Once December arrives and the malls are crammed with Christmas shoppers, I'm drawn to one particular restaurant that really appeals to me, especially with the giving spirit that takes hold in so many at this time of year.
So I dropped by Casa Garden for lunch, as I did on multiple occasions two years ago, to be reminded of its mission, its amazing staff of volunteers and its always impressive food. It embodies all that's good about volunteerism, commitment, consistency and generosity, and it continues to be one of the great sources of pride and inspiration throughout the region.
Casa Garden is the restaurant on the grounds of the Sacramento Children's Home, and the money that customers leave as tips goes directly to support the work of this proud and vital local service.
How generous and kind-hearted are Sacramentans? To date, Casa Garden has raised about $2.7 million in gratuities and other proceeds since 1974, according to Marlene Oehler, a volunteer for 17 years who handles the restaurant's public relations.
The money is put to good use. As I noted two years ago, the Sacramento Children's Home continues to produce success stories and happy endings – former residents include a NASA scientist, many lawyers and doctors, respected business owners and licensed counselors. Seems to me that those of us who grew up in a happy household, who benefited from having parents who gave us love and support and all the material things we needed, are obligated to think of those who did not. Casa Garden makes it easy to connect in that way.
In my review in 2010, I was more than happy to give Casa Garden four stars overall, and that rating still stands. The food, the service, the experience, the surroundings, the consistency and the sense of purpose that pulls it all together make for a warm, wonderful lunch you won't soon forget.
And yet Casa Garden remains overlooked by many. Maybe it's the era in which we live. So many things distract us – and Sacramento today has so many good and great restaurant options – that it's easy to look past this quaint, understated restaurant tucked away on bustling Sutterville Road.
Parking isn't a problem. Reservations are relatively easy to come by. The ambience is pleasant, and the soft music isn't going to blow anybody's doors off. In those ways and more, Casa Garden is simply different than every other restaurant out there.
The food is always straightforward and approachable. It has to be. The menu is limited to three options, so Joan Simmons, the restaurant manager and chef, can't get too out there and avant garde with her cooking. She has to appeal to the widest possible clientele, including fussy eaters.
Still, there are subtle touches here and there that showcase the skill and discerning palates toiling in the kitchen. My lunch of smoked beef brisket with a honey chipotle sauce could not have been better. The meat was so tender I could tease it apart with a poke or two of my fork. And the sauce, a little sweet and a tad spicy, brought out the best in this blue-collar cut of meat. It paired nicely with a light-bodied glass of merlot.
It was chilly and damp on the day I dropped by, and I was craving a good hearty soup. I got that and more with Casa Garden's wild rice soup. The texture was superb. And the finish on the palate was something special – a touch of sweetness thanks to a bit of brandy and cream. Casa Garden always has a salad on the menu, and it's always popular with guests.
The service during lunch was exceptionally attentive and professional, complete with perfect pacing. Nearly all of the volunteers are retirees seeking a new and meaningful chapter in their lives. When I looked at the ease with which the servers handled their tasks during my lunch, I had to wonder: "Retired from what? The French Laundry?"
These folks are the unsung heroes of the community. So are the ones hidden away in the kitchen and supervised by Simmons.
Apart from the five paid positions, including Simmons', everyone else is a volunteer. Newcomers receive a one-day training session and then are assigned to a mentor for ongoing tutelage.
Original volunteers from 1974 who are still active at Casa Garden include Carol Williams, Kay Messmer, Norma Rehrer and Betty Verner.
There are 250 or so more volunteers who work various shifts during weekday lunches, special dinners and weddings and other events on the weekends. Their work adds up to many thousands of hours. Casa Garden averages 60-70 lunches served, and that number increases during the Christmas season.
Even better than visiting in December is becoming a regular, visiting for lunches throughout the year. That way, you'll see the ever-changing menu at its best, and you'll be able to look out through the large windows at the beautiful garden. Its beauty and elegance, like the restaurant's, is the work of volunteers.
I left Casa Garden once again with a very warm feeling, thanks to the food and all that comes with it.
Casa Garden Restaurant
2760 Sutterville Road, Sacramento
Hours: Weekdays for lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Reservations recommended. The restaurant's final lunch service of 2012 will be on Dec. 21. Casa Garden will reopen Jan. 7.
The menu changes weekly. Lunch prices range from $7.50 to $9.75. There is a small selection of beer and wine.
The restaurant is run by volunteers from Los Niños Service League, and their tips are a fundraiser for the Sacramento Children's Home. About $2.7 million has been raised since 1974. Those interested in volunteering as members of the kitchen crew, servers, cashiers, gardeners or weekend workers for special events are invited to apply through the restaurant's website or in person.