chef's table

CAPITAL CIY CLASSICS

Amid Sacramento’s ever-changing restaurant scene, these old-school staples still are going strong.

WRITTEN BY JORDAN VENEMA
PHOTOS BY DEBBIE CUNNINGHAM

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Food is big business in Sacramento, where it seems as if new restaurants can pop up overnight. These eateries lure diners with polished atmospheres and culinary escapades, but hard as they may try, even the savviest restaurateur can’t replicate what a handful of eateries have achieved effortlessly: authenticity.

Having stood the test of time, the following central Sacramento restaurants are as authentic as they come. They’ve employed the same waiters for decades, and their owners still know their way around the kitchen, making these joints more than Sacramento staples — the city just wouldn’t be the same without them.

Italian classic

Español is the eldest restaurant on the list, and it’s also the most straightforward. Checkered tablecloths help make this a classically Italian joint, as well as its satisfyingly simple menu — think spaghetti, ravioli, eggplant Parmesan, and a to-die-for lasagna. Owner Perry Luigi fondly describes the place as old fashioned but with a Basque twist.

Built in 1923 as a Basque boarding house, Español began serving its Italian dishes when Perry’s father purchased the restaurant in 1959. Luigi says the food is served in the Basque style.

“Everything comes with soup, salad, and entrée, plus coffee or iced tea, and ice cream,” he explains.

So for about 12 bucks, or roughly the price of a Midtown craft cocktail, you’re getting the whole enchilada — or whole cannoli, anyway.

Choose whatever entrée you like, but the must-have dish, according to Luigi, is the minestrone soup, which he begins preparing at 3 a.m. each day.

“You can have one bowl, you can have two, you can have five, but a lot of people make the mistake of having too much and then have to take the rest home,” he says.

Which isn’t exactly a problem, so long as you save room for the spumoni.

5723 Folsom Blvd., Sacramento

916-457-1936 • Espanol-italian.com

Open 11 a.m. – 9 p.m. Tues. – Sat., 11:30 a.m. – 9 p.m. Sun.

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River dining

There’s nothing really virgin about The Virgin Sturgeon, a restaurant that appears to have been around the block — or the river — once or twice. Keep your eyes peeled when looking for it off the Garden Highway: It’s more than just off the side of the road. It’s literally on the river.

A floating restaurant, The Virgin Sturgeon is one of a kind.

“You couldn’t build another one,” says owner Bobby Riggs. “They wouldn’t let you.”

The 33-year-old restaurant has weathered appeal but is indeed a seaworthy vessel, and when the river is wide and the trees green with leaves, from within the Sturgeon a customer might think he’s floating down the Mississippi.

It’s no surprise the restaurant serves its namesake, as well as trout, catfish, and other fish specials, but note that chefs only prepare them grilled. You’ll find no fish and chips on this boat, though the menu does include steaks, burgers, chicken, and a weekend brunch.

And then there are the daily specials: Mexican on Wednesdays, usually carnitas, shrimp fajitas, tamales, and enchiladas; and prime rib on Thursdays. But the real catch at The Virgin Sturgeon is Tuesday’s special, the cioppino, an Italian, tomato-based stew brimming with clams, shrimp, and fish.

The Sturgeon is busiest during the summer when boats park alongside its dock, but thanks to a friendly, familiar staff and a bar that’s open until 2 a.m., it’s always popular with locals.

1577 Garden Hwy., Sacramento

916-921-2694 • Find The Virgin Sturgeon on Facebook.

Open for lunch 11:30 a.m. – 3 p.m. Mon. – Fri., 12:30 – 4 p.m. Sat. – Sun.; Dinner 5 – 9:30 p.m. Mon. – Fri.; Weekend brunch 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. Sat. – Sun.

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Historic Firehouse

Not only is this restaurant a Sacramento staple, but it’s also a piece of the city’s history. Located in Old Sacramento, The Firehouse Restaurant occupies the former station of Engine Company No. 3, a brick building that’s more than 150 years old. A fireman’s pole located next to the bar pays homage to the building’s history, and the red-brick interior is juxtaposed with an otherwise extravagant décor.

Since The Firehouse opened in 1960, it has offered a double serving of fine dining and fine art. Larger-than-life paintings hang in the main dining area, including a portrait of Phoebe Hearst, mother of William Randolph Hearst.

“All of the art that you’ll see here is original, from the late 1800s to early 1900s,” says Jeff Wysocki, marketing specialist for the Harvego Restaurant Group, parent company for The Firehouse and two other Sacramento restaurants, Ten22 and District.

In addition to the art, other historical artifacts have been incorporated into The Firehouse’s décor, from fireplaces and mirrors to lampposts that now serve as pillars in the main dining room.

“Some places are made to look old, but everything in here is the real deal, and it either came from Sacramento or San Francisco,” Wysocki adds.

Even without the finely curated ambience, the restaurant’s culinary consistency could keep its loyal retinue of diners.

According to chef Jay Veregge, the menu is “an institution of modern cuisine, but sticks to old standards.”

And that means steak, he adds, but the finest cuts.

“It’s an anchor,” Veregge says, “and you don’t want to branch too far off. It’s why people have been coming here for years. We’re not a steakhouse, but we have some of the best steaks and always have.”

That doesn’t mean Veregge can’t dazzle beyond the beef. The Delmonico steak and eye of rib cuts stand alone, but the seafood appetizers are served as if they were art in themselves: Consider the seared scallops and breaded escargot, or the pork belly brandished by blooming lobster.

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This fine-dining establishment impresses with complimentary touches: a starting amuse bouche and palate-cleansing champagne sorbet. And the wine selection, which includes about 2,100 labels, means virtually every dish can be paired to taste. Resident wine director, general manager, and sommelier Mario Ortiz, who started working as a busser at The Firehouse more than 45 years ago, always is nearby to help with the selection.

1112 2nd St., Sacramento

916-442-4772 • Firehouseoldsac.com

Lunch served 11:30 a.m. – 2:30 p.m. Mon. – Fri.; Dinner served 5 – 9:30 p.m. Sun. – Thurs., 5 – 10 p.m. Fri. – Sat. Happy Hour 3 – 6 p.m. Mon. – Fri.

Freelance writer Jordan Venema is a fan of wild stories, impetuous traveling, loud music, and all food … but mostly of his son, Cassian, the greatest storyteller this side of the prime meridian.

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