Take the valley’s enviable agricultural bounty and combine it with our noted cultural diversity and ever-growing appreciation for all things food, and it’s no wonder the region’s dining scene is fl ourishing. It seems our appetite for dining out is as strong as ever, with many new restaurants sharing the spotlight with tried-and-true favorites. Here, we present this year’s dining awards as chosen by Sacramento magazine and e-newsletter subscribers (winners are marked with a and begin on page 108), and a delicious assortment of picks from dining writer Kira O’Donnell and dining editor Marybeth Bizjak. Dig in!
Best fried chicken: Cafeteria 15L
This fried chicken is crunchy on the outside, moist on the inside. But here’s the kicker: It comes with gravy, a crispy waffle, pecan butter and warm maple syrup.
Best place to take out-of-towners: Cosmo Cafe
Want to show ’em how cool our dining scene really is? Take them to Cosmo Cafe, a striking space featuring intricately laid black and white tile floors, chartreuse bar stools and a “Mad Men” vibe, then go next door to the Cosmopolitan Cabaret for a live show. They’ll be impressed.
Best meatball: Aoli Bodega Espaola
Aoli’s albondigas todo ajo are springy beef meatballs swimming in a garlicky tomato sauce with garbanzo beans and an egg cracked into the hot sauce just prior to serving.
Best pasta: Ravenous Cafe
We would drive from just about anywhere for chef Mark Helms’ knockout pastas, including orecchiette tossed with roasted tomatoes, shrimp, caramelized onions and red chili flakes.
Best community table: Masullo
Come on a weekend for a thin-crust pizza, and you’ll rub hips with strangers at one of the family-style tables.
Best pancakes: Katrina’s Cafe
This always-crowded Auburn hole in the wall whips up the most delicate, flavorful lemon-yogurt pancakes in the world.
Best place to eat like a caveman: Petra Greek
Gorge on gyro meat sliced deftly off vertical rotisseries. But don’t stop there: The charbroiled Greek sausages, pillowy pita bread and dolmades will satisfy that manly appetite.
Best bread: Grateful Bread Company
Walk into Grateful Bread Company, and the wondrous, toasty, bready smells will instantly revive your spirits. You’ll feel even better after a couple of slices of the bakery’s Asiago garlic bread, sourdough walnut bread—or a bite or two of the celestial cinnamon rolls.
Best cheese menu: Tucos
This intimate Davis wine bar/cafe serves a top-notch selection that includes Haystack Mountain Snowdrop (a bloomy rind goat’s milk cheese from Colorado) and Queijo da Serra Beira Alta (a Portuguese soft raw sheep’s milk cheese).
Best place to eat before a Mondavi Center performance: Seasons
This pretty Davis restaurant, with its seasonally inspired menu, is a favorite with UC faculty and staff.
Best Mex without the Tex: Lalo’s
Lalo’s dishes up the real thing; no hybrid Tex-Mex creations here. Try the flor de calabaza (gourd flower), hongo (mushroom) or pancita (tripe) quesadilla.
Best tapa: Tapa the World
If you like garlic, you’ll love the gambas al ajillo: rock shrimp sautéed in olive oil, a shocking amount of garlic, fresh parsley, white wine and dried red chili flakes.
Best healthful lunch: Farmer’s Kitchen Cafe
At this Davis cafe, dishes are free of gluten and casein, and the focus is on locally grown and organic fruits and vegetables.
Best place to pretend you’re on a Mediterranean vacation: Osteria Fasulo
This Italian restaurant in Davis has a stunning outdoor courtyard with trellised grapevines and big trees strung with lights.
Best breakfast: Cornerstone
This bustling greasy spoon cranks out great no-frills food such as the California omelet, filled with turkey, mushrooms, zucchini and tomato.
Best grounds: High-Hand Conservatory
Located at a bustling nursery in Loomis, this restaurant is surrounded by gorgeous gardens.
Best place to dine alone: Jim-Denny’s
Belly up to the well-scuffed counter at this diner and order a strawberry shake and a Megaburger.
Best spring rolls: Vientiane
The Lao spring rolls at this West Sac eatery are irresistible, served with an invigorating lemon sauce.
Best river view: Pearl on the River
Request an upstairs window seat at this pretty restaurant, where you can gaze out at the lazily moving river and gnarled oak trees below. Nibble on the light, crispy fried calamari or the beer-battered King salmon fish ’n’ chips and bless your lucky stars that you live in Sacramento.
Best blintz: Lake Forest Cafe
These blintzes are stuffed with a sweet, creamy cheese filling and served with fresh sour cream and chunky strawberry preserves.
Best sides: Lucille’s Smokehouse Bar-B-Que
All entrees come with crusty, warm housemade biscuits (your kids will devour them in seconds) and a selection of 12 sides from which to choose—don’t miss the Southern sweet potatoes.
Best place to help out a farmer: Paul Martin’s American Bistro
This restaurant focuses on organic, sustainable and locally sourced food. Don’t miss the Sunday night three-course fried chicken dinner; dessert is a hot blondie with vanilla ice cream.
Best ambiance: Blue Nami
This lovely little restaurant feels like a snug, dimly lit cave, with a waterfall rushing down one wall and a lush, magical display of bamboo poles that are lit from within.
Best family-run restaurant: Le Bilig Kitchen
Marc and Monica Deconinck (and their food-savvy kids) serve some of the best country French cuisine in the region at this Auburn dining destination.
Best piece of beef: Matteo’s
Chef Matt Woolston’s 10-ounce Angus sirloin steak is rubbed with pink peppercorns and cumin, doused with Burgundy demi-glace and topped with assertive blue-cheese butter.
Best drunken brunch: Sweetwater Restaurant and Bar
I wondered why Sweetwater was so packed at Saturday brunch until I discovered the unlimited Bloody Mary bar.
Best Benedict: Venita Rhea’s
Sleepy’s Benedict features poached eggs and crab cakes on an English muffin, doused with a red-pepper hollandaise.
Best road food: Road Trip Bar & Grill
Stop in this biker-friendly Capay roadside grill for A Big Frick’n Cobb Salad or a bowl of Crazy Good Chili Stock, served (if you ask) with a generous sprinkling of chopped red onions and grated cheddar cheese.
Best Sunday supper: Hawks
Chef/owners Michael Fagnoni and Molly Hawks offer an affordable four-course prix fixe Sunday supper, served family-style.
Best eclectic menu: Tower Cafe
Where else can you order an East African veggie burger, Irish beef stew, Nicaraguan black bean soup and Thai green curry, all off the same menu?
Best place to pretend you’re in France: La Bonne Soupe Cafe
French-born chef Daniel Pont’s soups are legendary—and don’t miss the chvre and fig sandwich.
Best fish fry: Spataro
The excellent fritto misto is a mixed fry of Monterey Bay squid, jalapeo peppers, chickpeas and lemon, served up with a garlic mayonnaise.
Best place to dine with your book club: Tazzina Bistro
This charming little Woodland restaurant is a sweet place to meet with literary-minded friends. Oh, the food’s really good, too.
Best after-soccer spot: Luigi’s Slice and Fun-garden
Bring the whole team for gargantuan slices of pepperoni or pineapple-ham-jalapeo pepper pizza.
Best Bolognese: Cafe Vinoteca
Meaty, juicy, tomatoey and luscious, this Bolognese sauce transforms spaghetti into a luxurious dish.
Best place to eat Brussels sprouts: Magpie Caterers
Give the much-maligned vegetable a chance at Magpie’s market/cafe, where the cabbagey heads are roasted until they’re sweet and caramelized on the outside, tender and delicious inside.
Best restaurant hideaway: Paragary’s Bar and Oven
The well-loved, secluded patio out back features pretty olive trees, roaring waterfalls and lots of potted plants.
Best little restaurant: Formoli’s Bistro
This East Sac restaurant looks like someone’s living room. We’re crazy about the warm goat cheese and pancetta-stuffed Medjool dates.
Best late-night dining: Ink Eats and Drinks
Ink stays open until 4 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights—good to know if you’re craving spinach and artichoke dip or hot wings in the wee, wee hours.
Best picnic takeout: My BBQ Spot
Planning a picnic in the park? Why cook? The tender baby back ribs and barbecued half chickens here are great.
Best pozole rojo: Zócalo
The pozole rojo soup—a red chili broth crammed with fork-tender pork and hominy and served with cilantro, onion and cabbage—is deeply restorative.
Best creative sandwich: Dad’s Sandwich Shop
Try the Bad Breath Special, made with garlic spread, pepper plant and horseradish sauces, and roasted red onion.
Best brand extension: Taylor’s Kitchen
When the owners of Taylor’s Market decided to go into the restaurant biz, they had an instant success on their hands with this friendly, comfortable Land Park fave.
Best potato knish: Freeport Bakery
Freeport Bakery bakes up a daily batch of potato knishes that are as delicious as they are homely.
Best gumbo: Celestin’s
Celestin’s house gumbo is stuffed with fat tiger shrimp, silky scallops, chicken chunks and thick slices of andouille sausage. Tip: One order easily feeds two.
Best place to remember the way things were: Espanol
This East Sac institution serves hearty, old-fashioned Italian cuisine such as eggplant Parmesan, and spaghetti and meatballs. Every dinner includes minestrone, green salad and spumoni or vanilla ice cream.
Best catfish in a pot: Lemon Grass
Fresh Louisiana catfish is simmered in a sweet, caramelized fish sauce and served in a traditional Asian clay pot with hot jasmine rice. Heaven.
Best vegetarian fast food: Sunflower Natural Foods Drive-In
Dine with the roaming chickens while enjoying wholesome falafels, millet burgers and nutty tacos.
Best place to propose: Iron Steaks
This intimate, dimly lit restaurant features spacious booths and excellent service. Settle in, order her a lobster and an expensive glass of Chardonnay, and pull out that pretty rock.
Best place to take the in-laws: Chops
Here, the folks can admire views of the Capitol before stepping inside for a stiff round of Kentucky Sidecars, a plate or two of baked oysters Rockefeller and the fantastic beef Stroganoff.
Best place for a hot date: La Provence
Set among oak trees and lavender, this gorgeous country French restaurant oozes romance. For a sweet ending to the evening, order a slice of the kitchen’s tarte Tatin.
Best place worth the wait: The Kitchen
Part supper club, part theater, part cocktail party: An evening here is a gastronomic adventure. Patrons reserve months in advance. The Kitchen offers one seating per night for 50 guests total.
Best place for a romantic dinner: Ambience
This intimate Carmichael restaurant has several small dining rooms and an atmosphere so quiet, you’ll find yourself whispering.
Best place for a man date: Streets of London Pub
Challenge your bud to a game of darts and relish a pint or two of the pub’s finest. Hungry? Order the enormous Big Ben burger or a deep-fried pickle.
EAT WITH YOUR HANDS
Best fish ’n’ chips: Ocean Fish & Chips
With their crusty outsides and tender insides, these chunks of deep-fried fish are guaranteed to satisfy. Just add a few squirts of malt vinegar.
Best mushroom cheeseburger: Plan B
After being topped with mushrooms, jambon de Paris and Emmental cheese, the burger is blanketed with silky béarnaise sauce. Hello, cellulite.
Best fish tacos: Beto’s Tacos
Crispy fried fish is crammed into a soft taco shell and served with excellent housemade salsa.
Best hot dog: Capitol Dawg
A swig of cold beer never tasted so good as when paired with the Hornets Dog, slathered with Tabasco yellow mustard, cheddar cheese sauce and sliced jalapeños.
Best salmon sandwich: Cafe Bernardo
After 10 years of eating the grilled salmon BLT, we always want more. It’s simple: grilled salmon, basil mayonnaise-smeared sourdough wheat bread, lettuce, tomatoes and thick bacon slices. The combination is nothing short of terrific.
Best nonbeef burger: Cookie’s Drive-In
Fancy it ain’t, but this ramshackle mom and pop establishment offers an ostrich patty on a freshly baked bun.
Best place to be charmed by a chef: Mulvaney’s Building & Loan
Expect a grin and a handshake from the garrulous chef/owner, Patrick Mulvaney.
Best place for locavores: Grange
Sourcing local, farm-fresh ingredients is a fervent mission for chef Michael Tuohy, who shops at the farmers market across the street.
Best place to meet a chef on his night off: Kru
You know a chef is talented when his colleagues frequent his restaurant when they’re off duty. Come find out what makes Billy Ngo’s food so enticing. (Hint: Try the lobster tempura.)
Best place to watch the action: Tulí Bistro
If you’re a Food Network nut, you’ll dig sitting at the counter, where you’re mere inches away from the restaurant’s nimble, fast-cooking chefs. Some are chatty, others aren’t, but it’s always fun to watch.
Best desserts: Karen’s Bakery
Don’t miss the raspberry almond bars, snowdrop brownies or carrot cake swathed in cream cheese-mascarpone frosting at this Folsom bakery/cafe.
Best frozen yogurt: Mochii Yogurt
Mochii’s zesty Zang frozen yogurt is brightly flavored and not too sweet. It’s even better when sprinkled with a spoonful of granola.
Best artisan chocolates: Ginger Elizabeth Chocolates
Chocolatier Ginger Hahn sources the finest ingredients from all over the world, including chocolate from Venezuela’s Lake Maracaibo region and fleur de sel hand-harvested from France’s Brittany coast.
Best mochi: Osaka-Ya
These addictive sweets have a pounded sticky rice exterior with a hidden pocket of beans or bean paste inside.
Best new cupcake bakery: Esther’s Cupcakes
Chocolate and vanilla are so old school. This Sierra Oaks jewel box has offbeat flavor combos such as green tea cake with red bean butter cream and Earl Grey cake with lavender buttercream.
Best cake for your little princess: Ettore’s
Swaddled in a smooth layer of pink or green marzipan are three layers of vanilla sponge cake interspersed with raspberry preserves, pastry cream and whipped cream. This princess cake is a stunner.
Best sloppy snack: Tuk Tuk
Miang kam, a popular Thai street food snack, is a real challenge to eat gracefully. Grasp lettuce leaves piled with sweet coconut, lime, peanuts, ginger, shrimp and bell pepper, then fold and dip into the kitchen’s electrifying tamarind sauce. The result? A sublime reward for your efforts.
Best Cuban cuisine: Sol Cubano
Order the lechon asado (garlicky roast pork), platanos maduros fritos (fried sweet plantains) or Moros y Cristianos (Cuban rice and beans).
Best dumpling: Bamiyan
I lust for Bamiyan’s mantoo: steamed dumplings stuffed with spiced ground beef and soft yellow onions. Festooned with yellow split peas, these Afghani delights are served with a bracing, tangy yogurt and zingy garlic-mint sauce.
Best finger food: Queen Sheba
Grab a piece of tangy enjera, the traditional Ethiopian flatbread that resembles a thin, flexible pancake, and scoop up the restaurant’s delicious, saucy fare.
Best banchan: Pine Tree House
Banchan are the colorful vegetable side dishes (including kimchee, an often-fiery pickled cabbage) served with Korean entrées. These are first rate.
Best kabob: Shahrzad Fine Persian Cuisine
The moist chicken koobedeh—skewered fresh ground chicken with onions, herbs and spices—is a delight for the senses. Pair it with fragrant kashkeh bodemjan (fried eggplant with garlic and fresh mint).
Best lamb dish: East West Junction
At this tiny restaurant, sample the marvelous, unbelievably tender lamb boti kabob (tandoori oven-roasted boneless lamb cubes).
Best spread: Maalouf’s Taste of Lebanon
Scoop up a big mound of Maalouf’s foul muddamas (crushed fava beans mixed with garlic, lemon juice and olive oil) and spread it on warm pita bread for a satisfying nibble.
FOR THE KIDDIES
Best French toast: Mangos at Arden Hills
The cinnamon-swirl French toast is dipped in crushed corn flakes, which contribute a delightful crunch to the dish. Darned good breakfast eating.
Best healthful pizza: Zelda’s
Here’s a great way to get your kids to eat their vegetables: Order the deep-dish Spinoccoli pizza, made with garlicky spinach and broccoli.
Best gelato: Hot Italian
Yes, the pizzas are great, but so is the luscious gelato selection. And the best part is ordering it from the sidewalk through the restaurant’s walk-up window.
Best place to be entertained while dining: Benihana
Yes, it’s kind of cheesy, but who doesn’t love watching the expert antics of their Benihana chef as he chops and flings food into the air like an overzealous circus performer?
Best place for artisan tequila: Tres Agaves
The restaurant has an excellent artisan tequila inventory. Try one of the fantastic margaritas, made fresh, with hand-squeezed lime juice, aged tequila and organic agave nectar.
Best drink for a hot day: Shady Lady Saloon
Order a Bourbon Smash (bourbon, fresh muddled mint leaves, simple syrup and lots of ice) when it’s too hot to think. It’s guaranteed to rejuvenate.
Best handcrafted cocktail: Lounge on 20
The Feminine Mystique, made with vodka, pear liqueur, elderflower liqueur and lemon juice, is just plain sexy.
Best place to sip a cocktail with fabulous people: L Wine Lounge & Urban Kitchen
This sleek midtown watering hole attracts a young, beautiful crowd who gather to enjoy the happy hour (4–7 p.m. daily) and interesting wine list.
Best place to drink with your dog: Rubicon Brewing Company
What could be better than slurping a cold, refreshing Monkey Knife Fight pale ale on Rubicon’s patio with your pooch?
Best place for Belgian ale: The Shack
This well-worn establishment has an exciting lineup of Belgian ales to wash down its excellent sandwiches. On pleasant afternoons, grab a table on the overgrown but charming patio.
Best Vietnamese appetizer: Quan Nem Ninh Hoa
For $7.99, you get everything you need to assemble your own spring rolls: dried rice papers, a big bowl of hot water to dunk them in, and fillings, including charbroiled skewers of marinated pork, deep-fried egg rolls, pickled carrots, daikon, and a frothy mountain of fresh greens and herbs.
Best shabu-shabu: Shabu Japanese Fondue
Roll up your sleeves, take a big gulp of sake and plunge those cubes of Kobe beef, doll-size enoki mushrooms and crinkly spinach leaves into a pot of bubbling broth, then sprinkle it all with chopped daikon and ponzu sauce.