Restaurant News & Reviews

East Sacramento comes into its own as a dining destination

The exterior of Hawks Provisions and Public House.
The exterior of Hawks Provisions and Public House.

For 11 days in August, several East Sacramento restaurants will offer dining deals akin to what’s presented by their counterparts to the west during the annual Dine Downtown celebration. At 33rd Street Bistro, a three-course dinner will go for $33. At OneSpeed, you can score a pizza, salad and half-carafe of wine for $34.

The event’s name, Savor East Sac, is more gentle reminder than command these days. For the past few years, as more food-and-drink-related businesses have moved into East Sacramento, including high-profile newcomers Hawks Provisions & Public House and OBO’ Italian Table & Bar – and with Kru Contemporary Japanese Cuisine on its way – East Sacramentans are appreciating their neighborhood dining scene every day.

The neighborhood currently has the most juice, and also plenty of premises-made gourmet coffee and craft beer, of any in Sacramento outside midtown and downtown.

Granted, the deck always is stacked in East Sacramento’s favor when disposable income is involved. About 42 percent of East Sacramento households earned more than $100,000 in 2014, compared with 24 percent of households countywide, census figures show. Eleven percent of households earned more than $200,000, compared with 4 percent countywide.

Yet the dining scene was not nearly as vibrant even five years ago, when popular places such as Juno’s Kitchen & Delicatessen, Cielito Lindo Mexican Gastronomy, Chocolate Fish Coffee and Cabana Winery did not yet exist in East Sacramento.

Now there are choices to meet any East Sacramentan’s casual dining or drinking needs, from old school (Español Italian Restaurant) to medium school (33rd Street Bistro, Café Rolle, Hoppy Brewing Co., Giovanni’s pizzeria, Evan’s Kitchen) to newbies (Hawks, OBO’, Sactown Union Brewery).

The emphasis is on casual. The upswing in restaurants can be tied to an improved economy, said Ted Kappel, president of East Sacramento Chamber of Commerce, Savor East Sac’s presenter: “People have a little bit of extra money and will spend it on dining.”

But there’s also been a dovetailing of the national trend away from white-tablecloth fine dining toward high-end dishes and service in more casual settings with what East Sacramentans always have sought from their local places – quality and convenience in equal measure.

“People don’t want to have to travel outside of their area” for good food, said Randall Selland, whose family owns OBO’ as well as its long-running East Sacramento counter-service mothership, Selland’s Market-Cafe on H Street. Especially during the summer months, when that local area of interest tends to narrow to one’s own backyard grill.

But East Sacramentans are curious, and also discerning enough, that “if you give people somewhere they would like to go, they will show up,” Selland said, even in summer. But they’ll “want to wear their T-shirts and flip-flops,” he said.

The flap of flip-flops headed to OBO’ was so steady when the place opened in June on Folsom Boulevard that the restaurant had to cut its number of days open per week from seven to five, to ensure good service.

Suzanne Ricci, who co-owns the now 8-year-old J Street New American/Mediterranean restaurant Formoli’s Bistro with her chef husband, Aimal Formoli, said she had studied habits of her neighbors in East Sacramento before deciding to open a restaurant. She and her husband had “fallen in love with” the neighborhood after moving to a rental house on 50th Street.

The neighbors “were sophisticated and had traveled,” Ricci said. “We knew that so-and-so’s family went to Spain every July.” But at the time, the neighborhood was scarce on places to which these world travelers could easily walk, or where parking was plentiful. Ricci and Formoli set out to cater to their fellow East Sacramentans when they first opened Formoli’s, which offers high-end dishes for reasonable prices, in a cozy space at 33rd and J.

They made devotees there who followed them a few years later to a space twice as big, at J near 39th, where parking is more of a crapshoot but the place still looks warm and welcoming and where one of the menu’s less expensive items, the $14 “whiskey burger,” is a longtime favorite. For Savor East Sac, Formoli’s is offering a “burger happy hour” special of two burgers and a half-carafe of summer red wine for $25.

“The neighborhood loves burgers and wine,” Ricci said.

And $25 specials, like the “dinner for two” at Selland’s on offer all year long. (Neither OBO’ nor Selland’s is participating in Savor East Sac, though Selland’s was part of the recent sold-out “Taste of East Sac” gathering at the Turn Verein, also presented by the East Sacramento Chamber.)

“You would be amazed how many people view Selland’s as ‘their second kitchen,’ ” Selland said of the H Street spot, a popular place for post-soccer-practice family meals. It opened in 2001. Sales at Selland’s have never “gone flat,” Selland said, even during the recession. Nor has the opening of the similarly formatted OBO’ affected sales.

People like how service is “noncommittal,” he said. “You can walk into a Selland’s or to OBO’, pour yourself a glass of water, and nobody is going to bother you.”

The Selland family’s reputation, as the people behind the fine-dining restaurants The Kitchen and Ella Dining Room & Bar and longtime promoters of the farm-to-fork concept, helps bring buzz to whatever they do. But the owners go with the dining concept the neighborhood calls for. Selland said that’s why he decided to open another Selland’s Market on Broadway in Land Park, instead of moving the Kitchen there, as originally planned. Instead of a special-occasion place, neighborhood diners in Land Park also wanted a place they could go more often, Selland said.

Like the Selland family, and The Waterboy’s Rick Mahan, who opened OneSpeed on Folsom Boulevard in 2008, Molly Hawks and Mike Fagnoni of Granite Bay’s highly lauded Hawks Restaurant chose East Sacramento as site of a more casual offshoot of their fine-dining establishment.

Hawks Public House, which focuses on cocktails, wine, beer and small plates, opened on Alhambra and Stockton in December to packed houses. Hawks Provisions, a takeout spot next door, opened a month later.

“We had been looking at various places – we looked on K Street – but we knew we wanted something with a smaller footprint (than the original Hawks) and we like the idea of being a little bit off the beaten path,” Molly Hawks said.

“Our goal was not to compromise on the (fine-dining) philosophy, but to offer something in a more casual setting, in a range of prices,” Hawks said. “That is the way we see lives going.” People are busy, and “going out to eat out of necessity, but still want to eat well.”

She said she was happy to see doctors in scrubs in Public House on a recent Friday. “I thought that was awesome, that they didn’t feel like they needed to get dressed up,” as they might at the fine-dining Hawks, she said.

For Savor East Sac, Hawks Public House is offering a three-course menu for $32, and Hawks Provisions a sandwich, drink and cookie for $12.

Public House and Provisions draw “a balance between working communities and residential communities,” Hawks said. Diners come from nearby state offices and from Sutter Medical Plaza, with which it shares a parking lot.

This business base helps answer the obvious question of why East Sacramento has a dining scene more thriving than its southern counterpart with similar demographics, Land Park. First off, East Sacramento covers 3.3 square miles compared with Land Park’s 1.8, giving it much more space for dining establishments. And most of the city’s big hospitals and medical facilities are in East Sacramento or just across the freeway from it.

Ricci said Formoli’s gets weekday business, and also catering jobs, from local medical facilities. “That is part of the reason why we moved,” six blocks east on J Street, closer to Mercy General Hospital.

She, Selland and Molly Hawks also seem to take a “more the merrier” approach to what is becoming a slightly more crowded East Sacramento scene. “When Juno’s came in, and Cielito Lindo, it created a little restaurant scene” on J Street, Ricci said.

EastSMF, a local- and organic-leaning restaurant with high-end ingredients but a casual atmosphere, recently augmented that scene when it opened in the former Formoli’s space at 33rd and J. The restaurant that has embraced the neighborhood to an unprecedented degree, by naming itself after it (“SMF” is Sacramento’s airport code), is offering a complimentary lavender lemonade with purchase of an entree during Savor East Sac.

Hawks said she and Fagnoni “are excited” about fellow newcomers to East Sacramento, particularly OBO’ and Kru Contemporary Japanese Cuisine, which is expected to move next door to OBO’ from its midtown location this fall.

“That’s a good mix of chefs,” Hawks said. Plus, “having more activity on the east side will be good” she said, in helping draw people east on nights like Second Saturdays, when everyone tends to stay in midtown.

Selland said he and his wife and business partner, Nancy, who live in East Sacramento, are happy to have a Hawks closer by. “We would go out to Hawks about twice a year” in Granite Bay, Selland said. “We’ve already been to Hawks down here three or four times.”

East Sacramento also might benefit from Golden 1 Center going in downtown in October, even though its restaurants lie 30 to 60 blocks away. “Sacramento is still small enough that people could go to dinner in East Sacramento, and then to a concert,” Hawks said.

Selland said he thinks the arena will have an impact throughout Sacramento, though not immediately.

“What’s going to happen is that as more things come to downtown … you are going to find it will build upon itself,” he said. “I just picture the time when, say you live in Roseville, and come into town. Instead of thinking about going downtown, and thinking, ‘No, it’s Friday, and it will be too packed,’ you think instead of how there are (now) restaurants all over the place, like there are in San Francisco. And you go, ‘Let’s just go down to Sacramento, and then figure out where we are going to eat.’ 

Carla Meyer: 916-321-1118, @CarlaMeyerSB The Bee’s Phillip Reese contributed to this story.

Savor East Sac

What: Thirteen East Sacramento food-and-drink-related businesses offering special deals.

When: Thursday, Aug. 4, through Aug. 14

Where: Various locations