Arena nights: A survival guide for downtown Sacramento visitors

Driving to Golden 1 Center? These tips could help make your journey easier

These tips from Sacramento Bee reporter Ryan Lillis provide key tips about what routes to take, where to park and what ride-share options you have if you are traveling by car for events at the Golden 1 Center in downtown Sacramento.
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These tips from Sacramento Bee reporter Ryan Lillis provide key tips about what routes to take, where to park and what ride-share options you have if you are traveling by car for events at the Golden 1 Center in downtown Sacramento.

If the last time you went downtown you posed for a photo in front of the Hard Rock Cafe’s giant guitar, this guide is for you.

If the last time you went downtown you picked up a tie at I. Magnin, this guide really is for you.

Downtown Sacramento is becoming a destination once again. The $557 million Golden 1 Center is up and running, hosting sporting events and sold-out concerts, and inspiring a new wave of businesses that seeks to turn the neighborhood into a thriving commercial zone. And this growth spurt is just getting started, with much development yet to be completed around Golden 1 Center and the adjacent K Street Mall.

An accelerating revitalization means folks who’ve avoided the area, or simply never taken the trip, will begin heading there like never before. But downtown can be a confusing place for outsiders with its one-way streets, construction zones and density of food options that can make deciding where to dine a game of its own.

But you, too, can become a downtown insider. We’ve culled tips from Sacramento Bee reporters about making the most of that downtown experience in terms of transportation, restaurants, public art and more. Read along, and we’ll see you downtown.


Dining options are a slam dunk near Golden 1 Center – and the options only are going to grow. While the arena boasts its own locally sourced food program that features plenty of tasty dishes (more on that later), dozens of new food and drink spots are expected to open near Golden 1 Center by the end of 2017.

For now, those who want to flaunt their baller status have plenty of high-end choices near the arena. Ella Dining Room & Bar (1131 K St.), Grange Restaurant & Bar (926 J St.) and Hock Farm Craft & Provisions (1415 L St.) are all spots that fly the farm-to-fork flag and the premium price tag that often comes with such locavore dining. If you’re looking to squeeze in some power brokering before the game, or just crave what might be the best French Dip sandwich in town, reserve a booth at the subterranean Empress Tavern (1013 K St.).

Those who aren’t as concerned about the provenance of their kale, or simply are on a tighter family budget, have many options as well. Take a stroll on and around K Street near the arena and you’ll find scrumptious pies at Pizza Rock (1020 K St.), burgers and big ol’ sandwiches at Dad’s On J (1004 J St.), kabobs and more at Zara Afghan Cuisine (729 J St.), and south-of-the-border styles at Ancho Mexican Grill (980 Ninth St.).

However, instead of micromanaging your downtown stay, take a couple of hours before game or show time to peek into the windows of places near the arena. Chances are it won’t take long to find something that whets your appetite.

Bars, pubs and breweries

Whether you crave a pint of beer or a meticulously crafted old-fashioned, downtown’s adult beverage options have you covered.

Despite the opening of several new watering holes near the arena, there’s still an essence of the divey side of downtown that can be low in decor but high in character. Charles Bukowski fans will feel at home on a bar stool at Henry’s Lounge (1117 Ninth St.). A mix of hipsters and longtime downtown denizens can be found at Pre-Flite (1011 10th St.), which in speakeasy style, has no sign but can be accessed off 10th Street between K and J streets.

For another in-the-know kind of experience, drop by the basement tasting room of Ruthstaller Brewery + Taproom (630 K St.). Press and hold the buzzer if the door is closed.

Many of the swanky restaurants in the area specialize in a crafty cocktails with house-made mixers and premium spirits. Ella Dining Room & Bar whips up a stellar gin and tonic, and also is the birthplace of the gin-based White Linen cocktail. Along with one of the lengthier beer menus in the area, Blackbird (1015 9th St.) utilizes beer infusions for its cocktail program, such as a Michelada made with pilsner beer and Sacramento’s own Preservation & Co. Bloody Mary mix. If you’re craving a Manhattan with premium bourbon, one that was actually made especially for this bar program, the aforementioned Grange is your spot.

For those who want to play Ms. Pac Man while sipping a mojito, Coin-Op Game Room (908 K St.) is stacked with classic video games and pinball and a full bar program. Or, if you’d rather stare at flat-screen TV instead of a video game console, Malt and Mash/El Rey (715/723 K St.) are adjoining spots where you can watch the Sacramento Kings and other sporting events.

There are plenty of places within walking distance to get a beer or something harder before or after an event at Sacramento's Golden 1 Center. Bee reporter Ed Fletcher breaks down a few in October 2016.

Arena food

The Bee’s food critic Carla Meyer recently taste-tested the arena’s food offerings and came away impressed. “Golden 1 Center is a legitimate dinner option,” she wrote.

The food and beer prices are “high middle” for arenas – $10 for a quarter of a pizza and $12-$14 for burgers. But most products and purveyors are local, and the quality and variety are much better than what was offered at Sleep Train Arena.

The pizza from Selland’s is an early favorite. The Cafe Bernardo $14 bacon habanero burger is peppery with a plenty of smoky bacon. The earthy and spicy meat in Centro’s carne asada taco plate make it seem reasonably priced at $10. The Sierra Nevada Draught House on the skyway was a madhouse the night Meyer visited, so she got a non-bargain but hearty and crisp $13 Fieldwork IPA – along with tasty, inexpensive (by arena standards) $8 red-chili fries – at the less-crowded Mulvaney’s outlet a few feet away.

The $14 pork sandwich from the Porchetta House on the main concourse may be the early winner. Meyer wrote it “marries tender, expertly seasoned pork roast from Chico’s Rancho Llano Seco with a substantial yet airy bun and is as good as anything we ever have tried at any sports venue.”

Sacramento Kings offer media a glimpse and taste of menu items that are locally and carefully sourced but still taste, in essence, like arena food.

Driving and parking

One of the biggest surprises in the arena’s opening month is how easy it has been to drive to and from events.

There has been some localized congestion. Some key streets around the arena are closed after events. But, with multiple ways in and out of downtown, driving away from Golden 1 Center has seemed easier than getting out of the crowded parking lots of Sleep Train. A few tips:

▪ Plan your driving route to avoid passing directly in front of the arena on Fifth, L or Seventh streets.

▪ Some of the easiest parking can be found in the garages three or four blocks from Golden 1 Center. There is plenty of room. Go on the city’s Sacpark.org website and pre-pay for a reserved spot in one of those garages.

▪ Parking meters within three blocks of the arena will cost a premium $18 flat rate on major event nights. If you can find a street spot four or more blocks away, you can get the cheaper hourly rates.

▪ Expect surge pricing and a challenge finding a driver while using ride services Uber and Lyft. Officials say the easiest of the three designated pick-up zones for quick get-aways is the one farthest away, on I Street at Seventh.

These tips from Sacramento Bee reporter Ryan Lillis provide key tips about what routes to take, where to park and what ride-share options you have if you are traveling by car for events at the Golden 1 Center in downtown Sacramento.

Light rail

First-time riders on Sacramento’s often-maligned light rail system have reported a surprise: The system is more orderly and enjoyable than many expected.

Realizing this is their minute in the spotlight, Sacramento Regional Transit has boosted cleaning crews and security, and thrown volunteer arena guides into the mix. But the system can be confusing for newcomers. Start by going online to the GoSacRT arena guide.

Best bet for buying tickets is to download the RideSacRT app so you can pre-purchase tickets on your smart phone and avoid the confusing fare-vending machines at station platforms. That way you don’t miss your train waiting in line to buy a ticket.

Single ride tickets are $2.75. A round trip ticket is $5.50. Groups of up to four can buy a discount $14 round-trip ticket. Some fare machines take credit cards; some only take cash.

The agency has another down-loadable app called Alert SacRT that riders can use to alert RT police if they see something they don’t like. It has a function that allows you to take a photo without being noticed.

The main pitfall to avoid: The train drops you off at a station that’s not the same station you will use to head home. For instance, Gold Line riders from Rancho Cordova will unload at Eighth and K streets, but they will catch their homebound train at either Seventh and I street or at 7th and Capitol Mall.

Sacramento Bee transportation reporter Tony Bizjak shows the best ways to utilize Sacramento's light rail system if you plan to ride to events downtown at the new Golden 1 Center. These tips will come in handy.

Construction zone

What’s up with that half-built tower looming over the plaza? And what’s the deal with those gutted buildings on K Street a block away?

The arena area remains a major construction zone. The Kings and their development partner expect to open as many as 45 shops, restaurants and bars within the next year in what is being called DoCo, or Downtown Commons. Much of that will be in the area you see to the west and north of the plaza, now barricaded by construction fences.

That tall building looming over the plaza is the Sawyer, a 16-story hotel and condo tower, to be completed in spring, in time for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. It’ll have a small bowling alley, game center and a restaurant that will spill onto the plaza.

Another large restaurant, Sauced BBQ, should open later this fall in the old Hard Rock Cafe site at Seventh and K streets.

Macy’s is undergoing a multimillion-dollar renovation, including a new entrance facing the arena. The Century movie complex, closed since January, is expected to reopen this winter with two more screens, for a total of nine.

The 700 block of K Street with the gutted buildings is being rebuilt into a restaurant complex crowned by 137 apartments. Developers Bay Miry and Ali Youssefi have announced five restaurants so far: a Japanese “speakeasy” by the owner of Kru; a multilevel eatery by the Red Rabbit owners; a Jewish delicatessen; an Insight Coffee house and a dessert place called Smoosh. The complex will open in the second half of 2017.

A block further east, the Kings are talking to the city about a redevelopment project featuring apartments and retail spots, in the fenced-off area at Eighth and K.

The arena is open, but there's still a lot of construction. Here's what's going on.

Arena art

By now, it’s clear many Sacramentans are pretty “meh” about the Piglet-inspired sculpture by Jeff Koons installed in the arena plaza. The craftsmanship of “Coloring Book” is certainly notable, especially the way its multicolored materials glow when the light hits it.

But for the $8 million price tag, the 16-foot sculpture strikes as somewhat underwhelming in relation to the mighty Golden 1 Center that looms in the background. Still, the Koons piece has rejuvenated conversations about local public art. At its best, public art truly defines a space by inviting a heightened experience, on that provokes thought from passers-by.

That sort of work can be found in local artist Gale Hart’s “Missing the Mark,” a kind of darts game gone awry. It’s a block-long installation that sprawls along the arena’s L Street side and up the plaza pathway on Fifth. The work includes a series of 12-foot darts that have already become a popular selfie spot – not to mention a makeshift bike rack at times. “Missing the Mark” also includes disembodied hands and a number-less dartboard. Though it stands alone as a visually playful work, “Missing the Mark” also makes a cheeky point about gamesmanship, the big money of the sports world and the civic debates surrounding Golden 1 Center’s construction.

“I like making fun of things that we take so serious,” Hart told The Bee.

A third piece of art outside the arena can’t be seen. A matrix of speakers mounted outside the arena transport guests via any number of soundscapes programed by composer Bill Fontana. Other nearby art notables include the once highly controversial “Indo Arch,” by Gerald Walburg, which straddles the pedestrian walkway at Fourth and K. Yes, it was rusted like that the day it was installed more than 35 years ago.

A few feet away from the arch are two other art pieces: The 12-story “Clock Tower” by R.M. Fischer and the “Metamorphosis” mural by The Centro de Artistas Chicano, which is on the parking garage wall on the pedestrian walkway along Fourth Street between K and L.

Inside the arena, there is artist Bryan Valenzuela’s “Multitudes Converge,” 400 blue-glass globes suspended above the southwest corner of the main concourse.

Nearby attractions

If you park or take rail to the arena, and are looking to make it a longer visit, remember you’re only blocks from four downtown attractions:

The state Capitol offers tours, but also has an open door policy, allowing visitors to wander the halls, and look at the gallery of gubernatorial portraits. Crocker Museum, at Second and O streets, opened a vast new wing several years ago, allowing curators to put out a storehouse full of often playful contemporary art.

The state Railroad Museum and Old Sacramento offer family-friendly entertainment as well.

Dale Kasler, Ryan Lillis, Carla Meyer and Chris Macias contributed to this article.

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