Sacramento’s riverside restaurants are the perfect place to welcome the summer.
Sacramento lies at the confluence of two rivers, the Sacramento and the American, and is bordered to the south by the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta. Committed water lovers, we relish these beautiful waterways for the splashing, fishing, canoeing, floating and skiing opportunities they provide. And after a day of river play, there’s nothing better than a restaurant meal with gorgeous watery views. Our region is home to a number of river dining establishments&emdash;some casual, some snazzy, some accessible by boat. We recently sampled a handful of them to find out what local water enthusiasts will be eating this summer.
* Chevys Fresh Mex
Who can resist the flamboyant, festive party atmosphere at Chevys, a cavernous space on Garden Highway pulsating with catchy Latin music, brightened by blinking, neon cerveza signs and punctuated by enthusiastic slurpings of teeth-achingly cold margaritas? The restaurant’s mustard-yellow and vermilion walls, colorful, salsa-spattered Naugahyde tablecloths and rough, wooden-planked floors can easily bewitch patrons into believing they’re on vacation. And the party isn’t limited to the interior of the restaurant: On warm weekend days, the patio out back is thronged with sun-giddy customers eating, drinking and clambering onto&emdash;and off of&emdash;boats.
Chevys also has injected some fun and color into its menu, which is redefining the boundaries of traditional Tex-Mex fare. Consider the kitchen’s grilled farmers market quesadilla, stuffed with sauted fresh spinach, artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes and roasted poblano peppers, served with a habanero-pesto cream sauce; or the sizzling portobello and grilled asparagus fajitas. Waiters make the guacamole at the table, and enchiladas contain such interesting ingredients as blue crab and white wine-sauted shrimp.
My dining companion, a beef-fajita devotee, went out on a limb and ordered the fire-braised chicken flautas: deep-fried flour tortillas stuffed with a sweet chicken mixture, Jack and cheddar cheeses, and roasted corn and red bell peppers, served with mango salsa, chipotle aioli and a fiery diabla sauce. Although the flauta’s exterior was pleasingly crispy, the inside was gummy, and the barbecuelike flavor of the chicken did not work well with the accompanying sauces. We also tried the Dos Tamales, with much better results. The shredded pork tamale was napped with an earthy New Mexico red chili sauce, while the hand-shredded chicken tamale was drizzled with a tangy fresh tomatillo green chili sauce. Both were sprinkled with delicious roasted corn salsa and crumbled cotija cheese and were wonderfully meaty, moist and tender.
Chevys has always excelled with its corn chips: Served warm, they are delicate, crisp, light and the perfect vehicle for the restaurant’s lusty roasted tomato salsa. Its fresh flour tortillas come directly from El Machino, a small, glass-enclosed baking unit that delivers the tortillas on a little conveyor belt to a dour-faced employee, who promptly bags a handful and sends them off, hot and steaming, to a table.
If Chevys’ fiesta atmosphere is simply too rambunctious for you, seek refuge in the back of the restaurant, where you will find more private, quiet tables snuggled up against porthole-style windows with good river views.
1369 Garden Highway, Sacramento; (916) 649-0390; chevys.com
* Bridges on the River
Many of the restaurants hugging the shores of our region’s rivers are casual establishments, catering to sunburned, flip-flopped patrons more interested in laid-back, fun-filled dining than Serious Cuisine. However, it’s clear that Bridges on the River seeks to set itself apart as a restaurant known both for its watery views and its upscale menu.
Bridges was converted from a former home, and we were never able to shake the feeling that we were eating in the living room of someone we did not know. But the dining areas of this Garden Highway eatery are very attractive&emdash;all three rooms are flooded with dazzling sunlight, overlooking both the restaurant’s large, lush lawn and the river flowing lazily beyond. We were seated in the largest of the rooms, which possesses an enormous ceiling beam from which hung a curious, medieval-inspired chandelier. And while the room was bright and clean, my dining companion commented that it had an Aunt Velma vibe, pointing to the mirrored walls and large arrangement of fake flowers near the stone fireplace, above which hung an old still life of a Chianti bottle and a yellow rose.
The interesting lunch menu ranged from a pan-seared, pumpkin-seed-crusted Chinook salmon served over roasted pumpkin to angel hair pasta with sun-dried tomatoes. Several of the appetizers, including the crab cakes (with a fennel and red onion salad) and the Castroville smoked artichoke, sounded quite appealing. We opted for the Bartlett pear salad, composed of spinach and butter leaf lettuce, roasted red bell peppers and pancetta, tossed in a delicious Champagne vinegar walnut dressing and topped with a fan of perfectly ripe, floral pears and a bumpy chunk of pecan-fried Camembert cheese. Surprisingly&emdash;and disappointingly&emdash;the cheese was not hot. Instead of the creamy, warm, opulent Camembert we anticipated, the cold, nut-studded cheese was gunky and the nuts were greasy, coating our mouths with an unpleasant film. But the pears were delightful and refreshing, as was the rest of the salad.
The lunch entres we sampled were terrific: The moist, pan-seared petrale sole featured a crusty cornmeal exterior and was served with a wine lemon butter sauce dotted with tomatoes, leeks and capers. It came with excellent mashed potatoes and crisp-cooked, herb-flecked green and yellow wax beans. My friend’s shredded barbecue pork sandwich, sweet and oily, was piled on a white roll with deeply brown, caramelized onions and melted pepper Jack cheese. Accompanying the sandwich were irresistible buttermilk onion fries and a zingy cucumber tomato salad.
Bridges’ pricey dinner entres include filet mignon with red wine demi-glace; grilled Colorado Kobe beef with buttermilk-bacon-chive smashed Yukon potatoes; and a spicy jambalaya with housemade andouille sausage, grilled chicken breast, crayfish and prawns. The restaurant also serves an all-inclusive brunch on Sundays ($22.95) with fresh-baked breads, seasonal fruit, brunch potatoes, dessert and a beverage.
2125 Garden Highway; (916) 641-2125; bridgesontheriver.com
* Rio City Cafe
Rio City Cafe’s light-flooded, expansive interior can be a real mood lifter. This Old Sacramento restaurant’s high ceilings, exposed cantilevered beams, whirring fans and pretty, pinkish-cream walls all contribute to a sense of crisp, bright, airy spaciousness that is pleasing whether or not you have a view of the river. In fact, not many of the tables inside the restaurant have a river view; to guarantee one, it’s best to request a seat on the outdoor deck, the majority of which is covered in the warmer months to prevent patrons from withering in the intense sun. The deck looks out over the Sacramento River to the historic Tower Bridge and wacky Ziggurat building.
The restaurant’s menu changes seasonally and offers a wide selection of creative, solid dishes, several incorporating Southwestern and Asian flavors. For example, the calamari salad is tossed in an orange-chipotle vinaigrette and sprinkled with chili-roasted pecans, while the grilled ahi has an orange-soy Riesling glaze and is served up with a soba noodle stir-fry. Seasonal ingredients are enthusiastically embraced: When we visited during the late winter months, the chef used cold-weather items like roasted fennel, oranges, crab, butternut squash, apples and red Swiss chard. Lunch options range from a seafood cannelloni with saffron cream sauce to an Italian-style beef dip sandwich, laden with caramelized bell peppers and onions.
One of our favorite brunch/lunch items is a rich crab and avocado melt, served open-faced on an English muffin with bacon and melted Jack cheese. Rio City also turns out a handsome hamburger, smothered with Tillamook cheddar cheese, sauted mushrooms and bacon, enlivened by roasted serrano chili aioli and accompanied by crispy, herb-sprinkled french fries. However, we weren’t so keen on the kitchen’s overly sweet smoked turkey sandwich. Served on chewy walnut bread, the turkey (which tasted processed and salty) is topped with a warm chunk of Brie cheese, a too-generous slather of cranberry dressing, pancetta and red onions.
Popular brunch items at Rio City include Frangelico french toast served with strawberry compote, and a breakfast burrito stuffed with chicken-apple sausage, scrambled eggs and potatoes. If you’re interested in brunch, arrive early&emdash;the restaurant fills up quickly.
In our experience, Rio City has been very accommodating with children’s meals: The last time we visited, a kitchen staff member took time during a very busy brunch to create a beautiful fresh fruit arrangement (a substitution for fries) on our 4-year-old’s plate. Small, thoughtful gestures like this are a good indicator that the restaurant takes pride in food quality and customer service.
1110 Front St., Old Sacramento; (916) 442-8226; riocitycafe.com
* Freeport Bar & Grill
Although Freeport Bar & Grill isn’t actually on the river (it’s across the street from it), this friendly, family-owned establishment is patronized by scores of river goers. The tiny town of Freeport considers itself the Gateway to the Delta, and the restaurant lies across the road from a bait-and-tackle shop.
Shabbily welcoming, the Freeport Bar & Grill offers scuffed wooden booths and closely packed tables, and the low-ceilinged dining area is decorated with dangling fresh plants and pen-and-ink drawings of old local homes. Streaked windows offer views of a small concrete patio that looks like someone’s backyard.
We snatched the last table in the restaurant during a bustling midweek lunch and noticed that the waitresses seemed to know most of their customers’ names. Friendly and efficient, our waitress oozed pride in the menu and kitchen: Try the soup, she said. Our cooks make the best ones around. Her recommendation was right on&emdash;our minestrone was crammed with kidney beans and chunks of zucchini, bell pepper, tomatoes and carrots, all submerged in a fragrant, rich broth. Our shoestring onion rings arrived soon after, and we marveled at their sweet, addictive crispiness.
We devoured the restaurant’s hefty, warm corned beef and Swiss cheese sandwich, served on swirled dark/light rye bread generously doused with Thousand Island dressing. The restaurant’s specialty is a roasted half chicken resting on a pile of tender caramelized onions, briny green olives, artichoke hearts and grilled red potatoes. A single spear of asparagus was placed atop the chicken, and the dish glistened with oily promise. Hearty and comforting, it would make the hungriest of diners very happy indeed.
8259 Freeport Blvd., Freeport; (916) 665-1169
* Virgin Sturgeon
If you’re ready for the quintessential Sacramento river dining experience, climb aboard the floating Virgin Sturgeon, named many years ago, we were told, by Gov. Jerry Brown. This well-loved, quirky restaurant, up the river from Old Sac, is built on a converted barge, and in order to reach the front door you first must walk through an old Pan Am jetway that connects the parking lot to the restaurant.
The restaurant’s windows look out onto the brown water swirling by. The ceilings are made of particleboard, the wooden floors are a thickly painted chocolate brown, and fishing nets and heavy chains decorate the windows, giving the restaurant a cheery, nautical feel. In the warm months, the Sturgeon opens up an outdoor cocktail barge, directly adjacent to the restaurant, where customers can enjoy the breezy proximity to the water below.
The Virgin Sturgeon’s lunch menu is compact, offering seven salads (including a Cajun chicken salad, a Cobb and a shrimp Louis) as well as several sandwiches and burgers. The kitchen also offers a handful of daily fresh fish selections and a lunch special such as shrimp and scallops baked in puff pastry. The day of our visit, we ordered a scrumptious fresh trout, which was beautifully pan-fried and served with soupy, bland Cuban black beans dotted with diced unripe tomatoes and green onion. The kicky Cajun chicken sandwich was enormous and flavorful, prompting my companion to eagerly suggest we return the following day for another one.
Dinner at the Sturgeon emphasizes fresh fish, from Tombo tuna and Chilean sea bass to Belusa white sturgeon, but there are nonmarine items like steak and spinach pasta salad as well. The restaurant prides itself on its comfort food, including the popular baby back ribs and mushroom cheeseburger. Saturday and Sunday brunch is a busy time for the kitchen, which dishes out a small but pleasing selection of items, from biscuits and gravy to omelettes and huevos rancheros.
1577 Garden Highway, Sacramento; (916) 921-2694
* The Rusty Duck Restaurant & Saloon
If you attended a high school prom in Sacramento in the 1980s, it’s likely The Rusty Duck will bring back memories. This river dining institution off Richards Boulevard seems frozen in time: Its faded, plaid carpets, fusty, old-restaurant aroma, masculine, low-lit interior and wood-paneled walls add up to a dated yet comfortable ambiance. Perched high above the ground, the restaurant rewards diners seated next to the windows with relaxing views of the American River gently lolling by.
As the name implies, the restaurant is fashioned after an old-time duck club; it’s adorned with duck paintings and hanging signs emblazoned with cheesy maxims like Duck pluckers make better lovers. The menu is dominated by fish, from a charbroiled ahi tuna marinated in Chinese pesto to herb-crusted tilapia and crab-stuffed Northwest salmon. We liked the fact that you can order any of the fish on the menu Cajun-style, sauted, blackened or charbroiled, and that the preparations range from the traditional (poached in white wine and served with creamy dill sauce) to the more adventurous (basted with molasses barbecue sauce and topped with roasted corn relish). There also are several poultry and meat items to satisfy nonfish eaters, such as prime rib and mashed potatoes.
Seafood makes a big appearance in the appetizers, which include Louisiana-style Cajun shrimp, Chesapeake Bay crab cakes and New England clam chowder. On the day we visited, we enjoyed a plate of the kitchen’s Pacific calamari fritti, or fried squid, served with a zesty ancho chili sauce. The tender calamari strips were dipped in tempura batter and flash-fried in oil, and the result was both greasy and tasty, with a tantalizing, citrusy aftertaste. We then sampled the restaurant’s chicken Cobb salad, loaded with tomatoes, avocado slices, hard-boiled eggs, bacon and blue cheese. My dining companion, awed by its size, dubbed it a salad-asaurus. The generously sized halibut Mediterranean was doused in a Cajun-style spice mix, including cayenne pepper, garlic powder and white pepper, then charbroiled and served with an oddly vinegary but flavorful sauce of pured Roma tomatoes.
The star of our meal was the kitchen’s lava cake, a sumptuous, completely over-the-top molten chocolate cake adorned by an enormous scoop of vanilla ice cream and showered with sweet bits of crunchy toffee. Warm, chocolaty and gooey, it was deeply, utterly satisfying.
500 Bercut Drive, Sacramento; (916) 441-1191; rustyduckrestaurant.com
Dining on the river is such a unique experience. The ambiance is so refreshing, looking out the window and seeing the water. Whether it’s a family event with kids in tow or just my husband and me, waterfront dining is a fun event for us all. Our hot spots are in the Delta. The Ryde Hotel along the Sacramento River is rich with history. The food and dcor are awesome. There are several other, more casual places in the Delta we like to frequent: Giusti’s in Walnut Grove, Foster’s Bighorn in Rio Vista and Al’s Place in Locke. When we are with the kids, we usually hit Joe’s Crab Shack in Old Sacramento. The casual atmosphere is perfect for our little ones. They are entertained by the dancing and the toys on the wall and ceiling.&emdash;Monica Woods, News10 Meteorologist
Rio City Cafe is a favorite riverside meeting spot for me because of the food and atmosphere. I like the open, airy feeling of the restaurant, and the patio is comfortable in any season. It’s not the place for a quick lunch, though. If I go there, I plan to stay awhile. There’s something about being on the water that relaxes you, so you definitely don’t want to rush through your meal. &emdash;Cristina Mendonsa, News10 Anchor/Reporter
For a quick bite, Indo Cafe in Old Town is the spot. Its proximity to the beach and open-air seating are almost enough to get you thinking you’re somewhere remote. Try the Thai iced tea and a plate of beef rendang (a spicy red curry sauce) with shrimp crackers. If you’re like me and have a busy schedule, you’ll love their quick service.&emdash;Adrienne Bankert, KCRA 3 Traffic Anchor/Reporter
My very first meal here in town was at the Rio City Cafe. I had just flown in from L.A. with my wife to sign my contract at KOVR and to pick out a place to live. After doing both, we wanted to celebrate. We were told by my news director to try Rio City. Looking out at the river while eating one of the best meals I have ever had while we contemplated our new life together in this wonderful town was one of the greatest dining experiences I’ve ever had. It rates as one of my top five meals of all time. Whenever guests come to visit us, we always take them to Rio City. Fine dining on the river is something that just says â€˜Sacramento,’ and we love sharing that.&emdash;Rafer Weigel, CBS 13 Reporter
I love going to Rio City Cafe. My ideal night is sitting out on the patio with friends and my husband sipping a refreshment and eating every appetizer on the menu. It’s a great spot to enjoy the sun going down. Don’t get me wrong: The entres are great, but nothing beats the appetizers and a lemon drop.&emdash;Kristina Werner, KTXL Fox40 Meteorologist
I’ve reported my share of winter storms up in Blue Canyon, so this summer I plan to take full advantage of the warm weather down on the Sacramento River at the Virgin Sturgeon. â€˜The Sturge’ tells you that it’s brimming with character the moment you pass through its entrance: an airplane jetway reincarnated as a gangplank. Upon boarding the rustic wooden barge, you’ll discover that you won’t be dining near the river&emdash;you’ll be on the river. I love to sit on the patio feeling the Delta breeze, watching the little River Otter Water Taxi go by. It’s not fancy, but my favorite dish is the calamari&emdash;a squid steak that’s cut into thin strips, grilled and served on a bed of salad greens. It’s on the appetizer menu, but I think it makes a great lunch all by itself. The Virgin Sturgeon also serves a weekend breakfast that’ll kill any hangover&emdash;or so I’ve been told. At the bar, summertime is heralded not by a date on the calendar, but by the changing of the seasonal drink menu. Boozy coffees take a back seat to cocktails like mai tais, Sex on the Beach and the Silver Sturgeon martini. My favorite? The citrus vodka-spiked pink lemonade. Just one sip makes the memory of Sierra storms seem very, very far away.&emdash;Pamela Wu, KCRA 3 Anchor/Reporter