Secrets to success in Sacramento’s food-and-drink scene.
WRITTEN BY MADISON LISLE
PHOTOS BY RACHEL VALLEY
Garret Van Vleck, co-owner of Shady Lady in Midtown
In an initially unassuming corner, dark glass hides the musicians inside. Their saxophone and trumpet sounds pour out the door as a clientele consisting of professionals, artists, and bartenders wander in and out. The bar is more than just a place to throw back a drink after work; it’s a place to relax and go back in time. A place that feels like you’ve wandered into a New Orleans speakeasy on jazz night, in a time when every night is jazz night and absinthe cocktails are passed between old friends. A night at Shady Lady Saloon is more than sipping a drink; it’s an experience.
Going out to eat and drink is becoming less about the food and drink and more about the atmosphere. In a resurgence in Sacramento, niche, concept bars and restaurants are popping up and are, in the case of Shady Lady, stronger than ever. Here, the minds behind many of these creative, longstanding concept establishments share what they’ve learned about having luck in the industry, finding their audiences, and taking their customers on a journey.
Pushing the envelope
Garrett Van Vleck, 38, one of the co-founders of Shady Lady in Midtown Sacramento, has been in the restaurant and bar industry since he was 18, so he knew what type of bar he would have when it was his chance. He also co-owns several others, including B-Side and Field House American Sports Pub, both in Sacramento. Shady Lady is approaching nine years old and is more popular now than ever.
“We shot to have a timeless feel. We got lucky with being one of the first cocktail bars in Sacramento,” Van Vleck says. “We saw what was happening in San Francisco and Los Angeles and knew that was going to be a good trend and we were in the position to make it happen.”
Though creating a timeless bar is no easy task. Van Vleck credits the bar’s success to the brother-like relationship he has with his co-owners, Jason Boggs and Alex Origoni.
“In the restaurant industry, you have to go with what you like. You can’t open a theme you hate just because it’s trendy. It’s a mix of doing what you like but also trying to see what’s happening in the world, what’s happening in the restaurant and bar culture, what’s happening in the culture of the city you’re living in,” Van Vleck says.
The inspiration for Shady Lady came from Van Vleck’s love of music and cocktail history. The New Orleans speakeasy is a cornerstone of bar culture. He noted the lack of such an establishment in the community and a desire for a place that offered a getaway.
Van Vleck lives in the area where he is building his bars and restaurants, so he has gotten to know his clientele well. This has helped him tap into its residents’ wants and needs.
“We’re not opening the same concept over and over again; every place we open is a little different, or very different. Until you’re up and running, you don’t know what’s what,” Van Vleck says.
Finding a happy medium between comfort and escape is where Shady Lady has excelled.
“If the concept is too nerdy and the cocktails are too strange and the food is too small and artsy, I don’t want that. Everyone has been pushed into the middle; there’s a Goldilocks zone,” Van Vleck says.
Beyond the cocktail
Trevor Easter, 34, is the director of operations at de Vere’s Irish Pub, the establishment created by the de Vere White family, with locations in Downtown Sacramento and Davis. He wants to offer customers a next-level imbibing experience. Easter maintains that making a great cocktail doesn’t take a science degree, but it does take a degree of creativity and foresight.
“I’ve always played with other people’s ideas; I’ve driven someone else’s car,” Easter says.
Easter has spent his career managing bars that include The Walker Inn and The Normandie Club in Los Angeles and Rickhouse in San Francisco.
Easter cites Shady Lady and de Vere’s as two places that have explored a new frontier in dining.
“They’re utilizing this complete desire for escapism,” he says. “When you walk in, you’re transported to another part of the world. It’s no accident that an Irish pub and a New Orleans bar have become cultural icons in Sacramento.”
When it comes to making a memorable cocktail or meal, “context is key,” Easter says. “A really good environment can make an unexpected drink taste good. Like how a margarita tastes better when your feet are in the sand.”
Easter points to one bar in Los Angeles that doesn’t serve vodka and another in New York that uses a centrifuge to make cocktails as his inspirations. Easter aims to find his regulars and then encourage them to try new creations. He also encourages creative changes behind the bar as well.
“We purchased a brand-new freezer so I can make fancy ice. I’m seeing how far we can go with a pub so people don’t think we’re crazy, but we’re still doing something new,” he says.
Even though a new ice machine is not an obvious change, it’s a subtle shift that can increase the interest and atmosphere in a bar. This change has allowed de Vere’s to get into the cocktail trend and add whiskey cocktails to the menu. With the largest whiskey selection in Sacramento, Easter and his team have opened the door to new ways of making drinks.
Easter also is in the process of launching another restaurant/bar for the de Vere’s restaurant group, one that’s a twist on pub classics and seasonal cocktails. The new bar will combine comfort foods with a perennial list of beverage concoctions, simultaneously filling the need for ease and adventure in a restaurant space.
“We’ll push food and cocktails further. By utilizing [cocktail-making] techniques, we can make something taste really good, and the effort that goes in is even more important than the ingredients,” he says.
For Easter, making an experience special doesn’t mean breaking the bank; his goal is to make a drink fun, delicious, different, and photo worthy.
“If you’ve made something that someone wants to steal, then you’ve done something right,” he says.
Trevor Easter, director of operations at de Vere's Irish Pub
Team behind the scenes
Chris Jarosz, 50, who owns and operates Broderick Roadhouse and the other Broderick restaurants in the Sacramento area, credits his success to his team and mentorship from other restaurateurs.
When he’s not opening new restaurant locations, he’s lobbying for restaurant owners in Washington, D.C., and traveling the country customizing one-of-a-kind liquors for his business, from bespoke bourbon to carefully chosen batches of tequila.
Jarosz says that the success of Broderick has come from lucky timing and taking chances to improve business. Another cause has helped him stick it out as well: in his restaurants Jarosz champions local produce, scratch-made sauces and condiments, and minimally processed dishes.
“We want to scrub our whole menu and make sure we can get everything all natural, organic, no corn syrup, etc. I think we’re all learning that it’s probably processing that’s killing us. We want to keep our food nutritionally sound,” Jarosz says.
He says that some of his team members have worked in his establishments since the beginning and bring a sense of hominess to the restaurants.
“A lot of people supported me on the way; if people didn’t pick me up every day, Broderick wouldn’t be here,” he says. “It’s the friends who helped along the way that made it happen. Even though we are in a super competitive environment, we’re trying to help each other be successful.”
Does the success of these bars and restaurants really all come down to the simple ingredients of timing, flexibility, and support? Or does the will to succeed come from a deeper place, a desire to bring people together and share a passion?
Whether pushing the senses or creating a place of comfort is the goal, these restaurateurs have more surprises in store for the food-and-drink scene in Sacramento. So the next time the need to escape arises, you’ll find them waiting with warm welcomes and intriguing cocktails.
Madison Lisle is a writer and journalist who loves a good research project. She loves buying local, meeting artists anywhere she goes, and seeking out local vegan food. Read more of her work and talk to her on Citrusandsugar.com.
Shady Lady Saloon
1409 R St., Sacramento • 916-231-9121 • Shadyladybar.com
De Vere’s Irish Pub
1521 L St., Sacramento • 916-231-9947
217 E St., Davis • 530-204-5533
319 6th St., West Sacramento • 916-372-2436
1516 Eureka Road, Roseville • 916-771-2722
1820 L St., Midtown Sacramento • 916-469-9720