Frank Fat’s, a California political institution, turns 80. The party was just like old times

For one night, at least, it was just like old times inside Frank Fat’s.

There was ex-Gov. Jerry Brown digging into gyoza with his wife, Anne Gust Brown. “Where’s my drink?” called out longtime Assembly speaker and onetime San Francisco mayor Willie Brown. John Burton, the legendarily explicit former California Democratic Party chair, told stories of a now-dead legislator who brought a date to the Chinese restaurant, knowing he could charge the meal to a “pigeon” — a lobbyist.

Though Frank Fat’s still hosts scores of state employees and Capitol visitors each day, its status as the go-to place for legislators’ backroom deals and napkin-scribbled agreements is mostly a memory. Lobbying reform, an improved dining scene and stricter laws around alcohol changed Capitol culture over the years.

But the landmark downtown Sacramento restaurant’s 80th anniversary party Wednesday evening flashed glimpses of the 1980s and before, when lobbyists, journalists and political leaders on both sides of the aisle all ate and drank.

It was an important element in all of what we did,” Willie Brown said. “It was the one place where there was no such thing as a Democrat or a Republican, there was no such thing as a senator or an assemblyman. We were all literally equal in this establishment in every way.”

Born outside of Canton in 1904, Dong Sai-Fat used falsified immigration papers to circumvent the Chinese Exclusion Act and sail to San Francisco in 1919, where he adopted the name “Frank.” He worked service jobs for 20 years and was waiting tables at a Sacramento restaurant called Hong King Lum when a state official came in to play keno one day.

As the story goes, the man’s 50-cent keno ticket won $900, but he left before collecting his prize. When the official came back to find Frank Fat had safeguarded the winning ticket instead of pocketing it, he offered Fat a business loan to open his own restaurant, which served its first customer in a derelict old speakeasy on Aug. 14, 1939.

Frank Fat’s slowly emerged as a Capitol favorite not only for its food but for the wait staff’s deferential service and the sense of privacy that existed through the restaurant’s back lounge. Every sitting California governor has eaten in “the third house of the Legislature” since it opened, with future Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren a particularly loyal customer throughout the 1940s and early 50s.

Jerry Brown would frequently come eat traditional Chinese dishes with the cooks in Frank Fat’s kitchen during his first term as governor, he said. Now pseudo-retired to his Colusa County ranch, Brown still visits Frank Fat’s whenever he’s in Sacramento, he said.

The best-known story about Frank Fat’s, though, centers around Willie Brown and former state treasurer Bill Lockyer. After Brown got lobbyists for trial lawyers, insurers, doctors and the tobacco industry to reach a deal on a liability bill, they headed to a private room upstairs for a toast or three.

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Lockyer, then the Senate judiciary committee chair, joined in and suggested everyone sign a document saying they wouldn’t fight the agreement for at least five years. The autographs were scribbled not on paper but on a Frank Fat’s linen napkin, a copy of which still hangs in the restaurant today.

The Fats’ influence grew outside of 806 L St. as well: the family owned or ran restaurants at Sacramento State, Thunder Valley Casino Resort, Cache Creek Casino Resort, Downtown Plaza and even San Diego. Fat Family Restaurant Group’s other properties now include Fat City Bar & Cafe in Old Sacramento and Fat’s Asia Bistro & Dim Sum Bar in Roseville and Folsom, as well as a catering hub.

But the first restaurant remains the flagship, with the recent accolades to remind customers of its place in Sacramento’s evolving dining scene. Frank Fat’s was one of three local restaurants to earn Michelin’s Bib Gourmand designation in May, joining Mother and Canon, and received a James Beard Foundation America’s Classics Award in 2013.

“It’s here, it’s been here and it’s going to stay here because it’s an institution,” Burton said. “The food’s good, the food’s consistent and if you (found) a good lobbyist, the price (was) right.”

The oldest restaurant in Sacramento still owned by its founding family owes much of its longevity to Lina Fat, Frank’s Hong Kong-born daughter-in-law who transitioned the menu from chop suey to American classics to semi-traditional Chinese dishes as the executive chef.

Running a profitable restaurant in downtown Sacramento is no easy task; running a “classic,” in some respects, is doubly tough. Frank Fat’s, like most other industry veterans, has struggled at times to find the balance between preserving its regulars’ favorites and competing in the contemporary food scene.

The patriarch’s son and restaurant CEO Jerry Fat has talked about declining revenue stemming from increased downtown competition in interviews with The Sacramento Bee as far back as 2004, and customers’ increased appetite for healthy options have also proved to be an obstacle. Despite moderate efforts to lighten Frank Fat’s menu — no more lard in the banana cream pie crust! — signature dishes such as the New York steak, honey walnut prawns and yu kwok (fried dumplings filled with ground beef and pork) are inherently indulgent.

The family considered selling the restaurant, Jerry Fat told The Bee in 2014, before Lina’s son and COO Kevin Fat agreed to take over upon Jerry’s eventual retirement. But holding out appears to have paid off: revenue is up 10 to 20 percent since Golden 1 Center opened, Jerry said.

“We’ve had our ups and downs, just as downtown Sacramento has had its ups and downs,” Jerry said. “Our clientele has changed to be less political ... and become more of the wider community that comes to downtown Sacramento.”

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Benjy Egel covers local restaurants and bars for The Sacramento Bee as well as general breaking news and investigative projects. A Sacramento native, he previously covered business for the Amarillo Globe-News in Texas.