Bob Shallit

Restaurant adds to revival of Sacramento’s historic Elks Tower

The Elks Tower’s basement swimming pool has been converted into a lounge to be featured at the RailBridge Cellars & Co. restaurant. About 60 events have been held at the reservation-only lounge in the past year.
The Elks Tower’s basement swimming pool has been converted into a lounge to be featured at the RailBridge Cellars & Co. restaurant. About 60 events have been held at the reservation-only lounge in the past year. aseng@sacbee.com

This could end up being one of the city’s most talked about dining spots.

In about two months, the doors will open at RailBridge Cellars & Co., a 2,000-square-foot restaurant and wine bar on the ground floor of Sacramento’s 90-year-old Elks Tower at 11th and J streets.

The goal is to create a 1920s-era vibe, with vintage fixtures, exposed brick and antique marble.

“You’re going to walk in and think you took a step back in time,” said Michael Gelber, president of Alexis Ventures, which owns the RailBridge Cellars winery along with Strings Urban Kitchen, a RailBridge tasting room on the Elks’ 14th-floor penthouse and now the first-floor bistro, on the building’s 11th Street side, scheduled to open in late November or early December.

Perhaps the most arresting feature will be windows allowing diners to gaze down into what was once the Elks’ basement swimming “tank.” Over the past year, Gelber has converted that area into a lounge where groups gather for meals while seated in the former pool. “VIP” seating is available in two hot tubs that were added to the room in the 1960s.

“How often do you go to an event in a pool without water?” said Gelber, who is 54 and the son-in-law of Steve Ayers, who bought the Elks building in 2003 and launched a remarkable campaign to restore the brick and terra cotta building to its former grandeur.

Ayers’ original plan for the first-floor area was to open a chocolate shop, to be called Hanzel & Pretzel and run by his sister, with a brandy “library” and port bar in the subterranean area. But when his sister became ill around 2010, Ayers said he “decided to lock the doors.”

You’re going to walk in and think you took a step back in time.

Michael Gelber, president of Alexis Ventures, which owns the RailBridge Cellars winery

They stayed closed until last year when Gelber and his wife, Katharine, proposed their own plans for “reinventing” the space.

First was rehabbing the underground area, which Michael Gelber says was once a “health club” where Elks members stood in the pool “fat and jolly, drinking brandy and smoking cigars.” He commissioned colorful art for the walls and turned it into a lounge that’s open by reservation only. About 60 events have been held there over the past year.

Then work began on the first-floor space, which will be decorated with rich, dark wood, copper and brass accents and century-old Italian Carrara marble flooring that was removed a decade ago from the state Library and Courts building on Capitol Mall during a seismic retrofit.

“Using 1920s marble for a 1920s building is just icing on the cake,” Gelber said of the flooring material that sat for years in a Rio Linda construction yard, forgotten and covered by weeds.

Other cool touches: ornate light fixtures salvaged from the McCormick & Schmick’s restaurant that formerly operated on the building’s J Street side and a one-way mirror in the eatery’s lone restroom allowing patrons to look out into the restaurant space without anyone being able to look in.

Initial plans call for Monday-to-Friday hours, with a menu influenced by the Top of the Town restaurant that drew crowds to the Elks’ penthouse in the 1950s and 1960s.

Coffee and baked goods will be available in the morning, salads and sandwiches at lunch and small plates served until about 7 p.m. along with about 50 wines, many of them vintage varieties that harken back to an earlier time.

Gelber said he’s trying to create a place for dining and drinking that has “a sense of character, comfort and ease. We could all use a little more of that.”

Ayers, who has spent a small fortune restoring the building following an ill-advised 1970s remodel, is more than happy with his son-in-law’s progress.

“I love what he’s done,” Ayers said. “This is something you might see in New York. It’s definitely not something you see in this city.”

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