Down, dazed and more than a little lost in the 21st century, Trails Restaurant has a rich history, lots of charm, oodles of good will, a certain mystique and, these days, plenty of issues.
With its dated aluminum awnings, the fading and peeling paint, cowboy wallpaper, velvet paintings and those Formica tables, it’s in serious need of an update – a freshening, a brightening, a rethinking, a paring down – without abdicating its quirky, if not lovable, sensibility.
Best appreciated these days for its beautiful neon sign out front, Trails is a local landmark, a high-profile curiosity and, more and more, a source of bewilderment. If you’re anything like us, you drive by the aging eatery on 21st Street near Broadway, glance into the window to see the empty dining room and think to yourself, “What gives?”
Trails is not a good restaurant, but neither is it a terrible one. It’s a place stuck in purgatory, anchored unceremoniously in a Sacramento food scene that no longer really exists.
It opened with plenty of fanfare and glamour in 1952 when it was owned by the great movie and swimming star Esther Williams and her husband, Ben Gage. Back then, it was known for its rather amazing $3 steak dinners. There were lines out the door. The star couple had visions of creating a chain of these places (there was another on Fulton Avenue and the original in Los Angeles), but they stayed in it for only a handful of years before divorcing and selling in the late 1950s.
The place experienced some steady middle years, as nearby Broadway began to change and fray. By the time current and third owner, Gin Wong, bought the place in 1979, the steaks were no longer considered some of the best in Sacramento, and the buzz about the place had long ago run dry. More time passed, the crowds grew thinner, but Trails kept doing what it always did, offering straightforward meat-and-potatoes fare with few if any creative flourishes.
So why even bother talking about Trails? Because many folks have a soft spot for this city’s legacy eateries and hope to see them remain relevant as Sacramento grows up and prospers in this new farm-to-fork era. Just look at the reaction when upscale The Broiler and the very funky but endearing Market Club closed – we lost a little bit of what defines us as a city and a special link to our many food-centric memories.
Question is, does Trails’ current owner have the willingness and the energy to embrace change? When I called to find out, asking to speak with the owner, I got, “We don’t want any advertising” and then a hang-up before I could even identify myself. That may not be the right customer-friendly mindset for growing the business.
Still, this is a conversation worth having. So here’s a critique of what we encountered during our visits and some ideas for climbing out of malaise and into modernity.
Let’s start with the food. With the exception of a hamburger that clearly had been reheated and contained nary a hint of juiciness, most of our dishes were eminently edible but hardly memorable.
The menu is dated and lacks a coherent vision, a lineup of bare-bones steaks, chops, ribs, chicken and sandwiches (prices range in the mid teens for many meat dishes and around $5-$8 for sandwiches). There are combinations that scream 1980s, like ribs and prawns or shish kebab and ribs or shish kebab and chicken. The salads, all iceberg lettuce and faded-red, flavorless tomatoes, make clear that Trails has yet to sign on with the farm-to-fork movement.
But you don’t have to be a farm-to-fork proselytizer like Patrick Mulvaney and Randall Selland or a creative wunderkind like Billy Zoellin (of Bacon & Butter) to take advantage of what our area has to offer. That’s what we’ve seen on the lower end of Broadway, in a ramshackle building that’s almost as fly-in-the-amber as Trails. There, Jamie Bunnell of Jamie’s Broadway Grille does meat and potatoes, but has also been shopping for produce at the farmers market for years and cooks his meat and fish with great skill and precision. His place is packed for lunch and dinner.
The disconnect is all too obvious at Trails. The vegetables that came with our steak? Our skewers of desiccated chicken? Our decent roast chicken? There weren’t any. We got a sad baked potato or some competent French fries. When we asked about vegetables, our server plunked down our side salads and said, “You’re looking’ at ’em.”
The ribs were passable – tender and meaty but dry enough that we lost our impetus to finish them.
The burger, we decided, was not even worth eating. The new Sacramento is an amazing burger town, home of the gourmet trophy burger that foodies eagerly pay $12 or more for the privilege of eating. To compete, Trails needs to use quality ground beef, solid cooking technique and fresh add-ons. The steaks, too, are straightforward and lackluster. Take them up a notch, fill out the plate with eye-catching vegetables and suddenly you have a dish that might attract crowds and generate some word-of-mouth.
The restaurant’s three main employees – the likable Wong, who is clearly set in his ways; the gruff but lovable, longtime server right out of central casting; and the low-key chef – seem like a loving but dysfunctional family. They make no secret of the fact they’ve been together for decades, as the dining tastes of the town have changed around them, only to look up one day and realize that the formula no longer works the way that it once did.
One night during dinner, when we arrived at 7 p.m. and departed at close to 9 p.m., no other human being entered the premises. It was us, the owner and the server, who went home halfway through our dinner.
Beyond the menu, it’s easy to see why so few darken the door.
The beer list is stuck in 1979. I had a Heineken only because my other choices were Bud and Coors Light. As we sat in the empty, all-but-silent restaurant, we imagined how cool it would be to have a happy hour in here where people in their 20s, 30s and 40s embraced the place. There could be energy, excitement, a certain kitschiness to the whole thing. How could that happen?
Trails could start by realizing that we’re growing into a serious beer town. Relegate the Bud and Coors Light to the bottom of the list and start serving some well-made and very tasty local craft beer – Track 7, Rubicon, New Helvetia, Ruhstaller, Hoppy, Berryessa. There’s plenty of good stuff from which to choose.
When I asked about this, our server frowned and told us the owner doesn’t drink. Well, we do. And we’re willing to come and drink and eat, but only if you keep up with what people like.
When I asked about the wine, same thing. There were three options and they come in a box. OK, maybe this will never be a trendy wine bar, but Napa Valley is nearby and it’s not hard to find high-quality juice one could serve at reasonable prices.
Charming as it may be, Trails lost its way by refusing to set foot in the new and much more dynamic Sacramento, where we expect better food and know where to find it. There once was a time, many years ago, where Western-themed restaurants were all the rage in Sacramento, probably because Westerns were all the rage in movies and on TV. Folks even got dressed up in Western garb when they went out to eat here.
That Sacramento, cute as a button, no longer exists.
If Trails is going to move forward instead of merely hold on, it has to find a way to be relevant again while staking a claim to the kind of appeal that amounts to more than mere nostalgia. Is it worth saving? For sure. Does it matter to many of us who love this town? Of course. Is Trails capable or even interested in doing what it takes? We’ll see.