Carla Meyer

Dining review: Jamie's is a Sacramento joint that gets it right

If you're self-conscious, image-conscious, design-conscious or health- conscious, Jamie's Broadway Grille is probably not for you.

Even if you refuse to yield to those inclinations because you heard great things about how the meats are marinated for days and smoked for hours, or how Jamie himself comes in on weekends when the restaurant is closed to labor over the soups and hone the sauces, or you kept hearing how the famous garlic steak sandwich is actually made with filet mignon, how the kitchen has mastered so many exotic and delicious fish specials, or how they do this wonderfully odd prime rib dinner that's smoked, not roasted, it may still require a leap of faith to actually get out of your car.

If you, too, are going to partake in the experience that is Jamie's Broadway Grille, you must first look past the peeling paint, the weathered wood, worn-out shingles, and the unfortunate – and unrepaired – hole in the wall made by some clumsy motorist who went forward instead of backward. Forget about the absence of windows, about the menacing vibe or the fact that it's on an isolated stretch of Broadway.

Look past the frayed carpet, too, the bad acoustics, the old chairs, the cringe-worthy Budweiser and PBR mirrors, and don't fuss over the giant buffalo head bolted to the wall in the dining room. Don't worry that they don't take reservations. Don't fret that they're not entirely crazy about doing takeout, that their leftover boxes are very '90s plastic foam and that their website is nothing more than a place with an address and a fake menu.

Jamie's is not on Facebook. Jamie's doesn't do Twitter.

And no matter how you feel about Guy Fieri – great guy or great big windbag – don't put too much stock in the fact that he and his TV crew once came here. Jamie's was good before "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives" told the world our little secret, and it's been plenty good after. Post-Fieri, there are simply more foodie-nerds trying to take photos of their dinners, "checking in" on Facebook while they wait for a table and bumping into people while texting on the way to the men's room. Oh, and don't worry about the lighting. It's bad, and it's gonna stay bad.

Opened by self-taught chef Jamie Bunnell in 1986, Jamie's had no advertising budget, no buzz and few outward signs that it was destined to become a Sacramento treasure, let alone a celebrated destination for discerning eaters. It is neither a diner nor a dive, and that hole out front notwithstanding, it's not supposed to be a drive-in. Jamie's is a joint. It's a place where the woman behind the bar called me "Hon," where the waiter called me "boss," where you don't have to be anybody to feel like somebody.

Jamie's is about the food, the clientele, the friendly but unfussy service and a jovial, hearty spirit that isn't trendy and doesn't go out of style. Jamie's isn't fancy, but neither is it cheap. Pay attention to the specials, scribbled in bright marker on a small board. Some, like the massive smoked prime rib and the barbecue platter on Fridays, cost $29.95 and $25.95, respectively.

So why are we here? And why are we reviewing a place that is already too beloved and too famous to accommodate all its admirers? We simply want to see how this old-school joint stacks up against some of the area's best newcomers. Is Jamie's burger, for instance, as good as the burgers at Bacon and Butter, Juno's or Formoli's? Not quite. Can its much-lauded clam chowder hold its own with the smoky, rather amazing chowder at Blackbird downtown? Again, no.

But pound for pound, year after year, there may not be another restaurant that does more great cooking, is more sincere and less showy about it than Jamie's on Broadway.

During the latest of several recent visits, we went straight to the heavy hitters – the prime rib and the barbecue dinners. It was Friday, and I wasn't fooling around. I brought in a ringer, a 6-foot-4 foodie who owns a PETA T-shirt – People for the Eating of Tasty Animals. I got the barbecue, he got the prime rib.

I had ordered the prime rib on another occasion recently and was concerned it was so smoky that it was overwhelming, like chewing on beef while inhaling from a coal-burning furnace. Was this an aberration? Yes.

Bunnell says the 15-pound pieces of beef are cooked in the smoker outside for five to seven hours, depending on the weather. On this latest visit, the large slab of beef with ample amounts of fat was more refined and the smoke was subtle. It was tender, delicious and practically awe-inspiring. And the guy built like a linebacker was unable to finish it.

My barbecue dinner (available only on Fridays) was probably even bigger, a plate overloaded with baby back ribs, beef ribs, a quarter chicken and a hot link sausage that's slightly sweet at first taste with a nice hot and spicy finish. There's more. It comes with corn bread and choice of two sides. I had the baked beans and, because this wasn't rich enough, the macaroni and cheese with fontina and Parmesan and small slices of prosciutto. While mac and cheese is trendy of late, this may be the best in town.

The small daily menu has all the standard Jamie's fare like the award-winning club sandwich, the open-face turkey sandwich, the burger and that addictive garlic steak sandwich. It's almost unheard-of to find a steak sandwich with filet mignon, but Bunnell has thought this through. While this cut is relatively low-key flavor-wise, it is impeccably tender and, thus, easy to eat as a sandwich. To punch up the taste, Bunnell's kitchen roasts the garlic in olive oil, lets it cool, blends it into a paste and then marinates the steak in it for at least two days.

This is the kind of the thing that delights the old-timers and tantalizes newcomers, and if you aren't too self-conscious or design- conscious for your own good, this place with the hole in the wall just might become your favorite little joint.

Jamie's Broadway Grille

427 Broadway, Sacramento; (916) 442-4044

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Friday.

Beverage options: Full bar

Vegetarian friendly: Limited

Noise level: Loud, boisterous

Overall: Three 1/2 stars(out of 4 stars)

This is food the way it's supposed to be, unfussy and made the old-fashioned way, in an atmosphere where everything is so wrong it's right.

Food: Three 1/2 stars

The pastrami sandwich alone – super-thick and tender slabs of house-made meat with a lingering smokiness – is enough to inspire bedlam for foodies. The garlic steak sandwich made with filet mignon marinated for two days is an institution. The rotating fish specials are top-notch, including the mixed seafood dish (diver scallops, giant prawns, fresh Dungeness crab and pieces of fresh fish) in an impeccable scampi sauce. The barbecue platter on Fridays is huge, messy and wonderful. I'm dinging them half a star for not serving dessert. Would love to see Jamie's style expressed this way, too.

Service: Four stars

Friendly, informal, smart, attentive and with just the right demeanor to reflect the restaurant's personality.

Ambiance : Four stars

Not everything in this category is about excellence in decor and design. Sometimes ambiance is simply about what it feels like to be in the room. Jamie's is just right – even with those Budweiser mirrors and a buffalo head.

Value: Three 1/2 stars

Most of the fish specials seem to be in the low to mid-$20s. The eye-popper is the prime rib special. It's a huge portion, but the $30 price tag may make cheapskates shudder. (Hint: think of it as a $20 dinner with enough left over for a $10 sandwich the next day.)

Call The Bee's Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob.