During our several visits to Clark's Corner for breakfast, lunch, dinner and for drinks we tried to put our finger on what it was exactly that makes this place work and work so well.
Turns out, it's a bunch of little things that could be placed under an umbrella called "the right attitude."
Whether you're feeling blue or blah or absolutely upbeat, whether you stop in alone or with groups of family and friends, you're likely to leave this restaurant and bar feeling just a bit better than when you arrived.
That was our experience time and again.
We sat by the fireplace in the back on a cold, rainy night. We grabbed a table near the bar up front.
We interacted with others. We watched what was going on around us. And we marveled at how easy it all seemed.
Clark's Corner is a restaurant to some, a bar to others and practically a second home to many.
It takes years of planning and hoping to get to this point, and yet Clark's Corner, barely 18 months old, already has the look and feel of a neighborhood institution.
How did that happen? And so quickly?
At a restaurant where the food (modern American mixed with some classic pub fare) has some shortcomings, you have to conclude that it's the people that make this place one of those quintessential neighborhood gathering spots low-key, unpretentious, authentic and consistently friendly. Even the neighborhood dogs, always welcome on the side patio, are treated like old friends.
Clark Branscum, the 32-year-old owner, is the protagonist in this feel-good story. He didn't reinvent the restaurant and bar business. He simply took stock of what he liked at other places and brought those aspects to the neighborhood he loved. Then he was bold enough and optimistic enough to put his name front and center.
Branscum is clearly a people person. Best we can tell, so are all who work at the front of the house at his restaurant and bar.
If Clark's Corner is such a success and a pleasure to visit, how do we account for the 2½ stars overall rating? When we look at this restaurant category, there is plenty of competition.
Clark's Corner may be superior to most places we've visited when it comes to friendly and genuine customer service, but its performance in the kitchen will determine how things shake out in months and years to come. Our experiences dining there were mixed, with more hits than misses; but we saw enough errors that we can't put Clark's Corner in the same category as heavy hitters in east Sacramento such as OneSpeed, Juno's, Formoli's, Selland's Market-Cafe, Cafe Rolle and Nopalitos.
The thin-crust pizzas were a very pleasant surprise. With a small kitchen and limited staffing, we weren't expecting the kind of artisan-quality pies we encountered. The crust had nuance, flavor and above-average texture. And the toppings especially with "The Combo" and its fennel sausage, peppers, mushrooms and ricotta made for a pie that at once was spicy, salty, chewy and tender. It was one very good pizza.
The welsh rarebit ($8), an appetizer suitable for sharing, was another pleasant surprise. With three kinds of cheese melted together and served with oven-roasted tomatoes, it was a great wintertime dish, gobbled up with pieces of rye and sourdough toast.
The sandwiches are also mostly good, including the pulled pork with crunchy slaw and chipotle mayonnaise; the tender grilled chicken with bacon on sourdough; and the meatless black-bean burger served with a spicy crème fraîche.
But we were underwhelmed by our overcooked and lackluster hamburger, especially since it cost $13. Sacramento is a great burger town standouts include the gourmet burgers at Hawks in Granite Bay and Restaurant Thir13en downtown, the new offering at Broderick Restaurant & Bar in West Sacramento, as well as the stalwart burgers at Juno's and Formoli's Bistro several blocks down J Street.
If Clark's Corner pulled out all the stops on its burger and made it something special, it could be a game-changer. Right now, it's a $7 burger selling for $13.
As regular readers know by now, I always order soup soup is a simple way to determine the mettle of any kitchen. The soups at Biba, for instance, range from excellent to amazing. We ordered the black-bean soup at Clark's, the so-called soup of the day, on three different occasions and found it served three different ways.
Once it was so thick it wasn't soup it was a side of beans in a bowl. Once it was so bland it wasn't worth eating. And once it was close to perfect. That's a batting average worthy of Cooperstown, but this isn't a baseball diamond.
The "taqueria style" fish tacos, with that same crème fraîche we enjoyed on our veggie burger, were a disappointment, too, despite the above-average ingredients, mostly because the tortillas were stale and bland and fell apart.
Then there was the hanger steak. I remember chatting last year with Gabriel Glasier, the estimable chef at Maranello in Fair Oaks, about the underappreciated challenges of this bargain cut of beef. Glasier went on for 15 minutes about the precision with which the hanger steak must be sliced before serving across the grain and with great care lest it be rendered tough and chewy.
Then he told me something I didn't know: the grain on a hanger steak often shifts direction from one end to the other, meaning the chef must approach it with a careful eye and great precision.
At Clark's, I ordered the hanger steak three times in three different ways as a main entree, as part of a salad, and as a component with my poached eggs, and it was wrong every time.
Overcooked, tough, disappointing.
All the smiling faces, good cheer and good beer at Clark's Corner only go so far. The servers and bar- tenders there work as a team and account for the tremendous spirit of this neighborhood gathering spot. And while many of the plates they served us were good and sometimes great, we expect the batting average to rise in months ahead.
The next chapter in this feel-good story for Clark Branscum and crew could be a pivotal one. Will Clark's Corner be satisfied with where it is and what it already does so well? Or will this new kid on the block hone its strengths, correct its weaknesses and soar to the next level?
5641 J St., Sacramento
Hours: Lunch 11:45 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; dinner 5-10 p.m. daily; breakfast 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Beverage options: Full bar
Vegetarian friendly: Yes
Noise level: Moderate to loud
Overall ★ ★ 1/2 (out of 4 stars)
Clark's Corner does many of the things that make it a quintessential neighborhood gathering spot for food and drink. The employees are very friendly and are knowledgeable about the menus. The food has its moments, but the menu could use some fine-tuning and the cooking would benefit from greater precision.
Food ★ ★
This was a close call, as some of the dishes such as the pizzas and sandwiches range from good to very good; this rating will get better as the kitchen sharpens its focus and puts out more consistent and more accurately prepared dishes. It may be time to retire the hanger steak and move on to a more manageable cut of beef.
Service ★ ★ ★ 1/2
In a casual neighborhood spot like this, the servers have to be friendly while still tending to all the little details that make for a seamless eating-and-drinking experience. They do that with consistency.
Ambience ★ ★ ★
The room is divided in two, with a cozy bar and more lively eating area up front, and a quieter dining room in the back. The dog-friendly patio in warmer months is a nice feature. During one cold, rainy visit, we loved the warmth and glow of the roaring fireplace.
Value ★ ★ 1/2
Full-sized salads are $8 to $11, the very good pizzas are $11 to $13 and sandwiches are $10 to $13. Main courses are reasonable, ranging from $13 to about $20. We were taken aback by a few prices, including the so-so $13 hamburger $1 less than the amazing burgers at Hawks in Granite Bay and Restaurant Thir13en downtown, and the same price as the famed whiskey burger at Formoli's. To command that price, this burger needs a serious upgrade