About one in four restaurants go out of business within a year of opening. This happens for all kinds of reasons. The concept is wrong. The food or service is substandard. The location is bad. The inexperienced owners thought it would be a fun way to get rich and didnt realize all the hard work involved.
Giustis, on the other hand, is the little Walnut Grove restaurant that keeps going and going. Its success might seem confounding or counterintuitive to some. Not everything about this place will make sense to everyone. One in four people, perhaps, will just not get it and thats probably fine by all the locals who do.
Not only has Giustis and its Italian American cuisine survived world wars, the Great Depression, the energy crisis, economic downturns, floods and all kinds of food trends, it continues to thrive as a family-run, quirky, curmudgeonly, quintessentially Delta hole-in-the-wall where the people are sincere, the food is solid and the building only looks as if its about to blow into the Sacramento River.
Giustis didnt survive by latching onto every trend that comes along. Credit cards, for instance. It doesnt take them. Many first-timers will find that annoying, if not alarming. Beer on tap? Not here. Desserts are not a Giustis thing, either.
Reservations? Nope. Youll probably have to wait for a table on weekends during the summer months. But theres a full bar, they make a stiff drink at a decent price and, if you look up at the ceiling, you can spend your time wondering why there are 1,200 baseball hats nailed to it. If that doesnt hold your interest, you can browse the 300-plus framed pieces of memorabilia on the walls.
In the Delta, 30 minutes from downtown Sacramento, its an entirely different world. The people are without pretense and, so it seems, fiercely independent.
The dinner menu is as straightforward as it gets fried chicken, pasta, two kinds of steak, veal cutlet, fried prawns and the portions are hearty. The cooking is skillful and consistent, but its far from fussy or modern. Then there are the specials. Heres where things can get a little more complicated, and it will take more than a few visits before you figure out whats what.
To expedite things, I enlisted Samuel Rainwater Sammy the Chef to help navigate the Giustis way of eating. Sammy has been there for 14 years and, among other things, is credited with adding ahi tuna salad to the menu.
We were trying to attract a younger crowd, he explained. I said, Everyone likes sushi these days. So we started getting yellow fin tuna.
Sammy notes that every Wednesday its two-for-one lobster tails plump, tasty, tender, warm-water lobster thats braised in the oven at 500 degrees. On the second Tuesday of every month, its lamb shanks (floured, seasoned and braised for hours, then served over polenta). Tripe is served on the third Wednesday of the month. Sammy refers to it as Italian menudo.
If you have favorites, youll learn when theyre being served. The rack of lamb was a special one night we were there and its terrific thick, tender meat clinging to each bone, seasoned simply with salt and pepper and cooked perfectly. The thick serving of salmon also is prepared simply; its pan-fried and seasoned with restraint to let the fishs flavor be the focal point. The rib-eye steak is large and juicy and covered with sautéed mushrooms and blue cheese.
The spaghetti sauce is the real deal, simmered with flavors that are nicely balanced. The fried chicken is stylistically consistent with the rest of Giustis food. There are no tricks or gimmicks. Its good chicken, lightly floured and gently seasoned, then fried in hot oil until its crisp and golden and nothing more, served with a baked potato.
During recent visits we ordered all kinds of dishes many that rotate on and off the menu according to what day it is. The cooking is consistent, classic and results in straight-ahead food that was never trendy and will never go out of fashion.
Those who have not visited before may be startled by the little extras that appear at the table. The large bowl of green salad, the minestrone soup with the ladle, the very tasty garbanzo beans and the excellent crispy-crust bread are all meant to be passed around and shared before the arrival of the entrees.
The lunch menu changes daily, and visitors are advised to call ahead if theyre looking for something specific. Depending on the day, youll find such dishes as a grilled pork chop, grilled oysters and a crab salad sandwich. The burger and pasta dishes are mainstays.
At times, I have criticized restaurants that rest on their laurels and dont evolve. Last week, I said as much about 33rd Street Bistro. Giustis is entirely different. Unlike 33rd Street, it never set out to be trend-setting. Giustis knows what it is, and thats all it wants to be.
Its defiantly old-school, but not in a dusty, disconnected way, like Sacramentos time-warp eatery Trails, which has largely lost its heartbeat. Giustis superior cooking, enthusiastic staff and strong, honest connection to its environs give it a vital (if low-key) energy.
Locals love the place. Most of the clientele is from the surrounding 10-mile area. During the summer months, many arrive by boat, cruising along the channel and docking just below the restaurant. Its a laid-back, unhurried and very Delta way of going to dinner. And that goes for the closing time. When does it close? That depends. Its best to call ahead if that might be an issue.
The clientele is what you might imagine. This is not a place where you dress up for dinner, though its just eccentric enough that you wont feel out of place if you do. Most of the servers have worked there for more than 10 years, and one or two of them are bound to call you honey.
When you walk in, youll notice that its a little dark and the floors and walls are rickety. Theres a large bar and most of its stools are usually occupied. Its easy to relax here and have a good time. One evening, the wait for a table was more than 30 minutes. On another, we nabbed one in five.
The hats on the ceiling are something of a local legend by now. Regulars probably dont even notice them anymore, unless theyre bringing new visitors and want to point out their own hat up there. Our Delta friend was quick to locate his orange golf cap, lamenting for a moment that he no longer gets to wear it.
It is apparent that we are the dumping grounds for trucker hats, the restaurants website states. Our ceiling is very colorful, to say the least.
On a whim in the early 1980s, owner Mark Morais decided to put several caps he had been given on the ceiling. The idea caught on and customers started to contribute their lids. When Rio Vista and Delta high schools faced budget cuts and possible closure, Morais, a former Delta High sports star in the 60s, decided to hold a raffle for the hats as a fundraiser. Word spread, and it got on the TV news. The drawing raised $25,000 and the winners decided the hats needed to remain where they were.
Thats the kind of quirky spirit that defines Giustis, which has thrived as a family-run business and Delta institution for more than a century. Its not a place that will appeal to everyone. And thank goodness for that.
14743 Walnut Grove-Thornton Road
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday (lunch); 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday (lunch); 5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday (dinner, call for closing time); 4 p.m. Sunday (dinner, call for closing time).
Beverage options: Full bar, small but balanced wine choices, minimal craft beer and no beer on draft.
Vegetarian friendly: Minimal but kitchen takes requests.
Noise level: Moderate.
Ambiance: Nothing fancy here. The building is 100-plus years old, weathered, rickety and loaded with memorabilia. There are 1,200 baseball caps tacked to the ceiling in the bar.
Overall * * * (out of 4 stars)
This family-owned Italian-American restaurant has endured and thrived as a Delta institution for more than a century. Its quirky, sincere and charming and the food is consistent, unfussy and always done right. Regulars call it home away from home; newcomers come to experience the quintessential vibe of a Delta hideaway.
Food * * *
This is solid, traditional, hearty, family-style fare with an emphasis on Italian American cooking. The steaks, pasta and fried chicken are all nicely done, and the various specials, including two-for-one lobster tails, braised lamb shanks and pizza are enduring favorites for regulars. The kitchen also takes requests if you call ahead.
Service * * *
Many of the employees have worked here 10 years or more. The owners are hands-on. It adds up to friendly, informal and sometimes charming service.
Value * * *
The rib eye steak and rack of lamb special are $28.50, a small pizza is $10.50, fried chicken is $16.50. Lobster for two is $30.50 on Wednesdays. The extra value comes in the ample portions of salad, soup, plate of garbanzo beans and bread provided with the meal.
Noteworthy: The restaurant does not accept credit cards.
Call The Bees Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob.