By Larry Levine –

When the conversation turns to great restaurant towns, Los Angeles and San Francisco are the two California cities most commonly mentioned. But there’s a third city that is rapidly rising to rival the big two.

It’s Sacramento – the state capital – and there are enough wonderful restaurants downtown and in the outlying neighborhoods to challenge the palate of even a long-term visitor.  

It hasn’t always been this way. When I first went to work in Sacramento as the summer vacation bureau chief for Copley News Service in August 1965, the pickins were a lot slimmer. California had a part time legislature and the sophistication level of the capital city wasn’t great. The restaurant scene pretty much came down to Frank Fats, The Broiler, Posey’s Cottage, and Sam’s Haufbrau in the Capitol area.

I left the news business in 1967 and began a new career as a political consultant in 1970. That took me to Sacramento again with some frequency. By the mid-1970s the legislature had been professionalized and voters decided to make it a full time job. The sophistication level began to rise and the potential for more restaurants to succeed also grew. Ellis and Brannan’s emerged as hot spots near the Capitol. Le Sur and Andre’s opened east of downtown, giving the city an excellent French and Italian option. All four are gone now.

About the same time, a renewal project brought a resurgence to the Old Town area along the Sacramento River and The Firehouse took its place as the city’s premier restaurant and a popular place for political fundraising events. Even as a plethora of fine new restaurants have opened in the last several years, The Firehouse remains as good a restaurant as you would hope to find anywhere.

For me the brightest star in the Sacramento restaurant scene today is Biba in East Sac. It’s been one of my favorites anywhere in California for more than 15 years. But I get plenty of arguments from friends and colleagues who live and work in Sacramento. While all admit Biba is a class act with excellent Italian fare, they raise up their other personal favorites as worthy competitors.

Sacramento is a great city to visit and sightsee. The Capitol Building itself, with its magnificent wood work, mosaics, architecture and history is worth half a day. The California Museum could fill the better part of a day. A stroll through Old Town, with lunch by the river and a visit to the Railroad Museum, is another satisfying half day. There’s river rafting in season, Sutter’s Fort, the Aerospace Museum and an Indian Museum also belong on the agenda.

And at day’s end or lunchtime, there are restaurants galore. Here’s a sampling of some great choices.

Biba – 2801 Capitol Avenue, East Sac – (916) 455-2422 –  An elegant room and exquisite Italian dining. My favorite.

The Firehouse – 1112  2nd St., Old Town – (916) 442-4772 – Never a bad meal in 30 years of dining here.

Grange Restaurant and Bar – 926 “J” St., Capitol area – (916) 492-4450 –  A fairly new place in a restored historic hotel.

Formoli’s Bistro – 3260 “J” St., East Sac – (916) 448-5699 –  A neighborhood gem, small and intimate.

 Slocum House – 7992 California Ave., Fair Oaks, (916) 961-7211 –    A romantic getaway.

 The Kitchen Restaurant – 2225 Hurley Way, Suite 101, East Sac – (916) 568-7171 –   One seating per night; reservations months in advance.

 Celestin’s Island Eats & Cajun Cuisine – 1815 “K” St., Downtown – (916) 444-2423 –   Best gumbo this side of N’Orleans.

 The Broiler – 1201 “K” St., Downtown – (916) 444-3444 –    60 years and still going strong.

 Kru – 2516 “J” St., East Sac – (916) 551-1559 –
Locals love it for sushi.

Esquire Grill – 1213 “K” St., Downtown – (916) 448-8900 –
A political hot spot.

Fanny Ann’s Saloon – 1023  2nd St., Old Town – (916) 441-0505 –   Pub style for burgers, fish tacos, etc.

Mulvaney’s Building & Loan – 1215 19th St., Downtown – (916) 441-6022 –  Hand crafted American cuisine.

These are just some of the highlights of the dining possibilities available in Sacramento. There are plenty more and you can read about them at

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