It was the last day of 2019, and David English had pretty much decided to walk away from the restaurant business for good. His popular midtown restaurant, The Press Bistro, had had a great run, but rising costs and understanding had him feeling that he was working twice as hard to make less money. That New Year’s Eve, when he closed his restaurant doors for the final time, “I thought that was it for me,” he recalls.
But, like Michael Corleone in “The Godfather Part III,” just when he thought he was out, they pulled him back in. After an almost three-year break, English recently opened Juju Kitchen & Cocktails in downtown Sacramento. It’s a marked departure from The Press, a sophisticated dinner house where English stalked the dining room nightly, checking in with diners to make to make sure their salmon fillet was perfectly cooked, the red wine sauce on their short rib appropriately silky. Juju is the Skipper to The Press’s Barbie, a smaller, less voluptuous, more playful version of a traditional restaurant.
Consider it a sign of the times. When English closed The Press, the pandemic was still in the offing. Hitting a couple of months later, COVID-19 rocked the foundations of every restaurant in town. Without employees to pay or a lease to service, English was in fact better off than many of his compatriots. He used the pandemic lull to step back, hang out with his family and enjoy semi-retirement.
Before closing The Press, English had been noodling about ways to reinvent the restaurant model in a more sustainable way. He wanted to manage fewer employees, and he didn’t want to have to be at the restaurant every waking moment to make sure everything was just so. The solution he came up with was a restaurant with a slimmed-down menu of small plates and craft cocktails, severely restricted hours of operation and a casual, drop-in vibe. There’s no host to seat you, no reservations to take, no phone to answer. “The more staff we have, the more expensive your cocktail,” English explains. (Other restaurateurs are trying out similar formats: Billy Zoellin, for one, recently transformed his Bacon & Butter in East Sac into a happy-hour spot called The Green Room.)
English modeled Juju’s menu around the tapas offerings at The Press, which had always been a hit with diners. Several are direct lifts from The Press, including the arancini, the meatballs and the patatas bravas. You can nosh on one or two small plates (priced at $7 $8), or assemble an entire meal from a menu that runs the gamut from bread (grilled pita with hummus) and vegetables (roasted mushrooms) to proteins (grilled calamari, beef barbacoa tacos) and even dessert (warm chocolate brownie with vanilla bean ice cream). “It’s how I like to eat,” English explains. “I like to try different things. You can have a lot or a little. It’s a nice way to eat.”
English’s wife, Kelly, oversaw the vaguely feminine décor, with its pretty salmon-colored wallpaper and gauzy pink drapes. The restaurant sits at one of the busiest corners of Sacramento, across the street from the Capitol and close to Golden 1 Center and the new theater and convention center complex. It occupies the old restaurant space at Marriott’s downtown Residence Inn, a spot that never had much success as a restaurant. But English thinks Juju will break the curse by appealing to a wide spectrum of diners: downtown workers, Capitol folk, people looking for a quick meal before the theater, tourists, the after theater crowd. They don’t need a Press-like experience to be satisfied, says English: “People just want to go out and socialize, be with friends.”
Juju Kitchen & Cocktails
1501 L St.