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A picture of Ella Dining Room and Bar in Sacramento on Friday, September 20, 2013. A small kitchen fire Saturday afternoon started behind a high-heat salamander oven and triggered the fire suppression system and forced the cancellation of dinner service.

Small kitchen fire at Ella cancels dinner service Saturday; top restaurant racing to reopen

Published: Sunday, Jan. 26, 2014 - 1:21 pm

A small kitchen fire at Ella Dining Room & Bar that started behind a high-heat oven Saturday afternoon triggered the fire suppression system and forced the cancellation of dinner service.

The blaze was quickly extinguished, but not before the Ansul System, with nozzles installed over the cooking surfaces, went into action, spraying a green viscous retardant throughout the large kitchen.

Read: Elegant, elevated Ella makes case for region’s best restaurant

No one was injured and there was no structural damage to the multimillion-dollar restaurant, which is widely admired for its interior design.

According to Joseph Vaccaro, the restaurant’s general manager, the fire started around 1:30 p.m., not long after kitchen staff arrived and turned on burners to warm them up for a night of cooking. There were no customers on the premises.

The oven, known as a salamander, Vaccaro explained, is a wall-mounted unit used mostly to warm dinner plates, but it is also employed to quickly sear food under high heat.

“All the safety mechanisms we have in place did their job,” Vaccaro said Sunday morning. “But when the fire suppression system goes off, that’s probably the worst thing any restaurant operator wants to get a call about.”

The kitchen crew scrambled to clean up the mess, slipping and sliding on the fire retardant. Vaccaro said he was hoping to open Ella at some point Saturday, but it soon became apparent that there were too many issues to overcome, including re-inspections by the county’s Department of Environmental Management (better known as the Health Department) and the Sacramento Fire Department.

Canceling Saturday night dinner at one of the region’s leading dining destinations is a major ordeal. Staffers started by making dozens of phone calls. Nearby restaurants, including Grange, Waterboy, Mulvaney’s and Capital Dime, offered to help absorb canceled reservations.

Vaccaro said 95 percent of the people with reservations were “very kind and understanding” when they learned the news, but 5 percent “were very upset.”

Even absent structural damage, it’s a mighty blow to the restaurant and staff.

Lost revenue at that one dinner service is projected to be $30,000 to $40,000, according to Vaccaro, accounting for about 25 percent of the restaurant’s weekly earnings. More than 115 people were expected in the door by 7 p.m., not including patrons in the large bar area.

Further, the service staff went home without a busy night’s worth of tips – that could be $200 or more each. The restaurant kept the servers on the clock Saturday to do a deep cleaning of the dining room.

“The first thing I did was apologize to the staff that you’re going home without anything in your pockets tonight,” Vaccaro said. “I was a server for years. I know how it hurts.”

Vaccaro opted not to reopen for lunch Monday, but the restaurant will be ready for a private event Monday night. Regular service is expected to resume Tuesday.

What makes Ella such a great restaurant? Read my recent review by clicking here.

Call The Bee’s Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob.

Read more articles by Blair Anthony Robertson

About Appetizers

Chris Macias has served as The Sacramento Bee's Food & Wine writer since 2008. His writing adventures have ranged from the kitchen at French Laundry to helping pick 10 tons of zinfandel grapes with migrant farm workers in Lodi. Chris also judges regularly at food, wine and cocktail competitions around Northern California. His profile of a former gangbanger-turned-pastry-chef was included in Da Capo's "Best Food Writing 2012."

Read his Wine Buzz columns here
(916) 321-1253
Twitter: @chris_macias

Allen Pierleoni writes about casual lunchtime restaurants in The Sacramento Bee's weekly "Counter Culture" column. He covers a broad range of topics, including food, travel, books and authors. In addition to writing the weekly column "Between the Lines," he oversees the Sacramento Bee Book Club, in which well-known authors give free presentations to the public.

Read his Counter Culture reviews here
(916) 321-1128
Twitter: @apierleonisacbe

Blair Anthony Robertson is The Sacramento Bee's food critic.

Read his restaurant reviews here
(916) 321-1099
Twitter: @Blarob

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Note: The Appetizers blog switched blog platforms in August 2013. All posts after the switch are found here. Older posts are available using the list below.

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