Food & Drink

Empress: Sacramento restaurateur pivots from vegetables to meat

Empress leaders are, from left, executive chef Matt Masera, Mike Thiemann, general manager Ken Macias, chef de cuisine Joe Pruner and Lisa Thiemann.
Empress leaders are, from left, executive chef Matt Masera, Mike Thiemann, general manager Ken Macias, chef de cuisine Joe Pruner and Lisa Thiemann. rbenton@sacbee.com

The Crest Theatre marquee might as well read: “Coming Soon: Empress Tavern.” For beneath a stretch of K Street, in a cavernous space once occupied by moviegoers, a carnivore’s love story is set to unspool.

A giant rotisserie capable of roasting more than 60 chickens simultaneously is the star of the upcoming show at Empress Tavern, one of Sacramento’s most anticipated restaurant openings this year. The hope is that chef/co-owner Mike Thiemann and his crew will do for meat what they’ve done for vegetables. Their very popular (and meatless) restaurant Mother is located upstairs from Empress.

If all goes to plan – pending the completion of some interior brickwork and other factors – Empress Tavern will open in late May. The subterranean theater space has been stripped to the studs to make way for a meat-centric eatery. The movie screens that were previously the focal point of two basement-level theaters are long gone. Kitchen equipment, booths and a bar now occupy the space where there were once rows of seats.

“This is ultimately going to be the most meat-and-potatoes restaurant in Sacramento,” Thiemann said on a recent afternoon as he surveyed the dusty under-construction space. “The idea of having a rotisserie kind of locks you into an identity that I would hope –and I’m pretty sure I’m right – that’s craveable to a lot of people.”

While Sacramento has elevated its dining ambitions, this is still very much a town that craves stick-to-the-ribs foods. Thiemann learned about the city’s collective palate while serving as executive chef at Ella Dining Room & Bar, which is just down the block from Empress Tavern and Mother.

Thiemann, a Rancho Cordova native with ties to Sacramento’s indie-rock scene, conceived of Empress Tavern about two years ago. Its ownership team includes Thiemann’s wife, Lisa, a Sacramento restaurant industry veteran who serves as service director at Empress Tavern, and Crest Theatre owner Bob Emerick. The restaurant received a $2 million Small Business Administration loan to help fund its construction and opening.

Most of the Empress Tavern team has been secured, including general manager Ken Macias (no relation to this reporter), who left Austin’s restaurant scene to work in Sacramento. Thiemann recruited Macias, who had previous stints at the acclaimed Uchi + Uchiko, from a restaurant jobs site called Poached.

“I feel the same vibe in Sacramento as I did in Austin seven years ago,” Macias said. “You can tell something’s going on, and it’s going to get a lot bigger and more exciting.”

Thiemann’s plan is to create a string of restaurants with feminine names. Mother opened in 2014 and has emerged as a favorite of vegetarians and carnivores alike. Empress takes its moniker from the former name of the Crest Theatre, and there are two more projects in the works: Maiden Sacramento Ice Cream, and Queen’s Market, a fish shop similar to Hog’s Island Oyster Co.

With Empress Tavern, a kind of yin-yang dynamic unfolds with its sister restaurant. The food upstairs at Mother reflects fresh, earthly delights and vegetarian versions of comfort foods in a compact, brightly lit space. But Empress Tavern will be decidedly underground, a rathskellar filled with heat and meat, with private dining booths to accommodate power brokers and anyone else looking for some culinary seclusion.

30 Number of bottled beers on Empress’ preliminary list, with 12 beers on draft (four from local brewers)

Thiemann is taking inspiration from such temples of meat as Sam’s Hof Brau, the perennial Sacramento favorite. He’s also looking to old-school San Francisco dining destinations such as Tadich Grill and House of Prime Rib. The lighting at Empress Tavern will be low, and bricked arches will provide an anachronistic vibe.

“Imagine a punk rock kid from Rancho Cordova opening a Tadich Grill,” Thiemann said. “It would come off kind of like this. Everything that would seem to be a shortcoming will be an advantage. It’s hard to find. It’s underground. But it’s about discovery. Without any windows, we’ll have the opportunity to transport people to make them feel like they’re somewhere else. Time sort of suspends.”

In terms of size, if the 50-capacity Mother is like a small serving of greens, Empress Tavern is the whole hog on a spit. At 7,000-plus square feet, the final capacity is expected to be set at more than 200 patrons, which includes a private room that oversees the kitchen, counter seating and a large bar area.

Thiemann is used to working in such large environs. He was an opening chef at Wayfare Tavern, the high-volume San Francisco restaurant overseen by Tyler Florence that holds more than 175 diners.

“This is my element,” Thiemann said, showing off a kitchen that’s larger than Mother’s dining room. “Mother was a stretch for me to figure out, being in a small kitchen with very (few) people.”

To help lead the kitchen, Thiemann has tapped Matt Masera, a fellow Wayfare Tavern chef who later moved to Sacramento to help run Mother’s food program. Masera and Thiemann will continue to shape the menu at Mother, along with chef de cuisine Joe Pruner, formerly of Esquire Grill and Restaurant Thir13en.

Right now, the focus is on recipe testing and finalizing Empress Tavern’s menu.

A sneak peek of Empress Tavern’s food program shows a range of options. The bar snacks feature an adventuresome flair (think chicken-fried sweetbreads or grilled chicken hearts with chimichurri). Hefty plates of prime rib, French dip sandwiches, bone-in rib-eye and fried chicken are among the entrees. A section of the menu is dedicated to meats from the rotisserie, including chicken, spiced goat, lamb, turducken (a chicken in a duck in a turkey) and more.

“I truly believe that people have a predetermined idea about what they want to eat when they leave the door, not when they get the menu,” Thiemann said. “It’s like, let’s go out for pizza or let’s get a burger. You have these cravings. For me, I crave French dips. I crave rotisserie chicken.”

Len Peterson, formerly of Capital Dime and Las Vegas’ Comme Ca French Brasserie, serves as bar manager and is building a gin-focused cocktail program at Empress. Part of that includes cocktails for two or four people served from Chinese tea pots. The preliminary beer list includes 30 bottles plus 12 beers on draft, including four locals. Proceeds from one of those local taps will be donated to a rotating group of charities, starting with the Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services. Wines can be ordered in a variety of carafe sizes, along with select bottle offerings.

Just about all the pieces are in place for Empress Tavern’s opening, but as the norm with Sacramento restaurant openings, the unveiling is taking longer than expected. The initial timetable projected a grand opening for Dec. 31, 2014, with an accompanying concert at the Crest with !!!, the dance-punkers featuring some of Thiemann’s friends and colleagues from Sacramento’s music scene.

“It’s gone a lot longer (than expected), but I think I was just naive to the process of building something this large,” Thiemann said.

Thiemann says his post-Empress Tavern projects are at least a year away. He has a space eyeballed for Maiden Sacramento Ice Cream, and plans to use an ice cream cart in front of the Crest to taste-test the desserts, made primarily by Masera, during the summertime.

But for now, Thiemann and crew have their eyes trained on the roasted chickens coming off the Empress Tavern rotisserie. It’s just a matter of time, he says, that everyone else will get a glimpse and grab a table.

“This is high stakes for sure,” Thiemann said. “It’s my second restaurant in two years. But I’m good at making unique things happen.”

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