July 24, 2013

Bygone Sacramento restaurants stir fond memories

Mention dear departed restaurants in the greater Sacramento area, and a stream of memories flood our taste buds. Some menu items immediately spring to mind such as pineapple spareribs, asparagus and mushroom fettuccine, and Hangtown fry.

Coral Reef, Americo's, Posey's Cottage: Those familiar names represent dinnertime landmarks.

Mention dear departed restaurants in the greater Sacramento area, and a stream of memories flood our taste buds. Some menu items immediately spring to mind such as pineapple spareribs, asparagus and mushroom fettuccine, and Hangtown fry.

But mostly we remember the way that restaurant made us feel. It's more than ambiance. When a favorite restaurant closes, it's like losing a close friend.

"It's all about relationships," said Maryellen Burns, a Sacramento food historian. "We form relationships with restaurants because of the people; the hostess that knows you, the server that remembers your name. When that restaurant closes, it's like someone died."

And then, those former customers may think about the food and how they possibly could re-create that taste at home.

Spurring those mouthwatering memories for many locals is Burns' new book, "Lost Restaurants of Sacramento and Their Recipes (American Palate, 160 pages, $19.99). The book is available in such local stores as Time Tested Books in Sacramento and as an e-book online via Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Debuting last week, the paperback covers 170 years of Sacramento dining history with an eye for the region's all-time favorite restaurants and watering holes.

"Except for a few that closed before our time, these are all restaurants that we actually ate at," said co-author Keith Burns, Maryellen's brother and a longtime antiques collector and appraiser.

Historically, the range of Sacramento's dining options is impressive.

"From the beginning, Sacramento has been the most diverse city," Maryellen said. "During the Gold Rush, 25 percent (of the miners and newcomers) were foreign-born. They helped establish a unique blend of cuisines representing different ethnic groups."

That diversity is reflected in local restaurants of past and present. Owned by the same family for more than a century, Giusti's in Walnut Grove ranks as the region's oldest survivor. Opened in 1939, Frank Fat's in downtown Sacramento is another multigenerational success story.

But legions of others have come and gone, often with lengthy and delicious lives.

Why focus on restaurants? "Because they're all closing," Keith said. "Thirty restaurants have closed since we started this book (last year)."

Restaurants close for a number of reasons, but lack of customer devotion usually isn't the main cause, they said.

"No. 1: They don't own the building," Keith said. "They lost their lease and can't find another space."

"No. 2: The kids say, 'It's too hard of work,' " Maryellen added. "You need multiple generations to carry on that business. Very few restaurants suddenly close because the food turned bad."

The Burns family moved to Sacramento in 1953, Keith noted, and started eating out upon arrival. Through collecting memorabilia along with memories, the siblings have unofficially cataloged 60 years of restaurant evolution. Their vast collection of menus, give-away dishes and other leftovers from bygone eateries inspired them to collaborate on this book.

"At some point in this project, I realized I ate out a lot more often than Keith," Maryellen said with a laugh. "Since I'm a girl, I went out on more dates."

In their research, they also found some interesting facts about our relationship with restaurants.

"Out of the top 20 reasons people eat in a restaurant, taste ranks as No. 20," Maryellen said. "Usually, the top reason is price, followed by personal relationships (with that restaurant) and location."

Some things became immediately apparent, Maryellen said. "Farm to fork is nothing new in Sacramento.

"One of our goals was to trace trends," she added. "All the early restaurants sourced their food from local sellers. It wasn't until the 1950s that we saw the rise of processed foods and franchises."

When interviewing longtime Sacramentans about their favorites, three restaurants stood out.

"People's absolute favorites: Coral Reef, Rosemount Grill and Posey's Cottage," Maryellen said. "They could name the restaurants immediately but – besides pineapple spareribs or Hangtown fry – they had trouble remembering the menus."

Closed in 1994, Coral Reef was a tiki-full landmark on Fulton Avenue. Filled with Polynesian mementos, the popular restaurant was renowned for its spareribs and mai tais. For more than 40 years, diners packed its seven large rooms.

Rosemount Grill, which cooked its last meal in 1989, served "fine food to fine people" for more than 70 years, mostly at its Folsom Boulevard location.

Famous for its Hangtown fry, Posey's Cottage at 11th and O streets was home to the nearby Capitol's lobbyists and legislators for decades before it closed in the early 1990s.

Each author has her or his favorites. With great affection, Maryellen personally recalls Americo's famous fettuccine with asparagus and mushrooms.

"Everything at Americo's was delicious," she said. "They didn't have one recipe that wasn't fantastic."

Keith fondly reflects on many great burgers, hot dogs and perfect french fries.

"Today's overloaded burgers taste more like meatloaf," he said.

The years have not diminished the cravings for some of these favorites. That's where the recipes come in.

But even with all the same ingredients, the taste may not be the same as we remember, Keith noted.

"You can't replace the place where you ate it the first time."

Call The Bee's Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.

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