Timeless Flavor

Relics, landmarks and visionaries in local restaurant history

Jim Denny’s offered the 24-hour dining experience long before Lyons and Carrows gave all-night restaurants a bad name.

Jim Denny’s offered the 24-hour dining experience long before Lyons and Carrows gave all-night restaurants a bad name.

SN&R Photo By Kate Murphy

1923 Espanol
Sometimes, Espanol is the oldest restaurant in Sacramento. The Rosemont tried to claim the title, then dissolved into Andiamo. Capital Tamale bragged about its oldness, but later it burned down. And just as Espanol was settling into the idea of being a forefather, Hung King Lung got all up in its Italian grill and called itself the first. They eventually closed. And for now, Espanol is the original Sactown restaurant.
SERVES: Family-style Italian cuisine.
5723 Folsom Boulevard, (916) 457-1936.

1935 Club Pheasant
Fred and Luisa Palmidessi opened Pheasant in an old UC Davis Agronomy labratory more than 70 years ago. What’s agronomy? We don’t know either. Pass the homemade, original-recipe ravioli.
SERVES: the same Italian cuisine it’s been dishing up for decades.
2525 Jefferson Boulevard, (916) 371-9530.

1936 Jim Denny’s
Forget what you think you know about 24-hour diners. Carrows and Lyons ain’t got nothin’ on Jim Denny’s, the original midnight munchies hot spot. Seventy years and running, it’s now only open on weekdays and Sunday mornings.
SERVES: burgers, shakes and fries from a sinfully greasy spoon.
816 12th Street, (916) 443-9655.

1947 Vic’s Ice Cream
Same ice cream recipes, made fresh daily. Same checkered floor tiles, booths and diner-style bar that have seen many an awkward teen foot rattle nervously on a first date.
SERVES: Ice cream, sandwiches, soups and the famous “special sauce” for dipping chips.
3199 Riverside Boulevard, (916) 448-0892.

1960 The Firehouse Restaurant
Democracy was alive and well in late ‘50s Sacramento. A good thing, since protests saved the historic Old Sac firehouse from death by freeway sprawl. Since 1960, it’s served elegant food on a magical courtyard, and it’s earned accolades for two giant wine cellars.
SERVES: Gourmet seafood and steaks, and a super-extensive wine list.
1112 Second Street, (916) 442-4772.

1963 Whitey’s Jolly Kone
Same menu, same sign out front, same lunch rush of regulars who’ve been coming from downtown and West Sac for years.
SERVES: Burgers, fries, and legendary shakes.
1300 Jefferson Boulevard, (916) 371-3605.

1967-1969 Nationwide Meats
Butcher Frank Gonzalez used to cook some of his fresh cuts and say, “‘There’s nothing like the flavor of fresh beef,’ and people in the neighborhood used to smell it, and they’d come by and the’d want to Frank to give them some, and they’d say, ‘Frank, you ought to sell this stuff!’ And one day, Frank said, ‘That’s not a bad idea.’” At least that’s what John, Frank’s son and current owner of Nationwide Meats diner, remembers.
SERVES: Burgers, sandwiches, fries, shakes.
1930 H Street, (916) 444-3286.

1977 Squeeze Inn
Thirty years and the restaurant still lives up to its name—it’s crowded!—especially now that it’s been featured on the Food Network’s American diner expose. All original recipes, all the time, even under the new ownership of Travis Hausauer.
SERVES: Enormous burgers, heaping mounds of fries, shakes.
7918 Fruitridge Road, (916) 386-8599.

1978 Zelda’s
Ever since Zelda Brelslin brought her Chicago pizza-eating roots to Sacramento in 1978, Zelda’s restaurant has been keeping it real. Said one employee who’s been there for 29 and a half years, “Same employees. Same decorations. Nothing ever changes.” In a good way.
SERVES: Chicago-style, deep dish pizza.
1415 21st Street, (916) 447-1400.

1983 Vallejo’s
In 1983, the Vallejo family opened a deli. It’s now closed, which we would be sad about if we weren’t so busy stuffing our faces with the family’s dynamite Mexican cuisine, served daily at three Vallejo’s Mexican restaurant locations.
SERVES: Mexican food, duh.
1900 4th Street, 916-443-8488; 1100 O street, (916) 498-1744; 1331 O street, (916) 444-2837.

The Tower Theater shades its namesake cafe and offers delightfully offbeat after-dinner entertainment.

SN&R Photo By Kate Murphy

1983 Paragary’s
Randy Paragary was just 22 years old when he launched what would become a local restaurant empire. Feel a little under-accomplished? We hear food helps quell your sorrows. Try Paragary’s Bar and Grill.
SERVES: Sacramento’s original wood-fired pizzas; pastas; meats; salads—with a focus on local, seasonal ingredients.
1401 28th Street, (916) 457-5737.

1986 Biba
It’s a good thing Bologna, Italy, native Biba Caggiano fell in love with an American. Otherwise she might not have been lured to Sacramento with her husband in the late ‘60s, where her popular Italian cooking classes eventually gave way to the 1986 opening of her namesake restaurant, Biba.
SERVES: Classic, authentic Italian food.
2801 Capitol Avenue, (916) 455-2422.

1987 Mikuni
Nobody puts Taro Arai in a corner. Since 1987, when his family opened their first Mikuni sushi restaurant in Fair Oaks, Arai’s been radicalizing raw fish to meet the Sacramento palate’s craving for that which is fried, gooey and saucy.
SERVES: Japanese fusion with an emphasis on sushi.
4323 Hazel Avenue, Fair Oaks; (916) 961-2112.

1990 Tower Cafe
On Earth Day in 1990, James Seyman opened Tower Café in the space where Tower Drugs and Records, an iconic shop run by the Solomon family (Tower Books, Music and Video; and The Marrs Building), once stood. He took the Tower name to preserve the heritage of one of Sacramento’s first multi-purpose commercial strips, and he left the original drugstore sign a-glow.
SERVES: Worldly fusion: tapas, burgers, delicious breakfasts, cakes, you name it—all with an emphasis on local ingredients.
1518 Broadway, (916) 441-0222.

1990 Ernesto’s
Ernesto Jiminez might be a name to drop around town but his namesake restaurant, the first in the Jiminez empire, is actually the mastermind of Ernesto’s mama, Pauline. She opened Ernesto’s in 1990, and named it after her then-collegiate son, who went on to open Zocalo and Mas.
Ernesto’s Mexican Food SERVES: Big old plates of Mexican cuisine.
1901 16th Street, (916) 441-5850.

1992 Nopalito’s
In 1992, Rose and David Hanke decided that they would combine two things they loved: cooking and eating Southwest cuisine. This simple fusion, seasoned with Rose’s upbringing in Phoenix, Arizona, gave rise to Nopalitos, which means “little cactus.”
SERVES: Southwest cuisine.
5530 H Street, (916) 452-8226.

1994 Waterboy
(see “The new California Cuisine").
2000 Capitol Avenue, (916) 498-9891.

1995 33rd Street Bistro
The brothers Haines haven’t sold their souls to chain-dom. Their 33rd Street Bistro might be replicated in Davis, Rooseville and Midtown, but they balance it with indie Riverside Clubhouse and the upcoming Suzie’s Burgers.
33rd Street Bistro SERVES: Pacific Northwest cuisine with wines from Washington, Oregon and California.
3301 Folsom Boulevard, (916) 455-2233.

1997 Paesanos
Thanks to Dave Virga and Mark Scribner’s Italian food survival package, you can’t go a block in Midtown without stumbling on the piping hot pizza of Paesano’s, Uncle Vitos or Pronto. We’ll just pretend that Hukilau, their now-defunct tiki hut, never happened. It didn’t have pizza anyway.
Paesano’s SERVES: Italian.
1806 Capitol Avenue, (916) 447-8646.

2005 Mason’s Restaurant
Mason Wong blazed right into the heart of Downtown Sac and locked in three thriving nightlife offerings: Ma Jongs Asian Diner for the yup-casual set; Mason’s Restaurant for big spenders; and Park Ultra Lounge for the at once classy-and-slutty.
Mason’s Restaurant SERVES: Fancy-pants largely organic and local American cuisine.
Ma Jong’s SERVES: Chinese food.
You can find it all at 15th and L streets.

2006 Mulvaney’s Building and Loan
(see “The new California Cuisine").
1215 19th Street, (916) 441-6022