Feel-good dining experiences

Given the time of year, I’m taking timeout from my standard review to tell you about two restaurants that not only serve good food but do good work that enriches our community.

Plates Cafe (as well as the new Plates2Go in midtown), an employment training program for formerly homeless mothers, and Casa Garden, the longstanding restaurant at the Sacramento Children’s Home, both do amazing work to raise money, build spirits and make a difference. If you’re looking for a feel-good dining experience – and a respite from some of the holiday bustle – I highly recommend you check both of them out soon.

First, let’s look at Plates Cafe and Plates2Go. The cafe, tucked away in a commercial complex called Depot Park that was once the Army Depot commissary, has a two-pronged dining experience: the eminently affordable weekday lunch program and the guest chef dinners held on the first Thursday of each month.

The latter has featured many of the best chefs in the our area, often with four courses and optional wine pairings. The dinners are typically $50 and $75 with pairings. When you visit the website, click the “participants” link and check out all who have helped this unique restaurant thrive, among them Bobbin and Patrick Mulvaney, whose Mulvaney’s B&L team helps train the women; same goes for Kurt Spataro and his crew at Cafe Bernardo.

The chef for December will be Noah Zonca, the former star at The Kitchen Restaurant and now a principal in Capital Dime, just a block up from Plates2Go. Zonca knows how to put on a show, and he knows how to cook, so this should be quite an event.

When I caught up with Susan Wagner, the business manager for Plates, she told me the cafe occasionally struggles at lunchtime, tucked away as it is with not a lot of drive-by traffic. Thus, I remind you that it’s there and that the $8 lunches are great deals. You’ll encounter women who are committed to making their lives better. They have a lot at stake. And they do really good work.

“I actually think I needed them more than they needed me,” Wagner said of the participants in the program, who train at the cafe with the idea of finding jobs in the restaurant/hospitality industry. “I had never known anyone who was homeless. How lucky I feel that I have the ability to share what I do with someone else. They are no different than I am. They have families, and they have feelings and dreams and drive. Everything that I have, they have, too.”

Plates2Go is a new and exciting offshoot of the cafe, and it has plenty of visibility and walk-by traffic. And they make it very easy. You can order there and take the food back to work (or to a bench in the park), or you can order online and pick up when it’s ready.

I can vouch for the Spicy Greek Vegetarian sandwich – you certainly won’t feel like you’re making some kind of charitable sacrifice when you taste the delicious marinated eggplant, roasted peppers and a hummus that has a spicy kick. They’re not skimping on sourcing, either. This is the good stuff. That arugula, for instance, comes from Del Rio Botanical, one of best boutique farms going.

Beyond the good food and the positive spirit you can’t help but embrace at Plates, there are the many success stories – women who once struggled, found their footing, got their lives together, learned skills, rediscovered pride and moved into the workforce. Plates is a tremendous idea. Its very existence distinguishes our city.

Casa Garden is one of my favorite spots for lunch, and I’ve praised the restaurant in this space in years past. It’s a great idea any time of the year. The dining has a quiet elegance to it, with large windows allowing unrestricted views of the nicely maintained gardens.

Casa Garden functions much differently than Plates. With the exception of the chef and four other paid positions, the restaurant is filled with volunteer servers – often retirees who were successes in their fields and now want to give back. They are very professional and clearly take pride in what they do. I have encountered excellent timing, engaging banter and detailed knowledge of the food when I have dined there.

The concept is a simple one: The money you leave as a tip is a gift to the Sacramento Children’s Home. Since 1974, this idea has raised about $3 million. Many of the children who have gone through the home after losing their parents in some fashion found security and a sense of purpose here. Former residents include a NASA scientist, doctors, lawyers and some licensed counselors.

The food is simple and direct, but it’s always done with precision and the flavors are always spot on. The menu changes regularly, but don’t expect a plethora of options. The menu is usually limited to three items. One of the signature dishes is the lemon chicken.

In 2014, Casa Garden will celebrate its 40th anniversary. Believe it or not, there are four original volunteer servers. Marlene Oehler, a volunteer who handles the restaurant’s public relations, says exciting changes are coming. The restaurant won a local marketing makeover competition and will receive a professional assessment about its concept, mission and how to build upon the successes. Part of that includes using social media and recruiting new and younger volunteers.

Casa Garden will be closed Dec. 24-Jan. 5, during which time it will be repainted and have new carpet installed. You can either drop by for a nice lunch or rent out the space for special occasions such as wedding receptions, meetings or office parties.

As Oehler told me, the best-selling feature is the experience itself. Once you try it and realize how good it feels, you’ll want to return time and again.

Plates Cafe and Catering: 14 Business Park Way, Sacramento; (916) 381-2233,

Plates 2Go: 1725 L St., Sacramento, (916) 426.3884,

Casa Garden: 2760 Sutterville Road, Sacramento; (916) 452-2809,