wild West shootout by the Blue Canyon Gang! “Old Sac,” as the locals call it, is home to many sights worth seeing, most notably the California State Railroad Museum. You can see more than 20 restored locomotives and passenger cars there, and learn all about construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. But, since we’re on a budget, let’s check out some of Old Sac’s free attractions instead. The Pony Express monument commemorates the mail service that operated between Sacramento and St. Joseph, Mo., for nearly two years. The B.F. Hastings Bank Building at the corner of Second and J streets housed the California Supreme Court and the Pony Express office, among others. Today, it contains the free Wells Fargo History Museum—gotta take advantage of these freebies! I recommend visiting the Old Sacramento Visitor Center at 1004 Second Street to pick up a free brochure that highlights some of the historic sights in this neighborhood. Then you can just take your own walking tour!

After a few hours strolling the streets of this boomtown, I’ve sure worked up a thirst! I hear the Rio City Café is the best place for a refreshing drink with a view. The deck here overlooks the river, with plenty of umbrellas to keep the late afternoon sun off your face. I’m parched! I think I’ll splurge on the deluxe piña colada (two kinds of rum, pineapple juice and orange juice). Mmm! What a great way to relax: sipping a cocktail and watching the boats passing by.

Piña colada $7.50
Tax & tip $1.58
Cocktail $9.08

Photo By Jill Wagner

I think it’s just about time for dinner, and I’ve got about $15 left. I hop on the Downtown Area Shuttle (DASH), which takes me back up J Street to Midtown so I can visit my final destination for the day: Café Bernardo. I’m told this is the best place to go for innovative food at low prices. If the crowd here is any sign, then the food must be fabulous! Café Bernardo operates in the tradition of European cafés: You order at the counter and a server brings your food to the table.

With the exception of three entrées, nothing on the menu is more than $10. Everything sounds great, and by the look of the plates passing by, the portions are generous, too! The stir-fry noodles—chicken, mushrooms, sweet peppers, zucchini, roasted cashews and black bean sauce—sounds excellent for just $9.25. They’ve got pizzas and calzones for around $8, and a grilled salmon BLT with French fries for $10. Everything looks and sounds delicious! I opt for the grilled polenta triangles with tomato-basil sauce, Parmesan cheese and mixed greens on the side. I don’t often see polenta on menus, and I love experimenting when I eat out, don’t you? I also order a glass of Beringer Pinot Noir. We’re so close to the Napa Valley here in Sacramento, I want to take advantage of ordering a nice California red!

After I place my order, I get a laminated playing card (ace of hearts!) so the server can find me. Oh, look, here he comes! Boy, this polenta is fabulous. It’s just a little crisp on the outside, but soft on the inside. And the sauce is lightly seasoned and just warm enough that the cheese melts. The light and fruity pinot complements it perfectly, too.

Polenta squares $6.75
Pinot noir $6.00
Tax and tip $2.99
Dinner $15.74

Well, I can’t imagine having a more perfect day here in California’s capital city. We ate some good food, explored history and met the locals. In fact, this might be the best day anyone’s had in Sacramento since those settlers discovered gold in the American River. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did!

Breakfast $9.69
Lunch $4.95
Cocktail $9
Dinner $15.73
Total $39.46

Where I spent my money:

The Fox & Goose
1001 R Street
(916) 443-8825

The Bread Store
1716 J Street
(916) 557-1600

Rio City Cafe
1110 Front Street
(916) 442-8226

Café Bernardo
2726 Capitol Avenue
(916) 443-1180

Tip #1

You won’t see it listed on the chalkboard menu, but a half-sandwich combo with a bag of chips and bottomless soda is just $4.95 at The Bread Store on J Street.

Tip #2

Ride the Downtown Area Shuttle (DASH) between Midtown and Old Sac for just $1.