Several years ago, friends and I embarked on an extended crawl of local dive bars. Rejecting higher-end Sacramento nightlife as too shallow, we sought gritty places and authentic people.
We met ladies of the evening, guys on parole and, on one wintry night as we drove into the parking lot of the Sail Inn in West Sacramento, witnessed a man wield a long, thick chain in the manner of a cowboy giving a rope demonstration at a rodeo.
Bypassing the chain enthusiast, we entered the bar, where we were greeted by the familiar scent of the genuine dive. Equal parts alcohol fumes and oiliness (sometimes from cooking grease, other times from patrons), this scent offers a top note of bleach and/or Pine-Sol, which has been used enough to register but not penetrate the overall grime.
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We settled into our well-worn bar seats and admired the room’s wood-paneled walls and general down-at-the-heels coziness. Then the bartender broke the spell, by asking if we wanted to order food.
Goodness, no. We did not even want to drink out of a glass. That’s why we ordered bottled beer. We also had timed our visit so we would never need to investigate the bathroom.
Sail Inn Grotto & Bar, the bar/ restaurant that opened three months ago in the old Jefferson Boulevard bar after a $500,000 revamp, has a way to go in perfecting dishes and drinks. But it already offers a few standouts in each category, in a space that’s now squeaky clean yet pays homage to what was charming about the old Sail Inn. The wood paneling, nautical theme and wordplay name remain, and the new owners enhanced the spot’s long-running sense of whimsy by installing Slushee machines holding the makings of piña coladas and strawberry daiquiris.
So those hesitant to dine where it’s dicey now can officially throw caution to the headwinds.
The feel of the rehabbed bar/restaurant is so relaxed that it offers, upon entering, immediate relief from a hot summer day. That relief intensifies when one orders the Lava Flow, a must-have, $10, 15-ounce blend of purée-packed piña colada and strawberry daiquiri. Beyond the pure visual appeal of red swirls within an icy white setting lay a taste that’s sweet yet tart and just boozy enough to remind the drinker to navigate the night’s subsequent intake accordingly.
Building owners Wayne and Ellie Morse bought the property a few years ago from Ellie’s parents, who had been leasing it out. The building’s year of origin is unclear from official documents, Wayne Morse said, but it likely was in the 1960s. What’s clear is it had fallen into disrepair by the time the Morses took it over and enlisted co-owners/operators Jason Boggs, Garrett Van Vleck and Alex Origoni (aka the Shady Lady Saloon guys) to turn it around.
Van Vleck designed the more modern and welcoming space, and Morse, who stains concrete professionally, created the floor’s compass design. Morse also refinished the original wood on the walls, on which paintings of seafaring vessels hang.
Though the network of ropes above the bar area and metal rivets on tables indicate a well-defined motif, the Sail Inn is more straightforward in design than either the highly stylized, Prohibition-era Shady Lady or the intensely music-themed B-Side, another Boggs-Van Vleck-Origoni project.
The Sail Inn’s closest counterpart, vibe-wise, is Broderick Roadhouse, another rejuvenated West Sacramento joint. Like the Broderick and unlike Shady Lady or B-Side, the new Sail Inn on weekdays draws more blue-collar and state workers than hipsters. On weekends, it fills up with middle-aged couples who look down-to-earth but not so down they would have patronized the old Sail Inn.
These couples sit at tables holding malt vinegar to go with fish and chips – anchor of what Boggs calls the new place’s “wharf-style” menu, which also runs to shrimp Louie and clam chowder in a bread bowl.
Shady Lady/Sail Inn executive chef Kevin Ritchie conceived the menu, which is executed by chef de cuisine Beau Fairbairn, in a kitchen spiffed up from its former incarnation while remaining tiny. “It’s more like a galley,” Boggs said.
Trying seafood at the old Sail Inn would have been a wobbly choice. But the new Sail Inn so closely resembles those welcoming casual seafood spots common to coastal towns that entering the bar sparks an immediate craving for that special mix of salty and fried, and fruity and alcoholic, such places offer – though it sits near the Sacramento River rather than an ocean.
Issues arise, however, with the actual content of those food and drinks. Some dishes were inadequately salted and/or fried, and others only halfway successful. Some of those fruity drinks taste more acidic than refreshing.
Though the kitchen nails its old-school steamed-clam dish, which comes with a white wine, shallot, butter and cream sauce and enough pieces of sourdough bread to soak up the mighty Sacramento, the fish-and-chips plate – a more vital item on a “wharf-style” menu – was a bust.
Its $12 asking price seems high for three 2-ounce pieces of cod served on an enormous bed of fries. The cod, coated in Scrimshaw beer batter, is nicely crisped outside and tender inside, but under-seasoned overall.
The fries, which took up most of the plate, were hot enough but also stale-tasting. It was the same story on a subsequent visit, when these fries served as lackluster companions to the roasted tri-tip sandwich, a nightly special.
Though goat cheese and arugula were inspired choices to accompany the tri-tip, the meat was too well-done, too scant, and too close to those disappointing fries, to merit a $14 price tag.
During the tri-tip visit, on a Friday evening, many things seemed off. The calamari appetizer tasted rubbery, and although the shrimp po’ boy sliders contained one big, succulent and tasty prawn apiece, the buns were too big for the shrimp, and spongelike in consistency.
Those buns, like all Sail Inn’s bread, come from Bella Bru, whose products usually are of consistently high quality. The sourdough bread bowl that held the clam chowder we tried that night, for example, was excellent.
Solid in structure, airy in texture, it ably absorbed and added new depth of flavor to the chowder, which held too much thyme but also tasted, delightfully, of fresh cream and smoked paprika.
The bread bowl was the only sour item we knowingly ordered that evening. Yet others came, in the form of drinks whose sour elements fought for dominance with their bitter ones.
The wince-inducing Old Cuban, with Diplomatico dark rum, lime juice, angostura bitters and champagne, offered no hint of the simple syrup listed as fellow ingredient. My companion’s Singapore Sling, with gin and cherry brandy, also tasted devoid of enough sweetness to counteract the drink’s lemon juice and two kinds of bitters.
My dinner pal, who grew up in Miami and knows rum drinks, expected acid from the light-rum Hemingway daiquiri, made with lime and grapefruit juice. But the citrus was out of whack, he said, and after a sip, he no longer wanted it to come to Papa.
The Sail Inn’s mai tai, by contrast, expertly balances tangy and sweet, and its gin-based White Linen holds the perfect degree of sweetness to offset its lemon-juice component.
The Old Cuban had been so bitter that I sent it back, after the server inquired about its taste. She allowed me to replace it with the White Linen, at no charge.
This was the most accommodating gesture made by the service staff during our visits. Though servers and bartenders were friendly, we sometimes had to wait too long for basics, like the water we had requested 10 minutes before.
We received the most efficient service during our best visit overall, for Saturday lunch. Our server staggered our dishes – appetizer and salad arriving before sandwiches – without us needing to ask. On previous occasions, everything came at once.
On this visit, we developed a grudging appreciation for the shrimp ceviche cocktail, which is entirely a shrimp cocktail, with cooked shrimp, and not a ceviche. Along with two prawns that hang on the glass’s side, the cocktail holds pieces of prawn accompanied by celery, avocado, onion and radish. The sauce consists of bloody mary mix, from Sacramento’s Preservation and Co., that the kitchen doctors with ketchup, horseradish and lemon.
What sounds like a flavor assault tastes like one, too. At first. But the closer you get to glass’s bottom, the better the cocktail tastes, perhaps because the solid ingredients by that point soak up and neutralize the potent liquid.
The shrimp Louie showed no such flavor assertiveness. Though the poached bay shrimp were plentiful and fresh, the Russian dressing lacked oomph.
The best thing we tried at Sail Inn was turf, not surf – the house burger. A thin, 4-ounce Lucky Dog Ranch ground chuck patty offers a nice char taste spiked by Russian dressing (more powerful here than on the Louie). A brioche bun, lettuce, house pickles and thick-cut onion lend this burger a welcome, In-N-Out-esque taste.
The Sail Inn will offer more specials and introduce menu items as its kitchen staff continues to find its footing and adjust to working in such a small kitchen, Boggs said.
Here’s hoping the food improves, and the cocktails become more consistent. Because the new Sail Inn is everything a cautious barfly could want. Still authentic but no longer gritty, it’s the kind of spot where one wants to spend some time, instead of merely dipping in one’s toe in order to leave with a dive-bar anecdote. Especially on those hot days when the Lava Flow beckons.
Sail Inn Grotto and Bar
1522 Jefferson Blvd., West Sacramento, www.sailinngrotto.com, 916-272-2733
Hours: 11 a.m.-midnight Sunday-Thursday. 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Friday and Saturday
Beverage options: Mostly rum-based craft cocktails. Three beers on draft, including local offerings. Canned and bottled beers. Two red and four white wines by the glass.
Vegetarian friendly: Not especially
Gluten free options: Yes
Noise level: Loud
Ambiance: Building owners Wayne and Ellie Morse, and co-owners/operators Jason Boggs, Alex Origoni and Garrett Van Vleck spruced up this West Sacramento bar while maintaining its divey, nautical spirit with a design theme of ropes, pulleys and paintings of ships.
The thorough yet reverent rehab of the formerly run-down Jefferson Boulevard spot impresses more than the place’s current food and drink offerings. But there already are winners, such as the wonderful Lava Flow piña colada-strawberry daiquiri mix and a tasty burger that evokes In-N-Out’s.
Food (and drinks) ☆☆
On two occasions, the fries held an odd texture. They were hot enough yet also tasted stale, as if they sat a while before the fryer. These fries took up most of the fish and chips plate otherwise occupied by nicely fried but under-seasoned cod. The clam chowder in a bread bowl and steamed clams were successes, however.
The must-try drink here is the 15-ounce, highly refreshing Lava Flow. A few other craft cocktails were overly bitter and/or acidic.
Friendly but not always fast or intuitive.
Value ☆☆ 1/2
An underwhelming tri-tip sandwich, served with stale-tasting fries, seems pricey at $14. But most craft cocktails are a reasonable $8, and the Lava Flow drink is a bargain at $10.