One of Sacramento’s most anticipated restaurants lies below the sidewalk near 10th and K streets. I’m standing in the space that’s scheduled to debut in January as Empress Tavern, the sister eatery of the much acclaimed Mother, which is positioned just upstairs from the future Empress Tavern. The menu at Empress Tavern will be the antithesis of the all-vegetarian Mother, with an emphasis on hearty, carved meats in a subterranean space.
Once opened, Empress Tavern is designed to seat more than 180 diners, with a full liquor license and the possibility of taking food and drink into the adjacent Crest Theatre. But right now, Empress Tavern is in full-blown construction mode, a dusty space where visitors need to watch their step for spikes in the floor. The Crest’s two basement level theaters, which were closed in 2012, are currently being gutted to make way for Empress. The restaurant takes its moniker from The Crest’s original name, which opened in 1912 as the Empress Theatre.
The Crest’s main theater upstairs will remain, with movies programmed by Joel Goulet. Sacramento indie-rockers may know Goulet from The Four Eyes, though he also serves currently as manager of the Balboa Theatre in San Francisco’s Outer Richmond district.
Mike Thiemann, co-owner of Mother and Empress, insists that Empress will be open by January. A large, cherry red rotisserie will serve as the heart of the restaurant, and can roast up to 50 chickens at once.
“(The menu’s) going to be lots of sliced meats and French dips and a lot of hearty foods, almost like an English carvery,” said Thiemann. “We’ll be able to go up and down with the level of services. If you really want to spend high end, we’ll have that. And if you want to hold the turkey leg and have a good time, you can have that. We’re making it pretty accessible for everybody.”
Thiemann also plans to focus on “indigenous” Sacramento foods, whether it’s sourcing fish coming through the annual salmon run, or serving oysters as a nod to Placerville, the birthplace of the “Hangtown Fry.”
The architecture includes plans for arched brick ceilings to complete the rustic, underground vibe. The decor of Empress Tavern will include some private booths, to cater to the power lunches and wheeling and dealing that’s a fixture of restaurants near the State Capitol. But Thiemann says he wants to bring the service, especially related to wine, back down to earth with more casual attire for the servers.
“I want to take away the suit,” said Thiemann. “I don’t want to have to buy wine from a business person. And I think that’s what’s killing wine right now. It’s so stuffy.”
Thiemann and his business partners, including Crest building owner Robert Emerick, are mulling ideas to integrate Empress’ food with the Crest’s movie programming and other events. But Thiemann says the focus of Empress will be squarely on its food.
“I have a pretty simple palate, so it’s about, ‘What do I crave?’” said Thiemann. “That’s roast meats, rotisserie chicken, prime rib. It’s a subterranean carvery connected to a 900-seat vintage theater.”