Great weather has arrived and it's time to party – or simply relax. The banks of the Sacramento River are a grand spot for that, specifically at the view-friendly restaurant-bars along a 15-mile stretch of Garden Highway.
Even though the Sacramento River is the largest in the state, flowing 400 miles from the Klamath Mountains to the San Francisco Bay, most of us don't partake. To commuters sitting in bridge traffic, it's something to be driven across on the way to and from work. To rafters, it's a stretch of icy water to float on while drinking beer.
But to the savvy, the river is a soothing respite from life's daily chaos. It's a water feature in perpetual motion that shares its own sense of calm and purpose with those who sit and simply watch. Of course, the calming effects of negative ions released into the air by moving water is a bonus.
We went on safari to six restaurant-bars along the Garden Highway, friendly oases guaranteed to enhance the river experience. They’re also guaranteed to be hopping on weekends from now until Labor Day.
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Three are clustered at the Riverbank Marina – Chevy’s Fresh Mex, Pearl and Crawdads. The Virgin Sturgeon is due north, and past it lie Swabbies and Alamar.
Crawdads, Virgin Sturgeon and Alamar are actual barges floating on the river and moored to pilings. Chevy’s and Pearl on the River are built on the riverbank overlooking the water. The slightly inland Swabbies has no direct river view, unless you take a short walk.
Each has a distinct summertime-weekend vibe (from raucous to calm), yet they share a certain amount of DNA. All serve fish tacos, for instance, and all have full bars and signature drinks. They are all boat-accessible, near docks where boaters can tie up during lunch or dinner. Some have breakfast/brunch. Most of all, they're casual.
Their diverse mix of clientele includes elbow-bending partiers, boaters rubbing sunburned shoulders with regulars, couples taking a break from the Midtown scene, large and small families, and out-of-towners. Their common goal is to kick back and have some fun.
As Virgin Sturgeon manager Robert Swenson says, "Out here, everybody's down to earth. You can have a millionaire on one side of you and a blue-collar worker on the other side, and you wouldn't know the difference."
Remember the golden rule: Before you go, give a call.
A word on the route: The narrow Garden Highway is one of Sacramento's most gorgeous drives. The river side is forested with cottonwoods, black walnut, willow, valley oak and sycamore trees. Much of the acreage on the other side of the rural levee road is part of the Natomas Basin Habitat, a 53,000-acre sanctuary for threatened species such as the Swainson's hawk and giant garter snake.
Chevy’s Fresh Mex
1369 Garden Highway
What’s new: Mexican-style burger with aioli on a pretzel bun. A fresh watermelon margarita joins the cocktails lineup for summer.
Best view: The shaded tri-level deck is the place to be.
Vibe: Yes, Chevy’s is a national chain, but this outlet offers a bright facsimile of the river spirit. The main dining room is staged to resemble a weathered dockside joint. Aged wood floors, wood accents, high ceilings, glowing neon signage, bright colors and a vast bar set the mood. Servers dash about, delivering frosty pitchers of margaritas.
Entertainment: Make your own, though KSFM-102.5 staged a live broadcast there on Cinco de Mayo and may return this summer.
Happy hour: 3-8 p.m. Mondays-Fridays
Signature dishes: A fajita plate of mesquite-grilled steak, chicken, carnitas and shrimp, set aflame at tableside. Top appetizer is flautas stuffed with crisp chicken, fire roasted peppers, grilled corn and jack cheese.
Signature drink: The margarita in seven styles.
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays, until 11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays.
Information: 916-649-0390, www.chevys.com.
1375 Garden Highway
What's new: A half-dozen dishes recently joined the menu, such as ahi nachos with ponzu and macadamia nuts, grilled cheese with crab claw meat, and a Creole burrito with cod, andouille sausage and crawdads.
Best view: You’ll sit mere feet over the water at the tables along the deck railing.
Vibe: The well-maintained floating restaurant-bar is classy with clean lines, comfy chairs and classy decorations. On the other hand, things can get boisterous on weekends.
Entertainment: Crawdads hosts country bands from 3-9 p.m. Saturdays.
Happy hour: Not quite, but there are bottomless mimosas at weekend brunch (10 a.m.-2 p.m.).
Signature dishes: Jambalaya, gumbo and "seafood simmer" (crustaceans and fish in Creole broth).
Signature drink: The frozen Mardi Gras mixes rum with mango and guava.
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. weekends. Bar is open until midnight.
Information: 916-929-2268, www.saccrawdads.com
Pearl On the River
1379 Garden Highway
What's new: Fish'n’ chips, but more important is the bounty of seasonal vegetables and fruits chef-owner Anthony Smith is anticipating for dishes such as petrale sole over rainbow chard.
Best view: Reserve the secluded table under the oak tree, on the deck on the far left, for a bird's eye view of the river and marina.
Vibe: The white-tablecloth seafood restaurant presents itself as a fine-dining destination, and the menu attests to that. The dining room, bar and deck are most conducive to conversation that requires no yelling to be heard. Its motto: "Escape from the city." An upstairs event space is for rent.
Entertainment: Your table mates.
Happy Hour: 4-6 p.m. Mondays-Fridays.
Signature dishes: Pan-seared scallops, housemade pasta and not just any old shrimp and grits; rather, polenta, shrimp, lemon scallions, garlic, white wine and chile flakes.
Signature drink: Vodka-based raspberry-pear lemondrop martini.
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, 4-9 p.m. Saturdays, closed Sundays.
Information: 916-567-3275, www.pearlontheriver.com
1577 Garden Highway
What's new: Look for specials.
Best view: From the little deck off the dining room, or at any table next to a window.
Vibe: "Historic" and "old school" are the key words, with rustic charm from the uneven dark-wood floor planks and vintage-looking chairs and tables, to the barge's slight leeward tilt. The original barge sank in 1978 (a split hull) and the second one burned to the water line in 1979. Sturgeon 3.0 opened in 1984. Part of the steep journey to the entrance is through an old Pan Am jetway from SFO.
Entertainment: A local band plays jazz and light pop once a month on the Pontoon Bar, moored alongside the restaurant barge.
Happy hour: "It's happy here all the time," said manager Robert Swensen. Do the locals ever give up their barstools?
Signature dishes: Cioppino on Tuesdays, prime rib on Thursdays, clam chowder on Fridays. Daily fresh-fish specials include sturgeon.
Signature drink: The Sturgeon Whisper mixes vodka, triple sec, cranberry juice and lime juice.
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, 9 a.m.-9 p.m. weekends. The bar is open until 1:30 a.m. daily.
Information: 916-921-2694, https://sacramento.downtowngrid.com/listings/virgin-sturgeon
5871 Garden Highway
What’s new: "We have something new every week," said owner Chris Barabino. Such as the corned-beef heavy breakfast taco.
Best view: Perched at a table on the bar veranda.
Vibe: The life-size pirate statuary, nautical bric-a-brac, weathered wood, corrugated tin and thatched huts give the beach-like compound a swashbuckling feel. Colorful umbrellas and 60-foot-tall trees shade tables where hundreds of revelers gather outdoors on summer weekends to groove to whatever band is on stage.
Entertainment: Swabbies is a concert venue on weekends, typically showcasing reggae, Southern rock and/or country bands that draw specific crowds. "But there are a lot of people who don’t care what band is playing, they just want to hear music," said Barabino.
Happy Hour: That would be redundant.
Signature dishes: The motto is appropriate: "Famous tacos, famous fun." The fish taco is the star of the 14-taco list, but look for weekday specials.
Signature drink: Go easy on Pirate Punch, a blend of spiced rum, coconut rum, orange and pineapple juices, with a float of Kraken black rum and a splash of grenadine.
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. weekdays, 9 a.m.-10 p.m. weekends.
Information: 916-920-8088, www.swabbie’s.com
5999 Garden Highway
What's new: Everything. Under new ownership, the restaurant has been renovated and the menu revamped. Weekend breakfast is also new (9 a.m.-2 p.m.).
Best view: Any table on the deck.
Vibe: The even-tempered Alamar fills with locals and boaters, and is more of a small marina that happens to serve food and drink. "It’s peaceful out here," said manager Brandon Jones. Knotty pine and granite dominate inside, along with blowups of vintage photos showing the river scene in bygone decades. The adventurous can rent pontoon boats. Check out the antique tugboat moored alongside, which pushed the barge upriver from San Francisco 40 years ago.
Happy Hour: Nope again.
Signature dishes: Shrimp tacos, chicken wings, clam chowder.
Signature drink: The Jackie Dee, named after that tugboat, is vodka, Go Girl energy drink, orange juice and Sprite.
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. weekends.
Information: 916-922-0200, www.alamarmarinarestaurant.com