Featured: Sacramento Restaurants
By Michael Dolugushkin
Sacramento has an interesting and varied gastronomic tradition. The influx of gold seekers following the 1848 discovery included many from the East Coast and overseas who were used to fine dining but had to make do with whatever was available. Many unsuccessful miners, though, decided to stick it out in other occupations, among them farming. Sacramento was fortuitously located in the middle of one of the most fertile valleys in the world, which soon became the source of large amounts of fresh produce. In addition, its surrounding area was home to many varieties of wild game, meaning that Sacramento dinner tables were never at a loss for edibles.
Sacramento's dining scene has been further enlivened by the many ethnic groups that have populated the area. Chinese, Italian, and Mexican eateries have always been plentiful, with Thai and Vietnamese restaurants appearing toward the end of the Twentieth Century. More recently, master chefs from all over the world have chosen to make Sacramento their home, further boosting the city's reputation for fine and innovative dining. And, as will be seen from the following images, Sacramento has never lacked for establishments serving good old down home American "grub."
"Come and get it!" Here we see the cover of the menu for Town and County Village's Chuck Wagon; a typical 1950's interpretation of the Wild West (remember, TV westerns were popular then). This imagery doesn't prepare you for the menu offered, which includes Coney Island Clam Chowder, fresh Crab or Shrimp Louie, Lyonnaise Potatoes, and Golden Bantam Corn along with the more expected steaks, chops, and chicken. But we see none of the pork and beans one might have expected the character shown here to have cooked up.
The legendary Coral Reef on Howe Avenue embodied a popular post-World War II restaurant theme: the South Pacific. Indeed, the back cover of this menu states that the interior decor was intended to give "the most authentic atmosphere possible of a beachcomber's shack in Tahiti or Pago Pago." The Coral Reef served primarily Chinese dishes along with standard American steakhouse fare, but it is the drink menu that is most notable here. It was not enough that the "Head Hunter" would "crack your skull." Under the "Typhoon" comes a warning to "be prepared-anything can happen," followed by the "Navy Grog" admonition that "everything has happened." This was at a time when folks thought nothing of drinking and driving.
The Saddle Rock at 1019 Second Street dated back to 1849, spent its final years in the rather nondescript building shown here, and survived the transformation of the West End into Old Sacramento. By the 1930s the Saddle Rock had passed to the ownership of Messrs. Zambelich and Petrovich but still displayed 19th century graphics on its business card, the back of which advertised an Italian or French dinner with wine and beer for 75 cents, and a "merchant's lunch" likewise with wine or beer for only 35 cents.
This menu from the China Tea Garden at 907 6th Street comes from a time when Chinese restaurants in California served basic Cantonese fare along with the obligatory American dishes. Here we see the page listing almost endless varieties of Chop Suey and Chow Mein (the former of which, of course, was not authentically Chinese). Of particular note is the message at the bottom stating that the Chow Mein served was "eastern style," and to inform your waiter if you wanted "western style." But apparently someone made a mistake, since the "eastern" and "western" designations were crossed out and switched. What any of this actually meant is lost to the mists of time.
The front cover of Frasinetti's menu shows the streamlined Deco eatery located at 4217 Stockton Boulevard, typical of many such drive-up restaurants during the postwar era. It also features cameo portraits of historic California figures such as Kit Carson, James Marshall, Peter Lassen, Mariano Vallejo, John C. Fremont, and especially John A. Sutter. The menu offered the standard beef, veal, chicken, and fish along with "relishes" and a child's plate. Page 3, however, states that "a good cocktail makes a good meal taste better" and provides a full list of libations.
Here is what looks to be a 1970s menu from the legendary Espanol restaurant, still open after 90 years of operation at several locations. The page shown here gives a detailed history of the establishment and answers the question that many newcomers to Sacramento likely asked: why would an Italian restaurant be named "Espanol?"
This artistically designed pamphlet extols the history and virtues of Hart's Lunches and Cafeteria, which at the height of the Great Depression operated at several Sacramento locations and served "ten thousand meals a day." Particularly noteworthy was the opening, against prevailing restaurant wisdom, of Hart's Lunch at 1020 2nd Street serving the area's mostly transient male population, most of whom could afford 25 cents for a meal and would do so regularly. And after 350 men applied for jobs at the new restaurant, offering to work in exchange for meals and a bed on the floor, Hart's management realized that "other than paying customers must be considered" and began serving free coffee and bread at 7PM every night. One cannot imagine any restaurant adopting such an altruistic attitude today.
For something completely different, here is the late and lamented Hotel Sacramento's wine and beverage list from sometime in the late 1930s. Of particular interest to those who collect soda and beer memorabilia is the last page, offering such fondly remembered thirst quenchers as White Rock, Mok Hill, Vicky [sic] Celestine, Clicquot Sec, and Hires Root Beer on the non-alcoholic side. Under beer we see a multitude of legendary West Coast brands: Acme, Valley Brew, Ranier [sic], Grace Bros., Eastside, Golden Glow, and Sacramento's own Buffalo and Gilt Edge. At that time American beer still had flavor and character, unlike the watered-down swill we were stuck with forty years later before microbreweries became plentiful.
Here we see the interior of Johnson's Restaurant at 1019 Tenth Street in 1955, full of happy diners. Note the staff's crisp uniforms, and how the restaurant's patrons are themselves very properly dressed. In the doorway we see owner George Johnson and his son Eppaminondas, who entered the restaurant business himself and founded the Eppie's chain.
Looking somewhat like a flying saucer, the futuristic Andy's Drive-In at 2995 Freeport Boulevard must have been a mind-boggling sight when it first opened. This photo was taken in 1941 and shows Andy's smartly uniformed carhops posing next to typical cars of the era.
Air-cooled and opened for business, here is the China Palace Restaurant at 3022 L Street, now the site of another Chinese eatery, the Mayflower. At this time, 1952, such establishments typically offered Chinese and American food, probably to attract the gastronomically less adventurous.
This July 27, 1947 night view shows the snazzy entrance of Bedell's Restaurant at 1117 Eleventh Street, where one might expect to see nattily-dressed men accompanied my mink-wrapped women emerging from an evening of dinner and drinks. Indeed, Bedell's was a favorite of legislators and lobbyists much like today's Frank Fat's.
At the busting corner of 7th and J Streets in 1945 we see the Log Cabin Tavern, likely a favorite spot for Sacramento Bee staff who worked half a block away. In later years this corner was the site of the Jade Garden, popular among those employed locally for a cheap Chinese lunch. It is evident, though, that even in 1945 the corner bay was no longer aligned with the rest of the building.
The Firehouse Restaurant at 1112-1114 Second Street opened in 1960 in the heart of Sacramento's skid row, and can be seen as the first step in revitalizing what is now known as "Old Sacramento." The structure it occupies was constructed after the great fire of 1852 and originally housed Engine Company #3, hence the restaurant's name. The Firehouse continues to be a popular and elegant dining spot, and Ronald Reagan held both of his inaugural dinners there as Governor of California.
Originally located at 1011 Ninth Street, the Rosemount Grill moved to this streamlined brick structure at 3145 Folsom Boulevard in 1945. This establishment was founded by Yugoslav immigrant Peter Valerio, who died in 1988, a year before the Rosemount closed. The building, much altered, still stands.