There are key indicators of a restaurant’s quality, with food, service, ambiance and wine list chief among them.
Less obvious but often as telling is how a restaurant treats soft drinks. If a place gets farm-fresh eggs from the Capay Valley and small-batch whiskey from a hip distiller yet buys its iced tea pre-sweetened from a conglomerate, there likely will be disconnects in other aspects of the operation as well.
But places whose commitment to hand-crafted offerings extends to nonalcoholic drinks tend to belong to a higher tier, I have found in my nonscientific yet thorough survey of Sacramento restaurants. Such spots truly want everyone to feel welcome, including nondrinkers, workers out for a weekday lunch who would like a pop but stay with the soda variety to stay employed, and discriminating children and pregnant women.
Michael Fagnoni, of Hawks fine-dining restaurant in Granite Bay and Hawks Provisions & Public House in Sacramento, said the craft nonalcoholic drinks at the restaurants he co-owns with his wife and fellow chef, Molly Hawks, resulted partly from the couple dining out elsewhere when Hawks was pregnant and avoiding alcohol and caffeine.
Restaurants selling standard fountain sodas offer “nothing other than lemonade or Sprite” for alcohol and caffeine abstainers, Fagnoni said. At Hawks Public House, by contrast, they can order soft drinks made with cucumber and house-made ginger syrup or with yuzu fruit and matcha tea.
Availability of house-made craft sodas tends to align with that of house-made cocktails and craft syrups that can do double duty. This is why there seem to be more fancy soft drinks, or “mocktails,” on Sacramento menus today than there were 15 years ago. So I had plenty of drinks from which to choose in compiling this list of 10 favorite nonalcoholic drinks at Sacramento restaurants.
In the interest of rabbit-hole avoidance, I do not include coffee-based hot drinks. All drinks below are served on the rocks, though not all fit the “mocktail” category. A father who orders a honey lemonade or mandarin soda for his son is not training him to be the next Don Draper, but trying to find something the kid will like.
We are running this list today, Jan. 1, on behalf of all the hungover readers rethinking their alcohol intake but not the frequency of their restaurant visits.
Big Henri’s Cinnamon Cream Soda, Paragary’s
Paragary’s winter seasonal soda starts with distinctly spicy cinnamon flavor before filling out into creaminess. A lemon-slice garnish at first seems incongruous with cinnamon. But once plopped in the drink, the lemon makes sense. Its sharpness draws out the soda’s vanilla component.
$3.50 (listed under cocktails, so specify nonalcoholic). 1401 28th St., Sacramento. 916-457-5737, www.paragarys.com.
Blueberry Haven, Wildwood Kitchen & Bar
This drink holds muddled blueberries, mint leaves, fresh lime juice, simple syrup and spritzer, and rides the line of being not quite sweet enough. But it’s a palate-cleansing, rich-food-offsetting line full of discoveries that sweetness can obscure. Like the alternately soothing and enlivening qualities of fresh mint.
$5. 556 Pavilions Lane, Sacramento. 916-922-2858, www.wildwoodpavilions.com
Coconut lime water, and local-honey lemonade, Magpie Café
A mix of coconut water, lime juice and simple syrup, the first drink tastes like a less-fussy piña colada. The idea for it sprang from Magpie owners Janel Inouye and Ed Roehr being averse to waste. They drain coconut water from coconut cream they make into vegan whipped cream at Magpie’s sister cafe, Nido.
Though this drink, in its newness, temporarily turned my head, my favorite Magpie soft drink is the local-honey lemonade, a sweet-tart duet.
$3.25 coconut lime water, $4 local-honey lemonade. 1601 16th St., Sacramento. 916-452-7594, www.magpiecafe.com
Cream soda, Mulvaney’s B&L
My appreciation of lunchtime drinks beyond Diet Coke and iced tea started a few years ago with my first taste of Mulvaney’s house-made, not-to-sweet root beer. But since my frothy-soda tastes tend more toward vanilla, I ordered the equally flavor-balanced cream soda on subsequent visits. I admire not just its taste but its startling blue hue – a nod to proprietor Patrick Mulvaney’s childhood memories of drinking Nehi cream soda at his grandparents’ house.
The Nehi “was tinted that bright blue that delights children and horrifies parents,” Mulvaney said.
$5. 1215 19th St., Sacramento. 916-441-6022. www.mulvaneysbl.com
Pomegranate Italian soda, The Waterboy
The potted plants, white tablecloths, sweetbreads and sunlight flooding in from floor-to-ceiling windows combine into a collective cry of “Order a glass of wine!” But on those days when afternoon deadlines prevent such an order, Waterboy’s pomegranate Italian soda compensates.
Its fruity tang and bubbles mimic an alcoholic drink so closely that after drinking two sodas with a big lunch, I was glad to be walking instead of driving back to work. I felt buzzed.
$3. 2000 Capitol Ave., Sacramento. 916-498-9891, www.waterboyrestaurant.com
Skool soda, Skool
This midtown seafood restaurant constantly updates the fruit-juice base of its house soda. When we visited a few weeks ago, the drink held slightly tart Satsuma mandarin. Now it’s passion fruit. Although the fruits vary, they are always mixed in perfect proportion to the drink’s simple syrup and soda water.
$3.50. 2319 K St., Sacramento. 916-737-5767, www.skoolonkstreet.com
Virgin Mary and apple-ginger shrub, Hook & Ladder
Before nice restaurants started making craft mocktails, a virgin Mary was my nonalcoholic choice. It is more substantial than the typical soft drink, and delivers all that is memorable about a Bloody Mary: spices, horseradish, pickled things and tomato brightness.
In looking for a virgin Mary for this list, I chose my favorite non-virgin Mary from the past year and forewent the alcohol. The Hook & Ladder Mary is masterfully spiced so as to deliver a punch without diminishing tomato flavor. When factoring in the crunchy cucumber-spear garnish, it almost seemed good for me.
Hook & Ladder also offers a nice shrub, its vinegar component softened by brown sugar and apples and spiced by cinnamon and ginger.
$3.25 for the Mary, $3.75 for the shrub. 1630 S St., Sacramento. 916-442-4885, www.hookandladder916.com.
Yuzu matcha soda, Hawks Public House
Like its food menu, Hawks Public House’s non-alcoholic drink menu changes so often that no seasonal selection gets a chance to become an old favorite. When we visited last week an excellent cranberry mocktail we had tried a few weeks earlier already had left the lineup. But a yuzu matcha soda new to the menu was just as good. The matcha umami earthiness balances the citrus acidity of the yuzu, which evokes mandarin and Meyer lemon.
$6. 1525 Alhambra Blvd., Sacramento. 916-588-4440, www.hawkspublichouse.com