Back in January, the news that Noma in Copenhagen would close at the end of 2024 shook the fine-dining world. If Noma, considered the world’s best restaurant, couldn’t make it, what restaurant could?
Since at least the start of the pandemic, we’ve been hearing about the unsustainability of the high-end restaurant model. The too-thin profit margins. The difficulty in finding—and keeping—staff. The crazy hours. The even-crazier chefs, who make working in professional kitchens a misery. The situation reached its illogical conclusion with the release last year of the comedy-horror film “The Menu,” in which a terrifying celebrity chef at a Noma-like restaurant literally burns the whole thing down.
So it’s been interesting to watch Sacramento’s fine-dining scene take off as others pull back. This past December, Localis received a coveted Michelin star, only the second local restaurant (after The Kitchen) to do so. By then, Localis had already racked up an impressive list of awards: One of Eater’s “38 essential restaurants.” An award of excellence from Wine Spectator. One of the 50 best restaurants in the world, according to Wine Enthusiast.
That Michelin star was both vindication and sweet reward for Localis’ owner, chef Chris Barnum-Dann, who opened Localis in 2015 in a former pizzeria at the corner of 21st and S streets. The building—with its janky plastic-sheeting windows and canvas roof—didn’t jibe with his dreams of offering exquisite chef’s tasting menus. So in 2016, Barnum-Dann split with his business partner and began changing Localis to fit the idea in his mind’s eye.
With a hybrid menu that allowed diners to choose from a multicourse progression and a la carte offerings, Barnum-Dann was already well on his way to achieving his dream when COVID-19 struck in 2020. It was a bad time for everyone in the industry, but particularly bad for Barnum-Dann, who has dealt with depression and “serious mental issues” for most of his life. But after a couple of weeks of despair, he decided to dig in and make it work. He never thought of closing the restaurant, he says: “There’s no quit in me. Zero.”
He began offering his tasting menu to go, coming up with innovative ways to prepare and package his food so that it could travel to customers’ homes. He also changed the way he looked at life. Religion played a role in his transformation. “I made a massive life change,” he explains. “I chose happiness.”
When Localis reopened in August 2021, Barnum-Dann leaned into the tasting menu model; no more a la carte. Today, the 12-course tasting menu costs $197 and changes monthly. It always includes, as an amuse-bouche, a salty, crunchy bite of fried potato with white miso butter topped with a fried quail egg and shavings of preserved duck yolk. It also always features some version of fire-roasted octopus, the dish that made Localis famous. Another standard: a dish called Painter’s Palette, a piece of house-made matzo topped with dabs of seasonal “paints” such as duck liver mousse and turnip puree. His dishes have whimsical names like I’ll Just Have the Caesar With Chicken (quail with broccoli Caesar) and Stoners Delight (an elevated take on a macadamia nut brownie).
Barnum-Dann made other changes after the pandemic, like hiring a pastry chef, instituting a $330 wine pairing and remodeling the dining room. He also remodeled his relationship with his employees. Conceding he was sometimes a “not-great boss,” he now offers full time workers a package of benefits that includes a minimum salary of $55,000 and a month of paid leave. He calls it “creating an atmosphere of love.”
As we talked in Localis’ dining room, I brought up “The Menu.” It turns out Barnum-Dann took a bunch of his employees to see the film. He threw his head back and roared with laughter. Cupping his hands around his mouth, he yelled across the room at staffers working in the open kitchen: “I love you all!” In on the joke, they mimicked the film’s brigade of cowed kitchen workers, shouting back in unison, “We love you, too, Chef!”
Even as Noma gets ready to close down, Barnum-Dann is looking to the future of fine dining in Sacramento. “Our flavors were good enough to take us” to one Michelin star, he says. Now, he plans to focus on his next goal: a second star.
2031 S St.;