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This year, we asked our restaurant critic, Kira O'Donnell, the question that so many people ask her: "What are your favorite restaurants right now?" With a degree in enology from UC Davis, experience in the kitchen at Chez Panisse, L'Auberge and in her own pie shop, plus nearly 15 years writing about food and dining for Sacramento magazine and other publications, O'Donnell knows her stuff. Also, in keeping with tradition, we asked our readers and website visitors to vote for their favorites in 15 categories in our online survey. Get ready to eat!
There are hundreds (maybe even thousands) of restaurants in the Sacramento region, and as the Sacramento magazine food critic, I've been lucky enough to dine at many of them. But whenever someone asks me to name my favorite restaurant (and it happens frequently), I scramble clumsily for an answer. The truth is, I have lots of favorite restaurants, and I frequent them for many different reasons. They range from hole-in-the-wall taco joints to swanky, see-and-be-seen eateries, but their common denominator is that each serves up earnest, thoughtful and beautifully crafted food in an environment that makes me feel welcomed and appreciated. Here are 20 that top my list.
The quintessential neighborhood bistro, Tuli Bistro serves inspired, high-end cuisine in an unpretentious environment. The best way to experience this restaurant is to belly up to the long granite counter overlooking the kitchen line so you can watch as your food is prepared. However, because the interior is very small, chances are you'll end up seated outside on the covered patio, which is heated during the winter months and is lovely on warm days. The food is innovative and seasonally driven, and the restaurant really knocks it out of the park with its pasta dishes and marvelous wood-oven pizzas. The chefs have a deft hand with seafood, and I get weak in the knees just thinking about the tender flank steak, served on a velvety celeriac-potato purée.
2031 S ST., SACRAMENTO; (916) 451-8854; TULIBISTRO.COM
Lauded for its excellent wine list, polished service and ravishing food, Hawks is a true dining destination. I've always admired the airy, spare dining room with its soothing pale blue and brown color scheme. There, black-andwhite photos of rustic farmscapes reflect owners Molly Hawks' and Michael Fagnoni's commitment to locally sourced ingredients. Soups are a specialty—I've never had one that wasn't sensational—and vegetables also get some real love in this kitchen. My favorite day to visit is Sunday, when the restaurant offers a comforting prix-fixe dinner. Come when they're serving fried chicken; it will knock your socks off.
5530 DOUGLAS BLVD., GRANITE BAY; (916) 791-6200; HAWKSRESTAURANT.COM
Tucked away in a Greenhaven retail center, Ravenous Cafe has a mission: to nourish the neighborhood with simple, delicious food. Chef/owner Mark Helms creates flavorful, Mediterranean-inspired fare. The compact menu includes mussels (offered three ways), excellent pasta dishes and a wildly popular grilled halloumi cheese appetizer with arugula, tomatoes and balsamic vinegar. The short, appealing wine list features fun choices from Clarksburg, Amador County and the Sierra foothills. I like sitting at the counter, which affords an elevated view of the restaurant's goings-on. Ravenous has very limited seating, so make reservations.
7600 GREENHAVEN DRIVE, SACRAMENTO; (916) 399- 9309; RAVENOUSCAFE.COM
Thai restaurants abound in Sacramento, but Bangkok Garden in Natomas is one of the very best. The striking dining room has lustrous floor-to-ceiling wood paneling, an interesting collection of Thai artwork, a small shrine and a couple of colorful fish tanks. Every dish I've tried here has shone with vibrant, fresh flavors, from the vivacious calamari salad (tossed with chopped mint, red onion, cilantro and lemon grass) to the rich duck curry, whose lush, red, coconutty sauce is punctuated with chunks of sweet pineapple, bamboo shoots and fresh basil—lovely counterpoints to the duck meat. Note: Bangkok Garden's "medium" on the spicy scale is pretty hot, so if you're the cautious type, choose the "mild" option.
Gotta have it: Som tum (shredded fresh green papaya salad with green beans, tomatoes, peanuts, chilies and lime juice)
3230 ARENA BLVD., SACRAMENTO; (916) 285-0608
The Waterboy has been serving marvelous, satisfying fare with California, Northern Italian and Southern French flavors since 1996. Chef/owner Rick Mahan has a fanatically loyal fan base, and as one of the first chefs in town to promote and support small local farms, he's a celebrity for the region's Slow Fooders. The restaurant, which sits on a busy midtown corner, is bounded by large windows that flood the space with gorgeous light during the day. Friendly and warm, this is the perfect place to bring Someone Who Counts: your boss, your mother-in-law or a much-anticipated first date. Top menu picks include Mahan's exquisite fish dishes and wonderfully fresh salads. (If the bitter greens salad with blue cheese, bacon and walnuts is on the menu, order it.)
Gotta have it: Bouillabaisse with tomato-saffron broth and grilled bread
2000 CAPITOL AVE., SACRAMENTO; (916) 498-9891; WATERBOYRESTAURANT.COM
A superb "big town" eatery in rural, smalltown Woodland, Tazzina Bistro serves some of the most earnest food in the region. It's owned and operated by chef Rebecca Reichardt, who grew up in the area and is a dedicated supporter of small family farmers. She cooks hearty, interesting dishes that exuberantly showcase the seasons. A magnet for Yolo County foodies and the UC Davis crowd, the restaurant offers nightly specials: fish 'n' chips on Monday, chicken and dumplings on Tuesday, roast pork loin on Sunday. For bold, Italian-inspired fare, order the fabulous pulled lamb and gremolata polenta "lasagna" with niçoise olives, artichoke hearts, fennel and tomato confit.
Gotta have it: Mustard-crusted chicken with mashed potatoes
614 MAIN ST., WOODLAND; (530) 661-1700; TAZZINA BISTRO.COM