Food & Drink

Feast Q&A: Belly up to the real Sacramento bar scene

Downtown Sacramento has a lively bar scene, but historian James Scott wants us to know today’s scene is near-beer compared to that of Gold Rush-era Sacramento, when 200-plus saloons crowded the nexus of what is now Old Sacramento and its environs.

Scott is a reference librarian at the Sacramento Central Library’s Sacramento Room. His new book, “Sacramento Gold Rush Saloons: El Dorado in a Shot Glass,” takes us through the swinging doors of history and bellies up to the bawdy bars of yesteryear (History Press, $19.99, 156 pages). Proceeds from sales benefit the Sacramento Public Library.

How do today’s saloons stack up?

Much more was expected of your saloon back in the day, and anybody who felt like they could mine the miners would set up and let it fly. They (offered) the big three – drink, gaming and entertainment. Lola Montez came to the Orleans House and performed (her famous) Spider Dance. But they also operated as hotels and restaurants, as polling stations and political hot houses, and (offered) many eccentric entertainments. The Orleans House had a pool stocked with fish, so you could actually fish while you wet your whistle. There was a shooting gallery in Jack’s. You could even bowl.

You write that the saloon scene was rowdy, with an abundance of larger-than-life characters.

Maria Rupp was a German immigrant and beloved supernova in the German community, which treated her like a goddess. She was beautiful, talented and had a tremendous personality. She operated the Sacramento Beer Saloon.

Being beautiful and such a central figure, she had to say “no” to more than one man. One of them was (fellow German) Peter Metz. One night, as Maria was playing the piano and singing at her saloon, Metz snapped, pulled out a big knife and stabbed her to death. It devastated the German community. I can think of no less than three suicides that had some connection. She was buried in the Old City Cemetery and her tombstone is still there.

What were the drinks of choice?

Wine was still pretty new, but you could get claret and muscat. Beer was huge. Mixed drinks started to take off. The most famous was the Sazerac (from New Orleans). It was supposed to be made with absinthe and cognac, but rye whiskey was easier to get than cognac.

Back to the beer ...

Sacramento was a town of artisanal beer, as it is today. Same beer, different bottles. The local beer really took off when the Germans started making lager. As soon as the Sacramento, Phoenix and Tiger breweries got going, Sacramento could lean back and feel pretty good about its beer.

Were there free lunches?

They were very much a factor in flavoring the saloon (scene). A lot of “saloonists” realized they had to entice people in to buy their stuff, and so developed massive spreads of cold cuts, sausages, oysters and such. Now we get peanuts.

Gaming was part of it?

Gold Rush-era Californians were obsessed with gaming. The big games were the ones controlled by the house, called “banking games.” (They were) monte, faro and roulette, very much tied to the rock-star gamblers of the day. Poker was popular because it was easy to play.

What about now?

I’m excited about the groundswell in artisan and craft brewing, so you might see me split time between (the brewing companies) Rubicon and Track 7. They make great products and have that California feel – social, but laid back.