Our intrepid intern cruises the rivers in search of good food and the perfect margarita

Christine Brownell hard at work with boyfriend Sean Brainerd.

Christine Brownell hard at work with boyfriend Sean Brainerd.

Photo By Larry Dalton

It was a day that defines spring. You know the kind: 78 degrees, birds chirping, sun shining, the whole shebang.

And I, like the majority of Sacramentans, was tucked away in a cubicle, perched in front of my computer, counting down the minutes until I could catch a breath of fresh air and a glimpse of what was left of a beautiful day.

So I was not exactly an eager audience when my editor approached my corner cubicle with a story assignment. Egads, thought I, it’s too nice out to work. Yet all that changed when I realized that this wasn’t the typical pawn-it-off-on-the-intern assignment.

My job for the following week: to drink and dine along the Sacramento and American rivers and write about it, giving Sacramentans a taste of the delectable bounty that lies along their waterways. And so, aided by my research assistant/boyfriend, the journey began …

We started our expedition with a picnic at Miller Park. Although we had every intention of waking for a sunrise picnic on the river, plans were foiled by our inability to function before 7 a.m. So we settled for a 10 a.m. brunch. After stopping at Safeway to fill our wicker basket with fresh fruit and bagels, we ventured off to a park renowned as a picnic and barbecue hot spot. And now I see why.

Sitting on an old blanket atop a grassy knoll, we watched the morning sun shimmer off the glassy water. As we began our day of feasting, the sun peaked through the leaves of the trees and the grass was still a little damp from the morning dew. A quiet hum of traffic could be heard faintly in the distance.

The park was mostly empty except for a fisherman clad in blue jeans, T-shirt and red Budweiser hat, sitting patiently and quietly along the mound of river rocks, sipping coffee and occasionally casting to check his bait.

The serene scene offered a gentle reminder of how easy it is to forget nature’s beauty and power while bustling through life on the cement-suffocated streets of Sacramento. It was a quiet beginning to our day of feasting.

After our picnic brunch we met up with friends at Discovery Park, joining them on their ski boat and continuing our dining adventure. With a cooler filled with beer, water and miscellaneous snacks, we were ready to head upriver. But we ran into a minor snag: the battery died on the boat, leaving us drifting lifelessly on the water, without any oars. Luckily, a boater graciously came to our rescue and gave us a jump-start. With the boat back and ready, we were on our way.

Wanting to remain on the boat now that we had it running—and not wanting to turn it off for fear of the battery dying once again—we decided to call in a to-go order at Crawdad’s River Cantina from a cell phone. Since Crawdad’s—a restaurant that floats on the river—has a dock adjacent to its patio, we figured this would be the best place to stop and grab eats.

The patio was narrow and lined with small tables. Those celebrating their noon lunch hour filled the seats of the outdoor patio. Though seemingly enjoying their lunches, some seemed displeased by our revved-up presence. Cold looks shot in our direction and a complaint was even made. We were even told by the bartender to move our boat as soon as possible, in order to keep the patrons happy. You would think, opting to eat at the river on a sunny day, next to a boat dock, one could assume that a boat just might come up and park there.

Despite a few uptight customers, Crawdad’s made a good impression on the group. Though we ordered standard burgers and chicken Caesar salads, we were surprised and impressed with the quality of the food. It is rare that otherwise dime-a-dozen dishes stand out, and the quality of Crawdad’s food did just that. The group liked it so much they wanted to go back for dinner. Yet the assignment called for variety.

A steep ramp that led through what appeared to be an old airplane runway led us to The Virgin Sturgeon. The first impression was enchanting: a dim candle-lit room and a panoramic view of the Sacramento River. Every seat in the house could see the sun setting on the river out the large windows, which opened up to a deceptively small restaurant.

The Virgin Sturgeon, recognized more for the view than the food, lived up to its reputation. The calamari steak appetizer was flavorful and uniquely prepared. But the salmon special, however fresh, was hardly worth 17 bucks! The group was satisfied, if not particularly impressed.

But we all loved the Sturgeon Ale, the restaurant’s signature beer, which was similar to Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Overall, it was a positive experience. What the Virgin Sturgeon lacked in quality of food, it more than made up for in ambiance and service.

For after-dinner drinks, we ventured to Chevy’s on the River —known for being a prime nightspot popularly frequented for its trademark margaritas and Mexican beer.

The decor and ambience came as no surprise because, as we all know, if you’ve been to one Chevy’s it’s like you’ve seen them all. But what makes this particular Chevy’s stand out from the others is its enormous outdoor patio, the riverside view and predominantly younger crowd. The bar is loaded with all the standard concoctions, but its claim-to-fame is the wide variety of margaritas. I opted for the papaya margarita, which was a nice twist on a bar favorite: a dessert and drink in one.

Sunned and spent, we contemplated the day. Gee, this journalism stuff is pretty cool, I couldn’t help thinking. With my last swig of margarita, I thought my story was done—but it wasn’t.

After discussing my day on the river with a friend, I was told that we hadn’t truly experienced riverside dining. Uh-oh. Why? I needed to know. The answer: because you haven’t tried Sushi on the River.

That was all the goading I needed. I suddenly knew that my “day of feasting” story needed an epilogue, and that I hadn’t yet gotten enough of riverside dining. So on a Friday night, I grabbed my trusty assistant and headed off to Garden Highway once again to experience the raw side of seafood.

After a brief wait on the outdoor waiting area, we were seated in the small dining room that buzzed with idle chatter and was packed to the brim with yuppie-types and 20- and 30-somethings. The restaurant’s full capacity was a testament to its popularity.

The seating option was either at a standard table or at the bar, where the sushi chefs entertained patrons while preparing dinner. The menu offered a wide selection of sushi rolls, among a host of other Japanese cuisine. Yummy stuff. Reasonably priced meals and a healthy selection made for a fun and different Friday night date on the river.

To cap the evening and the riverside dining expedition, we stopped in for quick cocktails in the upstairs bar at The Rusty Duck, located across from Discovery Park on the American River.

The dark wood balcony and lit fireplace was a cozy setting for our final stop. Though they offered a wide selection of summer drink specials, we opted for the standard Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Overlooking the river, which was hidden behind dense trees, we toasted to our riverside dining adventures.

Yet something tells me that there’s more research to be done, more meals to sample, more drinks to drink in order to truly capture all the riverside dining possibilities in the Sacramento area. Tomorrow, I’m going to ask my editor if I can turn this into a summer-long project.

Wish me luck, dear readers, and maybe I’ll see you on the river.