The government cheeseburger

Downtown’s best lunch deals require security clearance

Illustration By Mark Stivers

Historically, Sacramento has not been known for its haute gastronomy. In the last several years, however, as more quality restaurants flourish, we hear less about people heading out to “the City” in search of something to eat or snobby San Franciscans turning their noses up at the thought of dining in Sacramento. Going out to eat in downtown is now an activity in itself; a fancy restaurant in Midtown is a destination. But what about all those workdays when you don’t have the time, money or desire to get the full dining experience?

Never fear. We California taxpayers are nice enough to provide space in our state- and federally-owned office buildings for that oft-used yet underappreciated standard of lunchtime dining: the cafeteria. Many of downtown Sacramento’s cafeterias are subsidized, and the result is cheap eats, fast. It is easy to get a full meal for less than $6 and be out the door in less than 20 minutes (less than 10, if you grab and run).

In addition to being inexpensive and fast, almost all of the food is good, too. Think downtown cafe, not school cafeteria. Best of all, they are open to the public. You just have to know where to look.

The Evergreen Cafe
California Environmental Protection Agency, 1001 I Street
Kudos: the veggie burger (of course)
Heads up: security checkpoint

If the California Environmental Protection Agency, or CalEPA, didn’t offer the best Gardenburgers and soy burgers in town ($4, without cheese), it would have to regulate its own cafe. Luckily, it does offer them, along with other hamburgers, sandwiches and salads made to order. It also has the best ready-made deviled eggs ($1.75) that we discovered at any cafe.

An interesting fact: Customers assist the low-vision cashier, Jack, one of the friendliest checkout guys in town, by telling him which denomination they’ve handed him. Another bonus of the Evergreen Cafe is the live music. On Tuesdays, or whenever they feel like it, several CalEPA employees get together outside the cafe with a hammer dulcimer, a banjo, tin whistles and the occasional fiddle to play a wonderful palette of Irish, Scottish, English, Nova Scotian and American tunes.

Because of heightened security issues (signs in the lobby proclaim the day’s terror-alert level), visiting the CalEPA building does require a quick check-in. Simply give your name to the security guard in the room to the left of the door, and you’ll be given a visitor’s badge for the cafe. This two-minute stop along the way is worth it to check out the cafe’s selection.

House of Seven Tables Cafe
U.S. post office, 801 I Street

Kudos: sandwiches made to order
Heads up: no camera phones or other electronics

If you go to the downtown post office during lunch hour to mail a package, you may wish you’d brought food for the wait. Luckily, food is available just around the corner, at the House of Seven Tables Cafe. (We’ll let you guess where the name comes from.) Thankfully, only the post office itself has painfully long lines; the cafe is a pleasantly quick ordering experience, despite the fact that the lunch counter is staffed by only one smiling, mild-mannered woman. The small cafe seems almost homey, since she seems to remember the names of all her regulars.

Although the menu is one of the smallest of the downtown cafeterias, the lunch lady is happy to spruce up your sandwich to order, along with the daily menu special. Be sure to try her tuna or egg-salad sandwiches ($4 to $5); both are light and refreshing on a warm day.

Enter on the corner of Ninth and I streets and pass through the metal detector, and the cafe will be on your right. We don’t recommend staying inside to eat: The interior is a little drab, and the windows are too high for anyone to enjoy the view. Fortunately, Cesar Chavez Plaza is catty-corner, across the street, and makes a pleasant lunch spot any time of year.

The Side Bar Cafe
Department of Justice, 1300 I Street

Kudos: humongous menu
Heads up: chaotic food pickup

It should be no surprise that the attorney general’s office’s cafe in the Department of Justice building has the fairest deal around. You can get a full meal—a grilled sandwich, fries and a drink—for about five bucks. In addition to the great prices, the Side Bar Cafe requires no security check-in and has one of the largest selections of the downtown government eateries. Hungry patrons are greeted at the door with several white poster boards listing the extensive breakfast and lunch options. Breakfast includes nearly a full diner menu of egg dishes, pancakes, cereals and more, and the lunch menu offers a dazzling array of sandwiches, burgers, salads and sides.

Patrons mill around waiting for their names to be called as orders come up, but the slight chaos is worth the good food. Don’t miss the criss-cut fries. At only $1.45, they’re worth the calorie splurge!

Lastly, take heed of the sign at the cash register: “If you are rude, impatient, insulting (or just downright mean), there will be a $10.00 charge for putting up with you.”

The Plaza Cafe
Lincoln Plaza North Building, 400 Q Street

Kudos: legendary status
Heads up: farther walk from the center of town

The California Public Employees’ Retirement System provides retirement and health benefits to more than 1.4 million public employees, retirees and their families. Thus, we’d expect that its Plaza Cafe would offer the best deal for the over-55 crowd. Alas, none of the SN&R cafe-reconnaissance team had an AARP membership card, so we couldn’t explore this theory.

The Plaza Cafe is popular with workers on the south side of downtown. In fact, this cafe enjoys a lofty status among the locals. New employees at nearby buildings are encouraged to visit the cafe as soon as bringing PB&J from home gets old. This lunchtime spot offers a wide array of hot and cold foods, and most entrees are less than $5. We favored the grilled cheese but also recommend the fresh salad and fruit bar. And although we never saw them, we hear the cafe has great candied prunes.

The Capitol Cafeteria
Capitol basement, 10th and L streets
Kudos: best politician-watching
Heads up: breakfast offerings disappear fast

According to Sacramento lore, the best places to rub elbows with California’s political elite are Simon’s Bar & Cafe (for cocktail hour), Fox & Goose (over an olallieberry scone) and Tootsies on Eleventh (John Burton’s favorite frozen-yogurt place). The Capitol basement is a lesser-known but equally good place to see if legislative bigwigs spill minestrone soup on their shirts like the rest of us.

Despite its location in the bowels of the building, the Capitol Cafeteria is the prettiest of the downtown cafes. The booths are made from real wood, seasoned with years of political strategizing and Senate-hearing-induced snacking. The large chairs and booth seats make you feel important, like maybe you, too, might make policy to change the world. Plus, the cafeteria has a great, cheap offering of eggs, pancakes and sausage in the morning. A full breakfast will run you $3 or $4, unless you splurge on the Danish, the orange juice and the fruit bowl all in one meal.

After passing through security, take the beautiful carpeted staircase (accented by a wooden banister recreated from black-and-white photographs of the originals removed in 1906) to the basement. There’s also an antique elevator, which opens near the basement rotunda with an Alice in Wonderland-style checkered marble floor. The wall murals, which showcase the artists’ decorative interpretation of California history, were painted in 1913 through 1915 and later removed, preserved and replaced in the rotunda. Nowhere else can you view California’s political past, present and future while enjoying a hot meal for less than a Lincoln greenback.

The lesson? Don’t be afraid to enter state and federal buildings—we pay for them, after all!—and check out the food options. You may discover a cafe few people know about or take advantage of. And if any of them serve sandwiches on good marbled rye, can you let us know?