Sacramento-area diners want their breakfasts served just right, and they want them now.
So when they find restaurants that deliver both those things, they stay loyal. Generally, it's not unusual to see many of the same faces morning after morning at neighborhood breakfast places, more so than at lunch and dinner spots.
For instance, the breakfast regulars are legion at Venita Rhea's in Rocklin. Reservations are a must on weekends, with lines of eager folks stretching along the sidewalk out front. Bonus: You can get lunch for breakfast, and breakfast for lunch; both menus are always available. Plus, the kitchen will accommodate off-menu requests.
Lunch pals Roger Krum, his wife, Jeanne, and I were knocking around the concept of breakfast as ritual, as we sat at a large table inside Venita Rhea's one recent weekday morning.
The popular restaurant was about half-full. Many of the customers greeted the waitresses by name, and in turn the waitresses recognized them.
"Shall I bring your usuals?" one server asked two couples sitting nearby, and they smiled and agreed. There was some bonding going on.
"This is like going to breakfast at your mom's house," Jeanne said. "We have our favorite waitresses here, and we always sit in their sections."
"Seeing them is like visiting with friends," Roger added. "It's a comfort zone for us and many others.
"And the food is always consistent."
Roger is the former executive director of the Sacramento Jazz Festival (renamed the Sacramento Music Festival last year) and a longtime lunch pal who has guided this column to many dining adventures: the fresh peach milkshake at Whitey's Jolly Kone in West Sacramento; the peanut butter burger at Fanny Ann's Saloon in Old Sacramento; the housemade onion rings at the Granite Rock Grill in Rocklin.
Roger's best breakfast- oriented quote: "Gravy covers many sins."
At Venita Rhea's, we ordered a heap of dishes from the expansive breakfast-lunch menu ($6 to $16) and then took a little stroll around the two dining rooms. Lots of red brick and red-checked tablecloths, a blue awning over the lone counter and three murals showing scenes reminiscent of the French countryside.
Wait a minute what's Wendy from "Peter Pan" doing in there?
As we'd heard and discovered, Venita Rhea's specializes in big food and fresh ingredients. The "big" part applies across the expansive menu.
"We've never eaten here without taking food home," Roger said. The "fresh" part is especially true of the produce. The fruit, in particular, was excellent – luscious strawberries and juicy pineapple, crisp watermelon and sweet canteloupe and honeydew.
If breakfast at Venita Rhea's were a theatrical production (which in some ways it is), the cinnamon roll French toast would be the star of the show. Can we get an autograph?
The novelty dish is a huge cinnamon roll (cooked at a bakery, not onsite) cut lengthwise, dipped in batter and fried, then garnished with a butterball, a mound of whipped cream, a landslide of fresh fruit and cups of imitation maple syrup. Surprisingly, it was neither too sweet nor gooey. Bring three friends.
A grilled bone-in ham steak was as big as a catcher's mitt, but much more tasty, we guessed. The major slice of ham was tender, flavorful and not oversalted. A winner. Bring two friends.
Moving to something in the "healthful" category, the perfectly cooked No. 5 omelet was stuffed with avocado, broccoli, eggplant, mushrooms, olives, squash and tomato (we added spinach). We dashed on some Pepper Plant California-style hot sauce, one of the best. Bring one friend.
Our favorite item was the Kobe-style burger, a thick, juicy patty on a soft bun loaded with produce. We added Swiss cheese, sautéed fresh mushrooms and crisp bacon. Don't share this one.
BTW: Venita Rhea's was opened in 1998 by Randy and Lisa Peters and named after Randy's late aunt. They sold the store five years ago, though there is no information on the website saying that. If you didn't know better, you'd think the Peterses still operate it. These days, they run Randy Peters Catering in Citrus Heights.
As for the origin of that over-the-top cinnamon roll French toast – one of the most popular dishes – Lisa Peters recalled on the phone, "We were in the kitchen just playing around."
Save a bit, enjoy a lot
The Monterey-Carmel area is among some Sacramentans' favorite weekend getaways, but dining bills can add up. One alternative for lunch is a stop at the casual charcoal grill in front of Nielsen Bros. Market, a local legend since 1930.
There you'll find hot and fresh wurst (housemade franks, Polish, hot and mild Italian), baby back ribs, beef and chicken kebabs, and hefty sandwiches (New York and skirt steaks, pork chop, pork sirloin). Prices range from $3 to $7; the grill serves from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily.
"We get everything from our meat department inside the store, so it's all fresh," said co-owner Tigarn Amirkhanian, who, with wife Azniv, bought the market four years ago.
While you're there, look at the 10,000-bottle wine cellar.
The market is at San Carlos Street and Seventh Avenue, Carmel; (831) 624-6441, www.nielsenmarket.com.
Where: 4415 Granite Drive, Rocklin
Hours: 7 a.m.-3 p.m. daily
Food: Four stars
Ambience: Two 1/2 stars
How much: $-$$
Information: (916) 624-2697, www.venitarheas.com
Call The Bee's Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128.