Nosh Pit

The Nosh Pit: What’s the future of Sacramento’s legacy restaurants?

One of Sacramento’s landmark eateries can be yours for the proper amount of cash. Trails Restaurant, which has served meat-centric comfort foods to generations of Sacramentans, was recently put up for sale. The asking price: $500,000 for the 1,663-square-foot restaurant near Broadway and 21st Street.

But what should the newest owner of Trails do with the business? Should he or she strip away the cowboy wallpaper and other well-worn Western-isms, scrap the former menu and insert a new restaurant concept? Or should Trails be preserved like a museum piece and basically left as is – albeit with an infusion of vitality from new ownership?

Consider that Trails opened in 1952 with a bit of Hollywood glow. The restaurant was originally owned by Esther Williams, the “Million Dollar Mermaid” of MGM movie studios and a competitive swimmer, and her husband, Greg. Back then, with its bustling crowds feasting on steak dinners and other meaty fare, Trails was a buzzy place to go out and be seen.

But Wednesday afternoon, toward the tail end of the normal lunchtime rush, Trails was vacant. A handmade sign in the window, which appeared to have been painted in watercolor, said the eatery was closed for a week’s vacation and will reopen Monday.

Maryellen Burns has been pondering the fate of Trails and its possible next steps. She’s the author of “Lost Restaurants of Sacramento and Their Recipes,” which transports readers back to the glory days of such now-defunct local eateries as the Coral Reef and Stan’s Drive-In.

“I hate to see (Trails) go, but am not surprised it would go,” Burns said. “But at least preserve something for the people. The Trails sign is iconic, and hopefully someone would donate that to the Center for Sacramento History, which has retained a lot of restaurant signs.”

Sacramento has recently shed some of its landmark restaurants with little or no fanfare as the city and its culinary scene continues to reinvent itself. The Broiler shut down in September after 63 years in business. The Market Club closed in April 2013 following a nearly 80-year run at a funky warehouse space near Fifth Street and Broadway. A little farther down Broadway, Hong Kong Cafe shuttered in 2011 after 50 years of serving Chinese food to Sacramentans.

Some restaurant families simply retire and close up shop after decades of long hours and low profit margins. Current Trails owner, Gin Wong, has run the eatery since 1979.

Nostalgia alone doesn’t pay the bills in the highly competitive restaurant world. Legacy eateries depend on signature food items that keep the crowds coming back, no matter what gastronomic fad might own the culinary chatter on a given day. We’re thinking of the garlic steak sandwiches at West Sacramento’s Club Pheasant, or the heavyweight roast beef sandwiches with a side of pickles at Sam’s Hof Brau on Watt Avenue, or the banana cream pie at Frank Fat’s.

Derrick Fong, an owner of Sam’s Hof Brau, says operating a legacy restaurant requires a delicate balancing act. Any menu or decor changes have to be executed slowly, as not to disrupt the longtime customer base’s expectations. And foodies now, with their Instagram and Yelp accounts on standby, are more fickle than ever.

“Keeping an icon alive is one of the toughest things you can do,” Fong said. “How do we keep our core group happy but move toward the future? We want to keep the nostalgia there, but you run a risk if you’re saying, ‘I am what I am,’ and not willing to adjust.”

Perhaps the future owners of Trails should keep the name and tap into the burgeoning local barbecue scene, as seen in the recent success of Tank House and Fahrenheit 250 BBQ. Trails has long boasted a protein-driven menu featuring “generous portion dinners,” including chicken and ribs and New York steaks.

“It would be interesting if someone came in and updated the whole concept,” said Burns. “Sacramento could still use an affordable steak place.”

But most restaurants aren’t meant to last forever, and the future owners may have a completely different idea for the space. That area near Broadway – near Curtis Park, Land Park and midtown – doesn’t boast much in the way of quality coffee, for example.

But maybe it’s just time to accept that Trails is nearing the end of the road.

“I believe in preservation,” said Burns, “But if something’s gone, I hope it becomes something that’s a good neighborhood place where people can gather and talk and share.”

Related stories from Sacramento Bee