We’re not San Francisco (or LA), but we’re conveniently located half-way between the mountains and the sea. Drive an hour-and-a-half to the east and you can be at Lake Tahoe. Take the same time going west and you can be in San Francisco. People from other places have often brought this up when they find that I live in Sacramento. While our location might be ideal, I’ve often found these comments patronizing--the implication being that our only virtue is being not-too-far from worthwhile parts of the country, though there was nothing of interest here.
The Old Days
Of course, we didn’t have a restaurant scene to compare to San Francisco when I was growing up, but there were some quality houses—places downtown like Roberts Fish Grotto, Bedell’s and Antoinina’s, an elegant option located in the old Heilbron Mansion at 7th and O Streets. Out in the north area the Coral Reef and Scheidel’s Bavaria were situated on opposite sides of Fulton Avenue. In the early 1960s Aldo Bovero opened Aldo’s just a few blocks away in Town & Country Village. The place served what was then billed as “Continental Cuisine.” This usually meant overtones of French and Italian and a lot of offerings more familiar to the American palate. Aldo’s lounge featured Mario Ferrari, a classical pianist trained at a conservatory in Milan, who played nightly for discerning bar patrons. All these places are gone now.
In this era, Newton Cope opened a restaurant on 2nd Street in what was then known as “The West End,” a part of town that was historic, but had deteriorated to slums and could be dangerous at night. Cope’s leap of faith paid off as diners recognized the quality of this restaurant occupying a structure originally built as a firehouse in the 1800s. The restaurant prospered as the neighborhood was redeveloped—No longer The West End, it’s now historic Old Sacramento. The Firehouse restaurant survives to this day, nearly 60 years later.
When I was in college I worked at the front desk of the Sacramento Inn, a 300-room property. It featured a live 10-piece dance band five nights a week and on Sunday the bandleader, Ken Harvey, and one of his sidemen would entertain brunch patrons by strolling through the dining room playing classical music on violin and a small, rolling keyboard.
We were not the bumpkins that some in the San Francisco Bay Area wanted to believe we were.
The Corti Brothers Influence
After graduation from St Mary’s College in the 1960s, Darrell Corti joined the grocery business begun by his father and uncle in 1947. Darrell helped educate countless Sacramentans about wine. Colman Andrews, co-founder and editor of Saveur, said that Darrell knows more about food and wine than anybody else in the country. Most of those familiar with these subjects would concur.
David Berkeley, who worked for Darrell in the Corti Bros. wine department and later went on to operate a food and wine business on his own, became acquainted with Mike Deaver, when he was an aide to then-Governor Ronald Reagan. When Deaver went to Washington after Reagan became President, he asked David to become a wine advisor to the White House. All those State Dinners included wines Berkeley selected to match the menus.
The contributions of Darrell and David became known—if not to the general public, at least to people around food and wine and this didn’t hurt Sacramento’s reputation.
Gradually chain restaurants began to dominate. Fast-food franchises came to town, but also lower-tier white table cloth restaurants like Stuart Anderson’s Black Angus and Red Lobster. The city became so known for its “averageness” that companies would introduce business concepts/restaurant concepts here to see if Sacramento’s taste for mediocrity would embrace their latest ideas. “If it played in Sacramento,” went the theory, it had a good chance of working on a national scale.
If would be unfair to blame chains for Sacramento’s reputation as a culinary backwater, but they didn’t have the quality and personality of the individual proprietorships that I remember from my youth.
These things helped to change the situation:
Population growth (and with that, came ideas from new residents coming from other parts of the country. If not necessarily greater sophistication, this meant different perspectives. at least).Growth in America of culinary consciousness.
Americans began paying more attention to what they were putting into their bodies. Grocery stores offered more frozen foods, fewer cans. Transportation became better and that brought consumers a greater diversity of fresh food. Cooking was becoming a profession, not just a trade. Chefs were no longer regarded as potentially-volatile drunks, but as stars of the restaurant world. This new consciousness affected not just people enjoying food in restaurants, but also those preparing it in their own homes.
Television played a role--from Julia Child to Paul Prudhomme to Emeril Lagasse to Anthony Bourdain and to all the Food Network programs and personalities.An awareness that location can be more a virtue than a liability. Is the glass half-empty or half-full?
Where we are now:
Sacramento is in California’s Central Valley---the middle of the most productive agricultural region of the world. Also, specialty growers like Suzanne Ashworth of Del Rio Botanicals have come forward. She farms land across the river in Yolo County farmed by her father in an earlier era, but now the emphasis is on seed production and specialty vegetables which she grows to order for area chefs.
California’s wine industry had grown to a total of 676 wineries when I began the Foothill Wine Press in 1984. Wine Institute says there are over 4,653 bonded wineries now. Quality vineyards and wineries don’t just exist in Napa and Sonoma, but now surround Sacramento. Amador County, which is just 35 miles east of here, had 1 winery when I was a young man buying their jugs of D’Agostini “Burgundy” and “Claret” (mostly Zinfandel) from Corti Brothers. Now Amador has more than 40 wineries. Neighboring El Dorado County also has about 40. Lodi, just 35 miles south of here, has 85 wineries. Wine and food do not exist is separate universes. Around the world, where you find good wine, you’ll usually find good food.
Craft beer—Sacramento is now one of the leading cities in the country for small breweries and craft beer-centric pubs.
Restaurants—The area’s no longer chain dominated. There are many creative spots now, frequently chef-owned. Proximity to quality ingredients plays a role in this.
There’s a rejection of the old view of Sacramento. No more apologies. There’s a pride in agriculture. Josh Nelson of the Selland Family restaurants christened Sacramento “America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital.” The name has stuck. The personal-finance website Wallet Hub recently published their list of “2018’s Best Foodie Cities in America.” Of the 182 American cities they ranked, Sacramento came in #16--just below Washington DC and just ahead of Philadelphia.
We’re still not San Francisco, and certainly not Paris. But Sacramento is a damned fine place to be if you enjoy wine and food.
Editor’s note: Dan Clarke’s reflections on Sacramento are derived from a presentation he made at the recent annual meeting of the Greater Western Chapter of the Travel & Tourism Research Association.