Dining review: Empress Tavern

Retro meat-and-potatoes fare in a fun (if somewhat noisy) setting

Empress Tavern

1013 K St.
Sacramento, CA 95814

(916) 662-7694

Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, Empress Tavern is a beauty. Located below the Crest Theatre on K Street, it’s a subterranean trip to the past.

The long-anticipated Empress opened in September, with its sister restaurant, the vegetarian Mother, having already paved the way above ground. Proprietors Michael and Lisa Thiemann have once again picked an offbeat theme and exceeded expectations.

Empress is an “American carvery” of the ’50s era at heart. With its imposing brick ceiling and a bar stocked with gin, this is an updated old-boy’s club. Meat dishes dominate the menu, and the lighting is subdued.

Even the menu looks retro, with its swirling font and art-deco designs. It’s a bit confusing at first, but ask the well-schooled servers to explain all the different categories. Sharing is encouraged, especially with the whole animal and family dinner ($80-$160) options intended for at least four people.

Begin with snacks, each for $5. The onion-y pimento cheese with fresh vegetables comes with the surprise crunch of dehydrated beets and pistachios. The warm gougères are cheesy pillows of warmth that will make your grandmother proud.

Order several shared apps, such as the stellar Brussels and burrata ($11). It’s a wonder of contrasts: warm and cold, bitter and sour, crunchy and soft. Roasted Brussels sprouts and pickled onions mingle with thinly sliced tart apples and salty bacon over meltingly soft, warm burrata cheese.

Another clever appetizer is the living butter lettuce salad ($9) with tangy green goddess dressing. When was the last time you had that at a restaurant?

Other throwback dishes include bone marrow with escargots ($16) and steak tartare ($13).

The entrees require diners to share or hoard. Rotisserie plates, such as the half-rack of lamb ($36), proved to be more than enough for two when ordered with a side of sage-roasted delicata squash ($6). The garlic-seasoned lamb oozed jus from its barely cooked tender meat.

For a generous, but single-serving choice, order the short rib stroganoff ($26), which will send you reeling back in time to the ’70s and its era of unapologetically creamy meat sauces. A 3-inch-thick pork chop with beans ($29) was another recent offering. It was light on beans, but rich in flavor and perfectly cooked to medium-rare.

All sides are priced separately at $6 a plate. Try old-school creamed spinach, silky whipped potatoes with gravy or a gooey orecchiette and cheese that’s completely kid-friendly.

In fact, children eat free with a “happy meal” of simple, healthy choices such as roast turkey and potatoes. As parents themselves, the Thiemanns encourage diners to bring children, and the somewhat boisterous atmosphere makes kid noise no issue.

It can get very loud, though, as we experienced one night when there was a group mixer at the bar. All the brick and hard surfaces amplify voices to somewhat uncomfortable levels. We found it a bit chilly down there, too, unless you sit very near the kitchen.

Desserts are no afterthought, since Chef Matt Masera excels at them. The cloud-light market soufflé ($10) recently came with caramel crème anglaise and cinnamon apples. Another fun option is the seasonal pie ($8) table service, with a variety of toppings on offer.

Don’t miss the inventive cocktails and “tea service” ($21) drinks. If you sit at the bar, you can even get a double burger with pastrami and cheese ($16). Humphrey Bogart would approve.