Food & Drink

Happy-hour secrets: How to eat, drink for cheap at pricey Sacramento restaurants

In Old Sacramento, Firehouse drink specials include well martinis for $6 during happy hour.
In Old Sacramento, Firehouse drink specials include well martinis for $6 during happy hour. jvillegas@sacbee.com

Developing a sophisticated palate requires two things – an adventurous spirit and stacks of cash.

This roundup of high-end happy hours goes out to those people who possess the former but not the latter. Epicurious individuals who’ve toured every greasy spoon and food truck in town seeking discoveries but can’t afford $35 entrees in restaurants that employ well-traveled, professional chefs who use upscale ingredients and therefore represent surer bets.

An inexpensive window into these pricey places opens up at around 3 every weekday afternoon. During happy hour, lovers of fine food and drink can sample tasty goods while soaking up lovely surroundings and receiving top-rate service without having to pay full freight.

We chose the 11 happy hours below because they meet our price standard by offering enough food and drink to satisfy one person for $25 or less.

Biba Ristorante Italiano

2801 Capitol Ave., Sacramento, 916-455-2422, biba-restaurant.com

Be happy: 5-7 p.m. Monday-Friday

Vibe: The bar area of Sacramento’s best Italian restaurant feels intimate and understated (apart from the large painting of chef Biba Caggiano). When we first visited on a Friday, things seemed a bit too cozy. Though we arrived at 5 on the dot, almost every seat in the bar was taken by what appeared to be regulars – middle-aged people partial to floral prints who looked at ease in this space and just in general.

But just when I started to feel like I was in a place where everyone knew all the names but mine, the bartender spotted me and found me a seat I’d overlooked. Things went wonderfully for the rest of happy hour.

Deals: Biba offers four specialty cocktails for $7, six wines in the $6-$7 range and small plates from $6-$8.

What to order: The $7 cocktails, which include a Maker’s Mark Manhattan and lemon drop, are not particularly of the moment. But they’re beautifully made. The Manhattan is deep yet crisp, with a slight sweetness courtesy of brandied cherries.

The squid in the calamari fritti ($8) was tender, and the Calabrian chili marinara accompanying it put more flavors into play than one usually gets with happy-hour calamari. The deviled eggs with poached tuna and smoked salmon ($8) are not overstuffed yet so packed with flavorful protein they bring the heft, anyway.

C.M.

Buckhorn Steakhouse

2 Main St., Winters, 530-795-4503, buckhornsteakhouse.com

Be happy: 4-7 p.m. Monday-Friday (bar and patio only)

Vibe: The centerpiece of the Buckhorn empire (Putah Creek Café, Buckhorn Grills, etc.) and of tiny Winters’ thriving dining scene sits in a former hotel that was built in 1889 and offers an aesthetic of Old West and antler chic. What isn’t covered in wood is covered in taxidermied animal heads. Yet design flows, and the place feels like the going concern it is rather than one of those tourist-attraction relics common to Northern California old towns.

The happy-hour crowd the Friday we visited included both kinds of bikers and many sets of staring, soulful eyes – but I’ll save my misgivings about eating meat under stuffed animal heads for my journal.

The deals: The Buckhorn offers some of the best bargains we encountered on our happy-hour tour. Draft beers are $4 and substantial happy-hour dishes $7, making it possible for two people to emerge satisfied for $25 or less. Each could order a beer and then share the nachos, which are topped with an ample serving of Buckhorn’s famous fruitwood-smoked tri-tip.

What to order: The nachos go great with an IPA from nearby Berryessa Brewing Co. More nuanced were the tender, meaty lamb chops. The plate comes with two 4-ounce chops and a mint jelly with fresh, chopped mint. The fire-roasted artichoke, which arrives with an acutely herbaceous tarragon aioli, is perfect for that vegetarian who has somehow ended up at the Buckhorn.

C.M.

Ella Dining Room & Bar

1131 K St., Sacramento, 916-443-3772, elladiningroomandbar.com

Be happy: 3-6 p.m. Monday-Friday

Vibe: Every afternoon, the bar and patio area of this airy K Street restaurant buzzes with activity, and with the chatter of well-dressed people, most ranging in age from late 20s to mid-40s, who appeared to have taken their meetings off-site from the Capitol.

Ella inspired this roundup. I tried roasted bone marrow and house-made tonic for the first time during a happy-hour visit here several years ago, before ever officially dining here. That experience stuck as an an example of everything a happy hour could be – mind-opening, elegant, economical.

Deals: There’s no bone marrow available now, but plenty of small-dish delights, running $5.50-$22.50. Specialty drinks run $6.50-$8.50.

What to order: Ella’s “real gin and tonic” ($6.50), made with house-made rainforest quinine tonic, sparkling water and fresh citrus juices, looks cloudy but tastes refreshing. We also liked the steak tartare ($6.50), which comes with snappy French mustard dressing and luscious garlic popovers.

C.M.

Empress Tavern

1013 K St. (lower level), Sacramento, 916-662-7694, empresstavern.com

Be happy: 4-6 p.m. Monday-Friday

Vibe: This 7-month-old, brick-lined and artfully lit subterranean carvery draws the Capitol suits like Ella does. But its happy-hour crowd runs a bit younger and includes more pairs and groups of women.

The deal: Executive chef and co-owner Michael Thiemann’s homey yet masterfully crafted “snacks” are $5 here, just as they are on the dinner menu. But the $7 craft cocktails are $4 less than their counterparts on the dinner menu.

What to order: The Fanny Bay oysters ($15 for six), out of British Columbia, are fat and appealingly briny, evoking the sea with every bite. They come with a mignonette as well as a less-fancy cocktail sauce and saltine crackers. Saltines’ trailer-park cousin, pimiento cheese, appears in a sharply flavored, texturally daring dip. Pistachio and beet “soil” atop the cheese lends a suggestion of crunch confirmed by the crisp celery and carrots planted in the pimiento.

The “Bobby Burns” cocktail, anchored by scotch before taking flight with fragrant Benedictine, made us want to break into verse.

C.M.

Firehouse

1112 Second St., Old Sacramento, 916-442-4772, firehouseoldsac.com

Be happy: 3-6 p.m. Monday-Friday

Vibe: The bar-area atmosphere is clubby, with mahogany, granite and vintage brick dominating a high-ceiling space ideally lit by pendant-style “chandeliers.” It’s a space both inviting and serious. A firepole and other fire department memorabilia remind guests that the structure originally housed Engine Company No. 3 in the mid-1800s. Happy-hour seating at the bar and two small foyers is occupied by tourist couples, Capitol professionals and, once a week, the spillover from Wine Tasting Tuesdays (5:30-6:30 p.m.).

Deals: Emerging from the four-star kitchen are eight impeccably presented small plates ($5-$12), all exclusive to the happy-hour menu except for the bargain-priced Fanny Bay oysters ($12), regularly $18 for the half-dozen. Three wines (chardonnay, pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon) are $6 a glass, with four draft beers at $3, well drinks at $4 and well martinis for $6. Usually, the wine, beer and cocktails range from $7.50-$13.

What to order: The star is the platter of firm, sweet, bracingly cold oysters on their half shells, sparked with champagne mignonette and Tabasco sauce. Silken, paper-thin shaves of smoked tenderloin are the base for the carpaccio, topped with small shaves of Parmigiano-Reggiano, bits of red onion and a scattering of capers, all touched with white truffle oil. Chunks of grilled salmon (or other catches of the day) join vinegary mango-avocado-cucumber slaw and cilantro aioli in double-wrapped corn tortillas for hefty fish tacos.

A.P.

Frank Fat’s

806 L St., Sacramento, 916-442-7092, fatsrestaurants.com

Be happy: 3-6 p.m. Monday-Friday

Vibe: The elegant bar area is often a gathering place for legislators, lobbyists, lawyers and the state-workers crowd in general. Sit at small tables at the long banquette, or claim a stool at the brass-railed bar. Elegant metal and wood trim, sconces and mirrors, artwork and a dramatic sculpture are some of the reasons the iconic destination (from 1939) was the 2013 winner of a James Beard Foundation Award as an American Classic.

Deals: Eight of the 10 appetizers from the regular menu are half-price, but the dollar amounts aren’t on the printed happy-hour menu, leaving customers to wonder how much they’ll be paying; turns out $5.50 to $7.50.

Though happy hour is called the “Martini Hour” (must be the Capitol connection), only four show up on 11-drink Specialty Drinks menu (half price at $5.50). Six domestic beers at $3, three imports at $4, seven wines at $6 a glass.

What to order: The succulent pieces of wok-fried spareribs are crisp and deeply flavored. Salt ’n’ pepper calamari strips are encased in a light, crispy-puffy jacket. Veggie eggrolls are juicy and sweet, in flaky pastry. Yu kwok is a plate of six fried dumplings filled with ground pork and beef, plenty to share. Enhancing flavor is the condiments tray, with chili sauce, Chinese mustard, sweet ’n’ sour sauce and … uh, ketchup.

A.P.

Grange Restaurant & Bar

926 J St., Sacramento, 916-492-4450, grangesacramento.com

Be happy: 3-6 p.m. every day

Vibe: This restaurant bar inside the Citizen Hotel, big-windowed and airy but also stately is one of the best spaces in town. But the feel at the bar is a bit disconnected, at least when one flies solo. At Grange’s downtown neighbors Empress and Ella, the crowd seems local, and one’s fellow patrons strike up conversations. The bar here seems to be populated mostly by hotel guests, who keep their own counsel (i.e., look at their phones).

Good thing the bartender, Pete, was so welcoming and gracious (see below).

Deals: A short small-bite happy-hour menu includes a taco ($3 each) and “dirty blue” fries, with bleu cheese and bacon, for $8. The “bar food” menu, containing more substantial choices, also is available, from 2:30 until closing. But its menu items run as high as $16, straining our $25-and-out rule. Wine by the glass is $6. Three craft cocktails are available for $7 apiece.

What to order: The tacos, each of which consists of two small but thick corn tortillas holding tender chicken in a red sauce that offers plenty of snap. And order them from Pete, who at one point discreetly handed me an extra napkin and soda water, and said something vague about tacos sometimes being trouble. It took me about five minutes to notice what he meant: I’d spilled taco sauce all down the front of my light-colored shirt.

C.M.

Hawks Public House

1525 Alhambra Blvd., Sacramento, 916-588-4440, hawkspublichouse.com

Be happy: 2:30-6 p.m. Monday-Friday

Vibe: More casual in its aims and more utilitarian in its decor than its romantic mother ship, Hawks, in Granite Bay, this gastropub offers a less-expensive entry point into that fine-dining restaurant’s cuisine at all hours. But especially at happy hour.

Deals: Small plates run $4-$6. Craft cocktails are $7. A shot and a beer (Lexington bourbon and Lone Star Lager) is $6. Glasses of Emerald Bay chardonnay and Motto Backbone cabernet are $6 apiece.

What to order: As much we enjoy Empress’ smoked-salmon dip, we like Public House’s French onion dip ($4) even more, because its house-made chips hold up better in the dipping process than Empress’ thinner chips. Our goal, in pointing this out, is to inspire dip (price and quality) wars between our two favorite new local restaurants. Such a battle would benefit all Sacramentans.

But to best fill up inexpensively, order one of the patés or terrines for which the original Hawks is known. The exquisitely fatty/salty ciccioli ($6), made from braised pork and accompanied by sour cherry mostarda, tops this list at Public House.

Public House makes a mean Sazerac, with 1776 Rye. But for those who eschew brown liquor once spring arrives, the “white linen,” made with with gin, cucumber and elderflower liqueur, might be a more weather-appropriate choice.

C.M.

Morton’s Steakhouse

621 Capitol Mall, Sacramento, 916-442-5091, mortons.com/sacramento

Be happy: 4:30-6:30 p.m. Monday-Friday, 4:30-10 p.m. Sunday

Vibe: The energetic midtown office crowd and a few corporate captains can pack the house and raise the decibel level in the large and welcoming bar area. With that in mind, somebody should turn down the music. Though Morton’s happy hour is called the Power Hour, it’s hard to imagine mano-a-mano business deals being made over bottles of Miller Lite. Regardless, the people-watching view of Capitol Mall can be entertaining.

Deals: Two $7 bites (potato chips and french fries) and eight $8 bites usually range from $11 to $16. Seven cocktails are $8.50, 10 wines are $7.50 a glass and five beers are $5.50 (normally $10 to $14). Question: Didn’t white zinfandel go out with yellow power ties?

What to order: Double-rolled soft tacos are filled with shredded short rib, avocado, pico de gallo and chipotle mayo for a surprisingly satisfying nosh. Small slices of tender-chewy beef, touched with mustard-mayo, nestle inside soft sesame-seeded buns for Morton’s famous foursome of petit filet mignon sandwiches.

A.P.

Ruth’s Chris

In Pavilions center on Fair Oaks Boulevard near Howe Avenue, in Sacramento, 916-286-2702; and at the Galleria center on Galleria Boulevard in Roseville, 916-780-6910; ruthschris.com

Be happy: 4-7 p.m. Sunday-Friday

Vibe: The bar area in the Sacramento steakhouse is more spacious, cushy and striking than its Roseville counterpart, though both offer the same menu. While RC in Pavilions seats many parties of well-attired 50-and-older women when the doors open, the Galleria crowd generally skews younger.

Deals: RC’s Sizzle, Swizzle and Swirl happy hour debuted in 2011 at $6 per item and inched to $7 and then $8. Now the tab is $9 for each of six appetizers (normally $13-$21), five specialty cocktails (usually $14) and three wines (a buck off). Get $1 off three beers ($4).

What to order: Some of the so-called appetizers are closer to full meals, especially the half-pound cheeseburger hand-formed from house-ground trim cut off prime steaks; and the Bearnaise-splashed sliced filet mignon sandwich on soft-baguette garlic toast. Chunks of well-spiced, lightly fried lobster are coated in luscious cream sauce. Substitute crisp zucchini fries for the very good french fries.

A.P.

Sienna

3909 Park Drive, El Dorado Hills, 916-941-9694, siennarestaurants.com

Be happy: 3-6 p.m. Monday-Friday

Vibe: The bar area is striking, with heavy wicker chairs so comfortable you don’t want to climb out of them. “They’re a commitment,” said the server behind the bar. Mirrors, high ceilings, tiled floors, chandeliers and plenty of light combine to make the airy space an ideal retreat. The overly loud canned music can be grating, and beware the cigar smoke that occasionally wafts in from the patio. Patrons are mostly area professionals.

Deals: Six goodies-topped flatbreads dominate the menu ($8), with eight other small plates following ($3-$9). Eleven wines by the glass are $6 and $7, with three draft beers at $4 and $5 (including one house-made brew), five specially cocktails at $7 and $8, and well drinks for $5. Usually, the food runs $10-$15, with beer, wine and cocktails from $8-$14.

What to order: The go-to’s are the wood-burning-oven-fired flatbreads, especially the one topped with Brie, pancetta, roasted Fuji apple, caramelized onion and honey-orange marmalade; and the one topped with feta, prosciutto, tomatoes, red grape halves and Maui onion vinaigrette (both are smothered in fresh arugula). Fried calamari (rings and tentacles) is crisp and tender, with a “kung pao” dipping sauce that really isn’t, but it’s good enough. The novelty item is the messy 50-1-50 slider – half beef, half bacon, 1 percent habanero.

A.P.

Carla Meyer: 916-321-1118, @CarlaMeyerSB.

Allen Pierleoni: 916-321-1128, @apierleonisacbe

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