It’s true that you can’t go home again, but it is possible to drop by for a visit.
That notion applies to the newly reopened Buggy Whip restaurant, a Big Food-Big Drink destination decades before Sutter Street Steakhouse, Morton’s and Ruth’s Chris were even off the ground. Is there a Sacramentan over age 60 who doesn’t have a story to share about the Buggy Whip?
With Buggy Whip 2.0 comes the question on the minds of thousands of diners who have history there: Is the food the same? The answer: No, how could it possibly be? Judging from the many Buggy Whip veterans I’ve talked with over the past couple of weeks and a review I did in 2004, it’s better.
Aaron LeSieur debuted the restaurant in 1959, and it soon shared the cachet of other destination-dining spots around town, including the Coral Reef, the Ram, the Oaks and Bidell’s. Banquet business boomed. “We went there regularly in the 1960s,” said retired accountant Diane Foster. “We dressed to the nines. There were candles on the tables and limos out front.”
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Changes came to the Buggy Whip as the decades rolled by. Small businesses moved out of the neighborhood, eroding the client base, and more-hip restaurants opened, serving lighter fare. The restaurant became less formal, and the bar became a focal point. A community of power brokers became regulars, boisterous men accustomed to knocking back gin martinis and double scotches as part of long lunches of meat ’n’ potatoes. Meanwhile, the competition was inching away from the hard stuff and more toward California wines and imported beer.
All along, though, the Buggy Whip clientele remained faithful to their memories and loyal to the increasingly retro menu of prime rib, teriyaki beef brochettes, breaded veal cutlet, garlic steak sandwich, teriyaki chicken with mushroom sauce, Swiss steak, Cobb salad and garlic cheese bread. Thousand Island dressing was a staple.
Current co-owner/general manager Larry LeSieur practically grew up in his dad’s restaurant, first working as a busboy, then a dishwasher, then a cook. “I went away to school and then came back here,” he said. “This is all I’ve ever done.”
LeSieur took over from his father 40 years ago. Things went along as usual until hassles with the IRS and various creditors, and labor union issues, led to a voluntary bankruptcy reorganization. The restaurant closed in May 2012, matters were settled, and it reopened this October to the delight of generations of diners who dearly missed it.
LeSieur now has a business partner and co-owner in Steven Segal, who “takes care of the books,” LeSieur said. The restaurant comes “refreshed” with a cool-looking epoxy floor, re-topped wood bar, drop ceiling, new paint, artwork and upgraded kitchen, but the classic red-brick entranceway and awning remain. There’s a new chef, too – Luis Gomez, formerly of Crawdad’s and Rio City Cafe.
“I didn’t want to change much,” LeSieur said. “I wanted to make sure it felt like the same place.” The main dining room is airy and open, with walls of mirrors and bright chandeliers.
Recently I was joined there by two lunch pals, arts maven Mary Wesley and businesswoman Sally Valine, who between them frequented the restaurant in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s and then occasionally until it closed.
“The quality was consistent, and everybody was friendly,” Sally remembered of the Buggy Whip. “People at the next tables would just start talking to you, and the bartenders would roll dice with you for drinks. We had lunch here last week and expected it to be the same. It’s different, but very good.”
“You could always depend on a good meal and good service,” said Mary. “The (rooms) look the same now, though the menu has been tweaked.”
The lunch menu still offers an iceberg lettuce wedge and shrimp cocktail, but also shows king salmon and crab quesadilla ($5 to $17; dinner is $5 to $45). We sampled sweet French onion soup (more cheese, please), fried calamari (light and tasty) and excellent crispy-moist crab cakes, made with blue crab and served with lemon aioli and a side of delicious Asian coleslaw sparked with three kinds of barley.
The open-face “famous steak sandwich” was a perfectly cooked and tender cut of Angus sirloin on grilled brioche with creamy mashed potatoes and a medley of al dente broccoli, carrots and green beans. Not delivering as much heft (but more flavor) was the overcooked rib-eye steak sandwich, with exceptional (though frozen) fries and those same veggies.
Missing was one all-time favorite, the prime rib sandwich. “It was magnificent,” one lunch pal recalled.
“I did away with some of the dishes, like the French dip and the garlic steak sandwich, which was a filet (which goes for $15 a pound wholesale),” LeSieur said. “But I’m not opposed to doing any (of the old dishes). If people ask for them, they will get them. I just want (the kitchen) to (establish) the menu we have. Once we get that going, then I’ll make the changes.”
Note that three of the Buggy Whip’s longtime signature dishes are still on the dinner menu: steak dinner for two, prime rib and filet mignon.
Moving on, we loved the heat in the world-class jambalaya, a mix of prawns, salmon, white fish (sea bass alternates with halibut), chicken, andouille sausage, onion and peppers in tomato broth, ladled over rice. “This is my version of jambalaya, not the traditional Louisiana one,” chef Gomez said. It was the “wow!” dish on the table.
We ended lunch with a trio of house-made sweets from the eight-item dessert menu ($7 each). As good as the peach-blueberry cobbler and banana crème brûlée were, the winner was the mango-raisin-studded bread pudding with bourbon sauce and drizzled caramel.
Lastly, I asked a number of former regulars two questions: What happens when iconic restaurants with long histories go away and come back with inevitable changes? What if that doesn’t match expectations that longtime customers have over recapturing the past?
The consensus reply seemed to sum it up: “Things change, and they need to get over it.”
Call The Bee’s Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128. Follow him on Twitter @apierleonisacbe.
2737 Fulton Ave., Sacramento
Hours: Lunch is 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; dinner is 5-9 p.m. Mondays-Tuesdays, till 10 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays. Happy hour is 3-6 p.m. Mondays-Fridays. Brunch is 9 a.m.-3 p.m. weekends. Banquet facilities available.
How much: $-$$
Information: (916) 900-8644, www.buggywhipsac.com