Then & now
Bar-hop through time Take a historic pub tour through some of Sacramento’s most venerable watering holes
People have been boozing it up in Sacramento since the city began. The types of drinks may have changed, but the propensity of Sacramentans to get a wee bit liquored up is as strong as ever.
You easily can trace our penchant for alcohol back to the Gold Rush, when thousands of fortune seekers dragged their hedonistic tendencies through Sacramento in a quest for riches. Zadock Hubbard is believed to have opened the city’s first saloon in 1849—a 50-foot circular tent at the intersection of J and Front Streets in what is now Old Sacramento. The usual price for a drink at the Round Tent Saloon was a pinch of gold dust, an arbitrary amount determined only by the size of the bartender’s fingers. William Holden, in his book Sacramento: Excursions Into Its History and Natural World, wrote of the Round Tent: “Enormously popular, it featured live music, a handsomely ornamented bar, gambling for every taste, and paintings of women in various stages of undress, to titillate lonely miners.”
The Round Tent only “reigned for months as the town’s most popular watering hole,” according to Holden, but that was plenty of time to set the mood for a 150-year bar hop through time.
We’ll take a 180-degree turn from the raucous, bawdy, whiskey-drinking years of the Gold Rush to kick off this historic pub tour at an unlikely time: Right in the middle of Prohibition. During those dark years when the federal government criminalized alcohol, inebriation could still be had aboard the Delta King. The grand steamboat transported cargo and passengers along the Sacramento River to and from San Francisco, bringing with it gambling, live jazz and copious amounts of “whoopee juice.”
Today, you can experience what it might it have been like to be a repressed drinker at the Delta Lounge. Located at the fore of the ship, it was originally the men’s smoking lounge, and much of the wood paneling and window frames remain. Commissioned glass paintings depicting scenes along the Sacramento River line the perimeter of the lounge.
The bar is particularly happening on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights when pianist Jim “Fingerz” Jordan entertains the crowd of locals and tourists with his own renditions of Billy Joel, Ray Charles and others. Sip a glass of whiskey on the rocks and pretend you are a wealthy, smoking man thumbing his nose at the U.S. government. 1000 Front Street, (916) 444-5464.
The end of Prohibition in 1933 diminished the Delta King’s popularity, but brought success to bars like Old Ironsides. William Bordisso opened the bar immediately after Prohibition ended and the business has remained in the family ever since, making Old Ironsides the city’s oldest bar. Today, the bar maintains much of its old-time feel. The tiny metallic mosaic wall tiles and curve-backed booths reflect the bar’s Art Deco origins. You can take a time warp in the Old Ironsides jukebox, that is, as far back as the days of Glenn Miller, Tony Bennett or Frank Sinatra. Belly up to the polished wood bar and order a strong Manhattan to celebrate the fact that alcohol is blissfully legal. 1901 10th Street, (916) 443-9751.
The building that is now Jamie’s Bar and Grill entered the bar scene at a prosperous and wholesome time in American history. A Portuguese businessman opened Medico’s Dog House in the former automotive garage in 1959, before Sacramentans became dispirited by war, riots and racism. Medico’s operated for 20 years before a guy named Shanley took over and named it Shanley’s. In 1986, a guy named Jamie Bunnell bought it, renamed it Jamie’s, but kept the place pretty much the same, down to the worn wooden floors and the original manual cash register. The bar in the back room—used for Jamie’s annual St. Patrick’s Day party—is believed to have been salvaged from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The only real nod to modern times is the small television high up in the corner of the bar. Today, Jamie’s is known for its causal and simple ambience, good food made from scratch and Friday night all-you-can-eat barbecue dinners. Try a gin fizz in deference to the “Fizz Bowl Classic,” a flag-football game that current and former employees of Vic’s Ice Cream in nearby Land Park began playing in 1966. The first Fizz Bowl was at the home of Jamie Bunnell’s father, and Jamie himself has served as Grand Marshall. 427 Broadway, (916) 442-4044.
Like the saying goes, sometimes things have to get worse before they can get better. Such is the case with Old Sacramento, which by the 1950s was considered the worst slum west of Chicago. Plans to build an eight-lane highway through the area prompted preservationists to restore the city’s historic buildings, and the Back Door Lounge was one of the first. Located in an abandoned paper warehouse, the Back Door is Las Vegas kitsch and New Orleans class at the same time. The red and gold floral wallpaper, red-velvet curtains, black-pleather booths and red-canopied bar lend a lustful air to the place. Owner Gail Alvernaz says the business had changed a lot in 30-plus years, since the days of disdain for authority and the three-martini lunch. Now, the Back Door attracts a mix of young and old, local and tourist, all looking to leave their inhibitions at the door and soak up the lounge’s mischievous attitude. Visit on Friday or Saturday night, when Lee Diamond and his portable music machine entertain with three decades worth of classics by the likes of Dean Martin, Bobby Darin, Van Morrison, Elton John and the Eagles. 1112 Firehouse Alley, (916) 442-5751.
The Black Pearl Oyster Bar heralded a new era in Sacramento’s bar scene. Big city folks were relocating from urban places like San Francisco and Los Angeles, seeking nightlife that was actually lively after 2 a.m. The Black Pearl, behind its dark-curtained entrance, offers both a trendy atmosphere for drinking and a comfortable place to procure late-night munchies. Sit at the granite bar next to one of the polished silver mermaids, order a fancily named drink like the Star-Fruit (Cîroc vodka, pineapple vodka, Lillet and a splash of pineapple and cranberry juice) and toast the Sacramento heritage that brought you to such a fine place to get a wee bit liquored up. 2724 J Street, (916) 440-0214.