Chain restaurants certainly have their place, but I'm almost always going to side with locally owned joints.
They can be wonderful. They can be weird. They're a place to have a drink or two, a reliable meal at a fair price, to see all the familiar faces, like 'em or not, sidle up to the bar.
Hire the right people, serve the right food, ignore all the wrong fads and you just might come up with a place that is a little bit of awesome – like Vince's Ristorante in West Sacramento.
It opened in 1964. It's dark, a bit dingy, has paneling and carpet on the walls, feels like something out of the Bronx and could host a really cool "Mad Men"-themed mixer. If you leave thinking it's a tad campy or a tad cool, you might just become a regular.
Where else can you walk in on a Saturday night and find the owner's dad holding a microphone, crooning "My Way" and sounding every bit like a poor man's Frank Sinatra? That's a rhetorical question. Peter Rossi sings light opera. He sings Pavarotti and even this new kid, Andrea Bocelli. Sinatra is a mainstay. Requests? He takes a few.
Vince's is a restaurant that time forgot, where one waitress called me "hon," followed by "sweetheart," and another brought me a plate of spaghetti and meatballs ($12.95) and a side order of garlic bread covered with a slab of melted cheese that made me recall the days when we didn't have silly things like surgeon general's warnings and cholesterol tests.
The steaks are big and tender and tasty, and no one ever went broke eating a steak at Vince's. This isn't Morton's, the bloviating chain where they add everything to the price until you need to see how the Dow performed before the check arrives. The "extra thick sirloin" at Vince's is $21.95, and it comes with French bread, minestrone, a house salad and pasta, and I believe mine had a crisp onion ring on top of the beef.
We got the steak and special one night for $18.50, enjoyed every bite and couldn't finish half of it. They make their own ravioli and lasagna, and while neither is bound to make me forget about the lobster ravioli and the 10 layers of lasagna Bolognese at Biba on the other side of the river, I was content with everything that came out of the kitchen at Vince's. It's old-fashioned. It's straightforward. It ain't gourmet and doesn't pretend otherwise.
Sure, the meatballs could have been a little juicier and the spaghetti could have had a firmer bite, but exactitude is not what we were after. The three pizzas we had all were enjoyable, including a vegetarian offering, a sausage and mushroom and, especially, the plain cheese pizza, which allowed us to taste the slightly sweet and tangy tomato sauce. All cost less than $10, which is almost unheard of.
The bar is one of the great bars going. It has 20 beers and still hasn't managed to put them on a list. It makes all the good old-style cocktails – and not one comes with the word "artisanal," which may as well be French for overpriced. No bartender at Vince's will ever boast that he makes his own organic simple syrups.
If you show up often enough and sit at the bar long enough, you'll know everybody's name and the bartender might have you sign a birthday card for one of the waitresses. That happened on one of the nights we were there. And when that happens, you know the guy signing the card is in the right place – and we knew we were lucky to be passing through.
Spaghetti and meatballs is a favorite at Vince's because it's got flavor and heft, and nobody ever complained that they pile on too much meat sauce and that the meatballs are too darn big. This is what restaurants used to serve in 1964, before they enlisted focus groups and marketing companies, which churned out ridiculous ideas like "Bourbon Street chicken and shrimp" (Applebee's), "Southwestern eggrolls" (Chili's) and the 160.9-grams-o-fat "Bloomin' Onion" (Outback Steakhouse).
Those things aren't wonderful. They're just weird.
The singer's son is Robert Rossi, who started at Vince's as a busboy in the late '70s, got bitten by the restaurant bug, studied cooking at American River College, went away to learn about life and one day came back full of experience. That's when he and his dad bought Vince's, in 2009. It had been in Vince Frugoli's family since the beginning, and now the tradition carries on through another Italian American family that knows what doesn't need changing.
This is a place where the soup is always minestrone, except on Fridays, when it's minestrone and clam chowder. They're both good and they don't pretend to be amazing.
The steaks are big and tender and cooked how you want them. On the menu, you won't get to read about really uninteresting things – like where cows are from and that they got to eat grass on a hill with a view of Sonoma County. Pass the salt and pepper, and hand me the A-1 Sauce, which is kept on every table at Vince's. That in itself is pretty cool.
But why am I telling you this? Vince's is not for you, or you'd already know about it and you'd be reading this while sipping bourbon neat or washing down your steak with a dirty martini. Vince's is for the regulars, the ones who like things the way they like things.
So if you show up, don't ask whether they serve grass-fed beef and use organic this and sustainable that. Don't insist that waitresses be called "servers."
This is not what Vince's is about. It never set out to make the world a better place. And yet, the world is better with Vince's in it.