Cover Photo of Tower Theatre by Justin W on Unsplash
Did I ever expect to call Sacramento home?
No, not really. But then again, I never expected Sherlock Holmes to retire in East Dean, England, but there you go.
I first viewed Sacramento with mild curiosity when visiting my future wife’s family at various gatherings. I liked the trees, the rivers, the quiet downtown that reminded me of a grown-up Missoula, just down the road from San Francisco and Oakland. It had a used bookstore! That was a promising sign.
But it always seemed so darned hot, not where we wanted to be. And yet, here we are.
Here, we can afford more home than an Oakland townhouse, free from the aggravations of an HOA. Where P and I can go for night walks around the block of a quiet neighborhood.
P’s made a best friend. I can walk along the levee and see turtles and herons. In the right weather, I can smell the rain and see the leaves turn gold as I walk for miles. I can almost forget that I-5 is just on the other side of a weather-beaten, wind-twisted chain-link fence.
Sacramento is a good compromise of a city, like so many state capitals (Olympia? Not Seattle? Albany? Not NYC?). It sits where I-5 and I-80 meet. It’s at the mouth of the delta, the watery path to the Bay, but also at the gates of the Central Valley. It’s not LA; it’s not San Francisco. It’s a city in-between, a city with an NBA team already that is/was so agonizingly close to getting the added flavor of a Major League Soccer team as well.
It’s a town worthy of a love note on film. It’s also apparently worthy of a road trip film about leaving LA – notwithstanding the fact that a drive of 8 hours or less on a freeway is not exactly Kerouacian in its scope. If you can’t finish an unabridged P.G. Wodehouse audiobook on a drive, that’s not a proper road trip.
I don’t know if Sacramento is a Road Trip Holy Grail. But it feels like home, and here are six reasons why. And none of them are the Capitol Building, Old Sacramento, or the Zoo – I mean, those are all great, but a bit obvious.
The Old Sugar Mill
I know, I know, this sounds like a Hardy Boys novel (specifically #3, The Secret of the Old Mill.) But stay with me here.
The Old Sugar Mill is actually outside of Sacramento, but you can’t come to Sacramento and ignore the river towns and levee. The city is the region; it’s got the same quiet feeling of a Californian reality that you get from Steinbeckian Monterey and Salinas.
If you drive a few miles south of the city along the levee, past time-worn boat launches and the ramshackle but happy little speedbump called Freeport, you come to Clarksburg and The Old Sugar Mill . A former beet sugar refinery, it’s now a collective space for fourteen local independent wineries – because yes, Virginia, there is wine outside of Napa and Sonoma – including our favorite, Kirchoff, a family label specializing in Spanish varietals and dry-farming. They had M at ‘Spanish varietals and dry-farming.’
The Old Sugar Mill is a massive pile of bricks, with a central hall with vaulted ceilings that captures a bit of the flavor of a classic train station, with different wineries (or sellers of olive oil, in some cases) nestled into cozier caverns to the sides, and a few more stationed in a separate warehouse. Think Paul Giamatti meets Harry Potter.
Passing through the main hall and exiting the building, you’ll find a sprawling lawn stretching towards the levee that welcomes both running kids and running dogs, and where you will often find local food trucks. Buying food or just sipping? There are lots of open-air tables scattered along various pathways and plazas.
You’re near the river. You pretty much always have sun (because rain is extinct in the Sacramento Valley, for better or for worse). You have brick buildings and wine and grass. To quote the Sacramento dad driving a Honda Fit full of young women past the Capital post-election, shouting his response to pro-Trump wastrels: “I’m sorry, I can’t hear you over all the winning.”
35265 Willow Ave
Clarksburg, CA 95612
When you leave the Old Sugar Mill, if you turn south along the levee, you’ll soon come to Husick’s Taphouse , set “in the heart of Clarksburg, CA.” To be fair, Clarksburg is so small that it’s basically all heart, but that’s part of the charm. It’s smaller than Hamilton, Montana, and that’s saying something.
Speaking of Montana, the real reason why Husick’s is on the list? Moose Drool beer.
Husick’s was the first place in the Sacramento area where I found Moose Drool (and other Big Sky Brewing beers) on tap. With a waitress from Missoula, with Moose Drool to hand, with big round wooden tables with butcher paper and crayons available for the kids (at least before COVID and hopefully again when indoors dining can resume), with well-pressed sandwiches like the Clarksbird on the menu, and sited right across the road from the river, I can’t help but smile when I think of it.
36510 Riverview Dr.
Clarksburg, CA 95612
Meet & Eat
Meet & Eat was the first restaurant we tried after moving to our South Land Park home that I knew I wanted to visit again. But with the pandemic, it’s been a long time since we’ve dined indoors anywhere that I don’t really remember exactly why I fell for Meet & Eat. But I remember booths. Booths are always good.
With a mix of burgers, beer, sandwiches, beer, fish and chips, and related snacks, it has everything I’ve ever looked for in a restaurant (whether my demands are exacting is certainly up for debate, but they suit me). A self-styled gastro lounge, which basically means it’s a comfortable spot for eating leisurely meals, it sits on one corner of a mini-town-square, with a rectangular green in the middle of a U-shaped space off Freeport Blvd that includes houses, a hair salon, a student bookshop for the neighboring City College, and an independent coffee shop.
In other words, comfort food, which equals a homey feel. Plus, you know, there’s a pun in the name.
3445 Freeport Blvd
Sacramento, CA 95818
The Fab Forties
Okay, this one makes me feel bougie. I can’t help it.
Picture the McAllisters’ mansion in Home Alone. Better yet, picture the Grandma House in Lady Bird, because that’s an actual Fab Forties house that became a local thing after the movie. Surround that with maybe a dozen square blocks of equally impressive homes along equally leafy streets, and you have the Fab Forties.
These are the kinds of homes we could afford if we won a couple of lotteries back to back and swindled the IRS out of their cut somehow.
And yet there’s something about this neighborhood that helps it avoid the Palpatinesque vibe of a place like the Bitterroot Stock Farm, the gated community whose sense of civic involvement is defined as offering teens jobs at the golf course.
It’s an actual neighborhood with stately trees and extra-big houses. These people go big for Halloween and Christmas, without irony and with a lot of humor. Seriously, the decorations are so good that traffic jams are a fact of life. Horse-drawn carriages run excursions at Christmas, and in every season, groups of neighbors sell treats and drinks from folding tables for worthy causes.
It’s all pretty fab, in a surprisingly humble way.
Just follow the horse-drawn carriages and beer bike tours
The Tower Theatre & Cafe
On one of our first visits to Sacramento in the Pre-Daughter Era, M and I had brunch at the Tower Cafe with my now-Mother-In-Law. It was a sunny morning ripe with orange juice, coffee, French Toast. It was a Platonic brunch, as in approaching the ideal. Bright colors, great food, relaxed atmosphere.
And Tower Theatre – you know it’s a place for Serious Film because they reverse the r and the e. It’s just lovely. A sense of history, of small-town afternoons and evenings such as those of youth at the Roxy Theater in Hamilton, Montana, but with wine.
The Tower complex, well, it’s a landmark. The last lingering vestiges of an empire that once spanned the state via Tower Records – the last brick retail Tower book and music outlets, just across Land Park Drive from the theater and cafe were recently bulldozed.
Maybe Tower fits into the same Too Obvious category as the Capitol Building and Old Sac, but there’s something different about Tower. You can sense the lingering nostalgia from the generations who grew up in Sacramento with Tower; maybe it’s soaked into the walls and the neon marquee of the theater, flows through the fountain set amidst the patio dining outside the cafe.
Yes, this was in Lady Bird as well; Greta Gerwig beat me to the punch with most of this blog content, but that’s okay. She grew up here; I’m just a transplant.
Oh, also, Tower Theatre is where I first saw Lady Bird. Greta wins again.
The Theatre has been open again for some time. Tower Cafe is now set to reopen over the Fourth of July Weekend, a welcome return (and I’m trying really, really hard to ignore my cynicism over the optics). A Sacramento without both the Tower Theatre and the Tower Cafe would be a drab place indeed.
2508 Land Park Dr.
Sacramento, California 95818
The Snug is a cozy bar tucked into a corner of Sacramento’s vibrant R Street District that embosses it’s name on the giant ice cubes used for outstanding bourbon old-fashioneds. Need I say more?
No. The answer is no. I don’t need to say more.
Well, other than to say I’ve missed it, and it appears I’ve missed a transition Covid period in which it has relied on alternate guises to sail on; here’s hoping it carries on in snug fashion for many years to come. It will be a long-standing anchor to life here in Sacramento, if all goes well.
1800 15th Street Suite F
Sacramento, California 95811