The upsell

Pyramid Alehouse

1029 K St.
Sacramento, CA 95814

(916) 498-9800

All good restaurants resemble one another. But all bad restaurants are bad in their own ways.

The instant popularity of Pyramid Alehouse at the K Street Mall should come as no surprise. Putting an affordable microbrew that serves real food within easy reach of 20- and 30-something Capitol workers—that’s about as risky as putting cherry pie on an anthill. If you bake it, they will come.

Given Pyramid’s smart downtown location; the history of success with its Seattle, Walnut Creek and Berkeley alehouses; and its basic product, more than a dozen different kinds of beer, nothing about Pyramid should be a hard sell. But, ironically, everything at Pyramid feels like it is.

Sometime in the mid-1990s, the rules of dining out changed. Fine dining establishments lost their monopoly on the upsell. It came to pass that servers at any manner of mid-level restaurant would ask you if you wanted San Pellegrino or Evian when you asked for water, or would recommend a specific appetizer, unsolicited, before you could peek at the menu. I remember my first upsell. It was Houston’s new San Francisco restaurant at the Embarcadero.

“Would you like to start out with our popular spinach and artichoke appetizer?” asked our server, unprompted.

There’s a psychological gamesmanship at work when asked such a pointed question, which makes answering in the negative seem rude. What do you mean you don’t want the popular spinach and artichoke appetizer? Do you not know how to enjoy something so good? How very uncouth of you.

Pyramid plays a variation on this theme of advertising something that you did not know existed, let alone want. Enter Park, party of three. We were told it would be about a 30- to 35-minute wait. But no sooner had we wandered over to the mobbed bar and gotten ourselves beers when we were called. As our hostess led us to our table, she asked, smiling, “Is that the Broken Rake?” referring to the beer in my hand. Now, how in the world could she have differentiated between the Draft Pale Ale, the Pale Ale, the Copper Peak and the Broken Rake, all similarly hued? The answer? She couldn’t. I was drinking the Pale Ale. But I immediately thought, “What is Broken Rake?” And there, just like that, she had me.

On my guard, I put on my I-know-exactly-what-I-want face and ordered some classic brewpub fare: spicy chicken wings, the halibut and chips (a twist on fish and chips, also on the menu), and the house-made beer-braised sausages. Because the restaurant advertised a brick oven, I added a barbecued-chicken pizza to our order as well as a spicy spinach and artichoke dip for good measure.

In the first delivery, the chicken-wing appetizer held paragons of plumpness; the outside fry was crispy to perfection. But an acrid vinegary sauce coated the salty fry, which made the entire wing overly salty and unpleasant to eat. The dip was only a little better. Heavy jalapeño cream cheese dominated, with only trace amounts of spinach and artichokes detectable.

Entrée-wise, the fried halibut, marinated in Pale Ale and coated with Coastline Pilsner batter, had good crunch and flavor initially, but it left a slightly curious, almost bitter aftertaste. The attendant coleslaw sat in a puddle of its own juices, making apparent a hasty preparation. Only the crispy, tender, hot wedge fries saved the plate from inspiring eater’s remorse.

The house-made beer-braised sausages—a trinity of smoked bratwurst, apple sausage and Polish sausage—came with garlic mashed potatoes, sauerkraut and caramelized onions. Sadly, they did not seem worth the in-house effort. Only the bratwurst, with its salty, flavorful tenderness, stood out as a superior sausage. The remaining two could have been redheaded stepchildren of a formerly talented sausage-maker. The sides, too, were unremarkable, filler on an already filling plate. Surprisingly, the barbecued-chicken pizza proved to be the most solid order, with its healthy amounts of tender chicken, tangy barbecue sauce and slivered red onions.

It’s hard to know exactly what Pyramid’s problem is. It’s not the food. Though disappointing on this try, one can see it has the capacity to be quite good. And the beers are as good as any microbrew produces. But a brewpub should be a sacred place where one can relax, drink beer and hang with friends. And that’s where it fails. At Pyramid, you have to be on your guard. Whether it’s the upsell on Broken Rake, the bait-and-switch wait to be seated, or repeated questions about whether you want appetizers with your beer, Pyramid makes you feel like you’re someone to be sold to. That may be fine in an ultimate consuming world, but it’s heavy-handed for a brewery that claims “humble yet hoppy beginnings.”