Sacto goes cosmo

Despite a long-standing reputation as a meat-and-potatoes town, Sacramento is having a dining boom—but will it continue?

New Café Bernardo at 15th and R streets.

New Café Bernardo at 15th and R streets.

Photo By Larry Dalton

When Biba Caggiano arrived in Sacramento in 1969, from Italy via New York City, dining out was not exactly what she had been used to. Aside from a few notable spots such as Frank Fat’s and The Firehouse, she recalled, Sacramento’s restaurants were “mostly steakhouses.” At one, when she asked for wine, the waitress’ surprised response was “Red or white?” And then there was Italian food.

“About a month after we moved,” she recounted, “a very nice couple living next-door recommended a great Eye-talian restaurant—not Italian, Eye-talian—and said they would take us. So we went, and there was a veal sauté. It came with the veal on one side, and the lemony sauce that was running all over the plate, and on the other end of the plate there was a big mound of the spaghetti with the red tomato sauce. My husband and I looked at each other and said, ‘Oh, boy, there is a lot of missionary work to do here.’”

Consider it done, at least in part. Caggiano herself, and a host of other restaurateurs and chefs—from Randy Paragary at his restaurant group, Mai Pham at Lemon Grass Restaurant and Randall Selland at The Kitchen to more recent arrivals, like Mason Wong of The Park Downtown and Patrick Mulvaney of Mulvaney’s Building and Loan—have transformed Sacramento’s restaurant scene.

A staggering number of restaurants have opened here in the last few years. These days, you can find almost any cuisine you want at area restaurants: inventive modern Japanese at Kru (and sushi galore just about anywhere), fresh bistro flavors at Restaurant 55°, seasonal cooking with a Mediterranean bent at The Waterboy, stylish Southern Italian at Spataro, high-end new American at Mason’s, and more. More places are planned and coming soon, especially downtown, as restaurateurs and chefs capitalize on Sacramento’s bounty of ingredients and the increased sophistication of the dining public.

The changes haven’t exactly come overnight, however, and Sacramento’s reputation as a cow town, a farm town or a boring government town persists. Certainly, it does for the national press. At a time when many other regional cities formerly seen as staid, such as Minneapolis or Kansas City, are receiving glowing national press for their new restaurants and chefs, Sacramento is ignored outside the region, overshadowed by its glamorous Bay Area and Napa Valley neighbors.

Patrick Mulvaney of Mulvaney’s Building and Loan.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Of course, editors might be right. Despite a wealth of local ingredients on which to draw, Sacramento has not developed a unique regional cuisine, as Mike Dunne, The Sacramento Bee’s food editor and restaurant critic, noted: “I can’t think of a chef that has come up with a highly personal, signature style of cooking that warrants a cookbook [and] is distinctive to Sacramento. It’s a pretty conservative community, and that conservatism extends to the way [Sacramentans] eat.”

That’s easy to see in some recent restaurant openings. Even as adventurous new places open, steakhouses remain popular; the past year has seen two new Ruth’s Chris Steak Houses enjoying success. That development points to another major factor in Sacramento dining: chains, which are huge in the suburbs and seem likely to increase downtown as well. Can the boom in independent restaurants be sustained? Is Sacramento developing a thriving and innovative restaurant scene, or is it still, at heart, just a meat-and-potatoes town?

Sacramento’s dining past
Sacramento’s restaurant story starts, as Sacramento stories seem to do, with the gold rush. “There have always been lots of restaurants in Sacramento. How could there not be?” said Darrell Corti of Corti Brothers, an internationally acclaimed food and wine expert. “This was the stopping-off point either going to or coming from the mines. But it wasn’t known for being a food stop, although there were always a lot of people who ate very well in Sacramento.”

Unlike San Francisco, which retains a few restaurants from 19th-century glory days, the products of Sacramento’s first boom are long since forgotten. When Biba Caggiano arrived in the 1960s, she recalls that the high-end restaurant scene “was—I’m trying to find a nice adjective—very limited. … It was the time when the lemon came to the table wrapped up in gauze, and everything was just a little pompous.”

Mason’s head chef Philip Wang.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Dunne concurred: “If it was a special occasion, you’d always be talking about going to San Francisco, to Trader Vic’s or some other restaurant that had a high profile, for birthdays or anniversaries. If you stayed in Sacramento, there was The Firehouse, Wulff’s and a couple of other places.”

That started to change in the 1980s. Corti noted, “For the modern restaurant scene, everything can be laid at the doorstep of Randy Paragary, and then, just a little bit later, Biba Caggiano. [They were] trying to do things that were different. They may not have been new for a lot of other places, but they were new for Sacramento.”

Paragary, who opened his eponymous restaurant in 1983, agrees. Paragary was no newcomer to Sacramento’s restaurant scene at the time. He started out by opening what he calls a “hippie bar” at 30th and O streets in 1969, at the age of 22. He went on to open an Italian restaurant and a second bar before opening Paragary’s Bar and Oven, which capitalized on California’s food revolution, led by Jeremiah Tower, Wolfgang Puck and other star chefs. Paragary observed the new style of restaurants when traveling, especially in San Francisco.

“You’ve heard the term California cuisine—that’s when that was invented,” Paragary said. “So I thought, ‘Well, there’s no one doing California cuisine in Sacramento, and this is a very cool concept—high-quality, indigenous, local.’ It was not my original idea, but I did a good job of attempting to be aware of it and offering it to Sacramento.” The concept and restaurant quickly took off locally. Paragary’s restaurant group began to expand in the early 1990s and now includes Esquire Grill, Centro Cocina Mexicana, Spataro and several outposts of Café Bernardo.

What had happened in the years between Paragary’s hippie bar and his California-cuisine flagship restaurant, or between Caggiano’s initial look at the dismal Sacramento dining options and her elegant regional-Italian restaurant? For one thing, cooking schools had both educated the dining public and given rise to a number of potential restaurateurs, Caggiano herself among them. At first, she said, “If I wanted to have good food, I had to cook it. Once I started cooking, I found a lot of people wanted to take classes from me, which I thought was preposterous, but that’s what I did.” She credits name recognition, from her cooking classes and her first cookbook, in part with the initial success of the restaurant.

The family team behind The Kitchen—Tamera Baker, Randall Selland, Nancy Zimmer and Joshua Nelson—is remodeling a space downtown at 12th and K streets for its new restaurant, Ella’s Dining Room and Bar. Named for Selland and Zimmer’s granddaughter, the new restaurant will feature design from European architects, with what Selland describes as a “very modern exterior” and a feel of “rustic luxury.”

Photo By Larry Dalton

Other cooking schools in Sacramento began opening in the 1970s and 1980s. On a larger level, these were part of the broad American trend toward a growing awareness of food in the era, also reflected in the mushrooming of gourmet groups, cookbook publishing and travel. Here in Sacramento, schools gave rise to influential restaurants. “You can generate the genealogy of all of these places by saying who begat what,” Corti said. “Bernice Hagen [a local cooking teacher and later restaurateur] begat her cooking school, which begat [Randall] Selland, which became The Kitchen.”

Restaurants—and their clientele—evolve
Much of the genealogy of today’s restaurant scene can be traced in a similar way, according to Corti. Recent restaurants have their roots in slightly older ones: Chefs who once worked for Paragary have gone on to open The Waterboy and Mulvaney’s Building and Loan, among others, and of course the Paragary’s group itself has grown. “It’s not a question of these people sort of just showing up full-blown,” Corti said. “They come from one place and go on to start their own businesses.”

Similarly, Sacramento’s dining public changed, thanks to cooking schools and national food trends, increased exposure to different cuisines through travel, and the explosion in availability and awareness of specialty and ethnic foods—the latter due to Sacramento’s diversity and the large amount of immigration to the area. Although the dining public, Corti said, “had different food available to them, a lot of them never ventured out to take part in it. When they did, they found that they liked what they saw, and they continued becoming more adventuresome.”

When Mai Pham opened her Vietnamese and Thai restaurant Lemon Grass in 1988, she recalls, most of her customers hadn’t heard of lemon grass: “They would call the restaurant Lemon Tree,” she said. “That’s kind of a small thing, but it shows you what the thinking was.”

With its hip courtyard and sleek design, Mason Wong’s The Park Downtown complex exemplifies the restaurateur’s vision of bringing big-city style to Sacramento’s dining scene.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Customers were confused about more than her restaurant’s name. “Initially, we got mixed reviews, because people didn’t understand. They’d walk in, and they were looking for sweet and sour sauce. And then, of course, the only sweet and sour sauce I knew was the one we grew up making, that is with fresh tomatoes and pineapple. We were trying to say politely that we weren’t Chinese.”

The high-end restaurant boom is in many ways supported by a huge growth of casual ethnic eateries, which have helped to educate local palates. As Corti said, “In 1981, probably if there were six Vietnamese restaurants in Sacramento, there were a lot. Now look at them, and you can go into your local Safeway and find fish sauce.”

Pham, too, takes the change in attitude toward fish sauce as a kind of touchstone: “When I opened, I couldn’t even call it fish sauce, because as soon as I’d say fish sauce, people would say, ‘Oh, I don’t want fish sauce,’ without even knowing what it was. So on our menu, back then, we would call it Vietnamese dipping sauce, and that would fly, because once they ate it, they loved it.” The problem of sourcing such ingredients, however, was at first a considerable obstacle. To get the items she needed, Pham resorted to growing lemon grass—though never enough—in her own backyard and sought out specialty growers of Vietnamese herbs, nurturing local growers and increasing ingredients’ availability for others—a key step in the further improvement of local independent restaurants.

The current scene
As the movement toward local, seasonal and organic food has taken off both nationally and locally, local restaurateurs have been better able to tap into the cornucopia of high-quality products that are grown nearby—and that, to a large degree, supply the Bay Area restaurants that have become famous for their emphasis on seasonal, “local” ingredients. “We’re just becoming aware that Sacramento is a great source for the rest of the country,” Corti said.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Area restaurateurs take delighted inspiration from this fact, like Patrick Mulvaney, whose Building and Loan restaurant opened earlier this year. Mulvaney, a native New Yorker, settled in Sacramento after coming to California in 1991 to study with internationally renowned cooking teacher and cookbook author Madeleine Kamman. He enjoyed the small-town feel and cooked at both Paragary’s and The Kitchen. He then opened a catering company in Midtown. “The reason I’m still here is all those growers you’ve heard about or read about—they now bring in our produce. Farmers call in, the olive-oil guys bring in oil, John Bledsoe brings in pork from Woodland. I’m blessed with this pool of resources, and I can turn around and put it on a plate and serve it to people. I feel very lucky,” Mulvaney said. “We live in a world-class region for food and wine, and people in Sacramento are beginning to embrace that.”

Local ingredients are the foundation for the frequently changing menu in Mulvaney’s restaurant, which has the feel of a casual yet ambitious neighborhood spot. Mulvaney’s is part of a section of Midtown that long has been home to Rick Mahan’s restaurant The Waterboy—which was a pioneer in the use and promotion of local ingredients in Sacramento (and which chefs and restaurateurs in town consistently cite as their favorite place to eat out)—and that now also includes the pan-Asian Dragonfly, modern-Mexican Zócalo and others.

If Mulvaney’s represents a strictly local approach—Sacramento from the ground up—then the more high-end Mason’s Restaurant, just blocks away but with a more downtown vibe, offers a glimpse of the fancier end of the spectrum. Opened by native Sacramentan Mason Wong, who comes from a family of restaurant developers and cut his teeth opening the fast-food joint Ah Chop Chop, Mason’s takes a big-city approach to Sacramento dining. Wong hired a designer who has worked on the boutique W Hotels, aiming for a “New York loft feel,” and recruited from outside the area chef Philip Wang, who previously worked for San Francisco super-chef Traci Des Jardins.

Sacramento’s dining public, Wong thought, was ready for his trendier vision: “I think Sacramento palates are becoming a little more sophisticated, and more progressive restaurants and new types of restaurants need to allow people in Sacramento to experience something they’re not quite used to,” he said. “We wanted something a little more big-city, but we’re not trying to be too forward—we still have your basics, whether it’s a pork chop on the menu or steak or chicken. I think that’s the formula not only for Sacramento, but also for a lot of other great restaurants, whether in San Francisco or New York or wherever.”

Photo By Larry Dalton

Appetizers, Wong said, often push the envelope more than entrees, but they, too, retain an emphasis on seasonality and local sourcing. Among the appetizers are freewheeling takes on foie gras. Entrees might include a grilled Berkshire pork T-bone with seasonal accompaniments like corn risotto or more adventurous items like whole fish or roasted pig.

Intriguing flavor pairings and distinctive ingredients have become commonplace in the Sacramento dining scene. Whole bone-in fish, for instance, show up not just at Mason’s, but also at Mulvaney’s and elsewhere. At Restaurant 55°—which the ownership team opened after closing a more formal place in Folsom—the emphasis is on precisely prepared and updated bistro classics, but you’ll also find sweetbreads, various tartares (steak and salmon), and a seasonal tomato-melon terrine that Darrell Corti cited as among the most memorable dishes he’s sampled lately in Sacramento. The Waterboy has featured organ meats (such as chicken-liver crostini) and lesser-known ingredients like fregola (a Sardinian pasta). Pham began offering pork at Lemon Grass Restaurant when she found a small producer offering Duroc pork, an heirloom breed that hasn’t had all the fat bred out of it; its sweetness and texture, she says, reminds her of the pork she grew up eating in Vietnam. She wasn’t sure how customers would respond, but they have been enthusiastic about the new dishes.

The future of dining out
Restaurateurs agree that there’s now no going back for Sacramento’s dining public, which will continue to demand more authenticity and adventurous flavors. Pham predicted: “With flavors, once you go vibrant and bold, it’s very hard to go back, because it becomes bland. If you only eat steak and potatoes, and then you migrate to Vietnamese and Thai and Indian and Mexican, all these things really wake up the palate.” She mentioned regional Indian and other Asian regional cooking as possibilities for the next big thing.

Clearly, the local, seasonal and organic trends are also here to stay. Whether these trends will be manifested at white-tablecloth restaurants or in less-formal settings, however, is in question. Some restaurateurs have made moves toward casual eateries, as Pham has done with her recent Lemon Grass Asian Grill and Noodle Bar. The Paragary’s group is opening a new, neighborhood-focused Café Bernardo, plus a bar, on September 8 in the space at 15th and R Streets that previously housed its short-lived Sammy Chu’s, an Asian restaurant, as well as Icon Restaurant and Lounge, which also closed quickly.

Location was a problem for the previous higher-end restaurants in the fledgling R Street corridor. “There aren’t a lot of restaurants here, although the city has a vision of this being a very lively arts and entertainment district, with galleries and restaurants and that kind of thing. I bought into that vision,” said Paragary, who modeled Sammy Chu’s on the popular San Francisco restaurant Betelnut. “That type of restaurant does require a very large customer base and a wide radius to draw from, because it’s fairly expensive and very specialized. And I just don’t think this is the kind of location that draws that range.” The casual Café Bernardo concept has been successful in several other locations, and Paragary expects to draw patrons for both restaurant and bar from nearby offices and residents: “It’s a fairly young neighborhood, so I think this will be a good hangout.”

Photo By Larry Dalton

As the fates of Sammy Chu’s and Icon show, the outlook for high-end restaurants is not always rosy. Some other recent restaurants have closed quickly, such as the well-regarded Il Posto, which served lyrical Italian dishes on a gritty downtown block. Mason Wong, whose namesake restaurant has been a hit, suggests that growth may be slowing down. “Right now, I don’t know if we can withstand a lot more restaurants before we start getting oversaturated here,” he said, saying that core Sunday-through-Wednesday dining audiences need to come from local, neighborhood traffic. In Wong’s view, the future of restaurants downtown depends on the success of new residential developments: “If I were to open another restaurant, would I do one downtown? I think I’d wait—wait and see what’s going to happen in the next couple of years.”

Some, however, are forging ahead. Selland and his wife, Nancy Zimmer, are planning a new restaurant, Ella’s Dining Room and Bar, on the corner of 12th and K streets. “Our tagline is that we want it to be the living room of K Street,” Selland said. Despite his desire for a local feel, Selland went all the way to Amsterdam to hire European designers for the project. “It’s going to be a very European feel, bringing some concepts into Sacramento that haven’t been done here yet.”

The choice to come downtown—and to a neighborhood that many might find uninviting—was deliberate. “We believe in downtown, and we believe in revitalization,” he said. Many restaurateurs steer clear of commenting directly on the controversial arena deal, but Selland is a strong proponent: “When it comes to the cow-town mentality Sacramento has, you can either stay the same way forever, or you can do something else. I think you need an arena, and downtown’s the place to do it.”

Paragary is cautiously optimistic about downtown’s prospects. “I think the emphasis is switching from Midtown to downtown,” he said. “There’s the big question mark, and that’s the rail yard: When will that be a reality? Will there be an arena, or will there not be? And if there is, what kind of restaurant opportunities will be around it? It’s pretty exciting as far the potential out there.” Like Wong, however, Paragary emphasized the need for a neighborhood clientele: “From the restaurateur’s perspective, let’s hope that there’s some residential that comes in,” he said. “You can bring in all these restaurants, but if there aren’t people living near them, we have to attract people from farther out, which is a serious question. Can downtown really have that many more restaurant seats without having nearby residents?”

Such concerns notwithstanding, Paragary is developing a new downtown property: a casual restaurant at 10th and K streets, which would be tied to a cabaret theater under development by Richard Lewis of Music Circus. “To put a restaurant [at 10th and K] at this time without [the theater] would be very difficult,” he said. “I just can’t see Sacramentans going down there. But we’re hoping that this little boost, with theater customers, will make this restaurant work.”

Critic Dunne, who tracks the restaurant scene closely, believes such growth is coming at a measured pace. “People who are developing sites in downtown and Midtown are doing their homework—they’re pretty cautious of the numbers and types of restaurants that are around, so you’re seeing more of a variety,” he said.

Photo By Larry Dalton

If there’s one lesson here, it’s that in the restaurant business, change is a certainty. Even as trendsetting places change, new restaurants will take their place. Caggiano, for instance, said she enjoys visiting new places, such as Restaurant 55°.

“I hope they do well. There are a lot of different things here now, while 15 or 20 years ago there wasn’t much,” Caggiano said. “This is the wonderful thing about Sacramento—it’s beginning to really explode, and I love to see young people just starting out. Very soon, I won’t be able to keep up this, and one day I will quit, and when I quit, I want places where I can go to eat.”