Restaurant News & Reviews

2017: The year Sacramento’s food scene grew up, mellowed out

Punch Bowl Social at Downtown Commons was one of the big openings of 2017.
Punch Bowl Social at Downtown Commons was one of the big openings of 2017. Ed Fletcher

In many ways, 2017 has seemed like one frenetic news cycle after another. But not so much in the Sacramento food scene. The dining landscape, which saw considerable change in past years, felt less fevered. Splashy restaurant openings briefly slowed, there were fewer big closures, and the city’s Farm-to-Fork initiative turned 5 this year.

While it has garnered both boosters (“It celebrates our region’s bounty!”) and detractors (“It’s an empty marketing slogan!”) since its launch, Farm-to-Fork has succeeded in reshaping how Sacramentans think of local food culture, said Amber Stott, founding executive director of the nonprofit Food Literacy Center.

Before 2012, the word “local” had a different connotation in terms of food, said Stott, who sits on Farm-to-Fork’s steering committee. “People saw it as too idealistic.” The Farm-to-Fork campaign changed that by directly connecting the concept of eating what’s grown nearby to the overall economic growth of the region. “Now that word is embraced,” she said. “Look at what (Golden 1 Center executive chef Michael) Tuohy has done with local food at the arena.”

Restaurateur Clay Nutting – co-owner, with Michelin-starred chef Brad Cecchi, of Canon, one of the year’s buzziest restaurant openings – said proof of Farm-to-Fork’s success can be seen in how engrained it has become in the city’s maturing culinary ethos. “It may not necessarily be a showpiece anymore (for restaurants) to say we’re farm-to-fork,” he said. “Of course we are. But what Farm-to-Fork is doing continues to bring attention to our way of life, our farmers.”

For many, 2017 was a year to make the most of a revitalizing downtown. “We have been head-down quite a bit this year,” said Michael Thiemann, chef and co-owner of K Street’s Empress Tavern and Mother. “It’s the first (full) year the arena has been open, and we’re observing the effect it had and how to navigate through that.”

While concerts bring more business to downtown restaurateurs, Thiemann said, basketball games are more of a mixed bag. “God bless ’em, the Golden 1 Center has done a really good job of building an enormous restaurant with a basketball court at the center of it,” he said.

Building on a trend that became pronounced in 2016, high-quality neighborhood restaurants continued to proliferate and prosper this year, offering a style of mid-range dining that was notably missing from the culinary scene a decade or two ago, when fewer establishments filled the gap between special-occasion dining and cheap eats.

“The specialty dining places where you go once a year are less attractive to diners now,” said Janel Inouye, co-owner of midtown’s Magpie Café with husband Ed Roehr. “Sacramentans want to have real honest food but not have to put on a suit and tie.” She added that the growth of infill housing has helped restaurants like Magpie.

Nutting said he is bullish about the prospects of neighborhood restaurants – not surprisingly, having opened the all-small-plates Canon on a seemingly unlikely stretch of 34th Street in East Sacramento. “The appetite for concepts that are a little more progressive is growing,” he said. “You see it at Kru and Localis, and I hope people might consider (Canon) in that category.”

Not all central-city neighborhoods, however, have seen as strong a boom as East Sacramento, midtown and nearby neighborhoods such as Southside Park, where places such as South and Binchoyaki are quietly thriving. In years ahead, it will be interesting to see whether less saturated neighborhoods such as Land Park, Curtis Park and Arden-Arcade will experience similar growth. Downtown restaurateurs have staked claims as far away as Carmichael with the ambitious Milagro Center, another test case to watch.

So how will the restaurant scene develop in 2018? A wave of highly touted openings is set for spring and beyond, but challenges also loom, as usual in this difficult industry. They can be as global as the threat of climate change on crops or as local as new parking-meter rules, which Magpie’s Inouye said can discourage midweek diners.

Federal- and state-level changes also may affect the dining scene in the year ahead. The Trump administration has proposed rolling back current federal tip-pooling guidelines, which prohibit distributing tips to anyone other than front-of-house staff. Inouye said that if the change goes forward, Magpie will abandon its current practice of including a line on receipts for gratuities for kitchen staff, a practice that sparked some controversy and hasn’t been widely adopted by other Sacramento restaurants.

The upcoming 50-cent minimum-wage increase also will affect local restaurants’ bottom lines. “We work on such small profit margins that we have to raise prices” to accommodate the change, Inouye said. Thiemann voiced a similar concern: “Profit margins are about 5 percent, and with the minimum-wage increase, restaurant prices may go up,” he said. “The cost of doing business these days is so high. I wish everything was in a realm where restaurants didn’t have to scrape by.”

Restaurant workers and diners also may have to scrape by in 2018, thanks to a lack of affordable housing – a major issue facing Sacramento, as Nutting pointed out.

“I hope there’s more infill and affordable housing being built, not only to support our customer base but to support our employees, making sure they’re not priced out of the market,” said Nutting, who cited tight labor supply as “probably the biggest challenge for this next wave of openings coming up,” especially large concepts like the just-opened Punch Bowl Social at Downtown Commons.

The first half of 2018 should see the arrival of several new downtown establishments – with the usual caveat that restaurant openings usually are delayed far beyond even generous estimates of when new places will debut.

Aimal Formoli, who runs his namesake East Sacramento restaurant with his wife Suzanne Ricci, will be head chef at hotly anticipated Jewish-style deli Solomon’s Delicatessen on the 700 block of K Street. Asked when the deli would open, Formoli raised his eyebrows and said: “Spring ... ish?”

As far as sneak peeks at what he’s most excited about on the deli’s menu, he said: “I don’t want to say the pastrami, that’s too obvious. But I’m really excited about the tuna melts. We’ll make them with real tuna cooked in a court bouillon. ... People are going to flip.”

Just down the block, upcoming cocktail bar and cart-service Tiger – from the ownership team of Red Rabbit – also has generated interest. “I’m a big State Bird Provisions fan, so (that kind of) dim-sum dining excites me,” Nutting said, referring to the acclaimed San Francisco restaurant where everything is served from circulating carts.

The R Street corridor also continues to develop, expanding eastward with the Ice Blocks development, which will house Beast + Bounty, a full-service restaurant, and Milk Money, an upscale ice cream and doughnut shop. Both come from LowBrau and Block Butcher Bar owners Michael Hargis and Brock MacDonald and have already hosted pop-ups.

All these may be portents of a restaurant scene that’s ripe for a fresh boom. “There’s going to be a ton of restaurants in the next year and a half opening up,” Thiemann said. “It’ll be interesting to see how that plays out.”

Kate Washington: Follow her on Twitter, @washingtonkate