Sure, there are plenty of great restaurants right here in Sacramento. But sometimes a culinary road trip is in order. Turns out, there’s a host of gastronomic gems just waiting to be discovered in the foothills, farmlands and river towns that surround our city. All you need is a tank of gas, a bit of extra time and a sense of adventure. Your growing anticipation (and hunger) on the pretty drive to your dining destination are all part of the experience. Here, we present six restaurants (and one fabulous food shop) within an hour or two’s drive that prove when it comes to the pursuit of great food, it’s worth going the distance.
The three blocks that put the “down” in downtown Plymouth are an improbable location for a restaurant with a loud foodie drumbeat. My friend Cheryl and I parked in front of what appeared to be a haunted house across from a saloon. We agreed that if this is Main Street, we’d hate to see Second Avenue.
Then we realized that every car in town was here for a reason: Taste, which we’d driven past, so oblique was its Old West façade. One pull on the big fork-shaped door handle of the restaurant’s century-old quarters and we were transported into a lovely ochre-colored dining room with wood-plank floors, golden light, and smiling faces on the staff and customers.
Taste is small and comforting, its food a cure for the blahs. Our world was rocked by a Spanish white-anchovy salad that smelled like the ocean. Fiery radish sprouts, mandoline-thin slices of more radish, grilled pattypan squash and a mound of frisée supporting the anchovies were sprinkled with parsley oil and Meyer lemon juice. Kaboom! in the mouth.
We kept going with full-bodied corn soup, made with the town of Brentwood’s finest kernels and topped with chives and lobster mushrooms for a woodsy chew. The chef’s insistence on organic-as-possible produce delivered daily was evidenced in the Taste of Summer Salad: organic greens, haricots verts, cherry tomatoes, fingerling potatoes, pancetta and a quail egg.
It was obvious from these starters, which we’d enjoyed at the bar, that we’d come 35 miles for great reward. On to the dining room. I never get chicken out, but this time I ordered the roasted guinea hen because it came with porcini mushrooms, local peaches and spinach, all of which I love. The half-bird was prepared so the skin got a flash-fry blistering, but inside the meat stayed juicy. Cheryl was attracted to the grilled veal T-bone’s comfort-food sides: a cushion of puréed Yukon Gold potatoes and haricots verts, served with a Gruyère Mornay sauce.
The huge wine list, with plenty of local wines from El Dorado and Amador counties, is joyously written with such descriptors as “jam bomb” and “your taste buds will sing.”
Come for: Pitch-perfect cuisine
While here: Spend the day in Amador County sampling wines
Get here: Jackson Highway east, left on Highway 49, left on Main Street
9402 Main St., Plymouth; (209) 245-3463; restauranttaste.com
The first time I went to Murphys about 12 years ago, a pickup parked in front of a bar on Main Street had a dead bear in the back. This time, I returned to Murphys with my friend Victoria intending to eat vegetarian. We ended up taking a walk on the wild side of meat-free cuisine.
At Mineral, incongruously located in this unpretentious cattle-country getaway, we found vegetarian food that occasionally was as incomprehensible as some modern art.
It’s organic, yes. But it’s edgy, with surprising and delicious combinations like agar mango jelly with green goddess sauce. Grass-green jalapeño gastrique shoots across the plate. A garnish could be “dust” grated from mizithra cheese.
We arrived in late afternoon, thirsty. Svelte glasses were filled immediately with filtered water infused with lemon and mint. The mostly-sake drink menu uses mathematical-looking codes from -12 to +4, making Murphys the seat of sake scholarship. A minus sign means dry, a plus sign sweet on the SMV (sake meter value). In Victoria’s flute of blood-orange bitters in Champagne, even the sugar cube was organic. My Ginjo sake highball combined lemon grass, citrus and thyme, with a lime slice floating on top, for one of the most refreshing drinks I’ve ever had.
You may have questions about the menu, which lists fried shiso, carnaroli, a cylinder of red aka tofu, porcini cocoa-crusted seitan and various treatments of tempeh. Owner Maya Radisich expects them. There is no bread in this open kitchen. Here, the hospitality snack is fried hibiscus won tons with miso “butter” and carrot “jelly”—Mineral’s version of peanut butter and jelly. Radisich’s husband, Steven Rinauro, is the chef. He takes his inspiration from Thai, Indian and Latin American flavors, especially curry.
According to Radisich, locals come here more than tourists. She says Mineral doesn’t even attract that many vegetarians, but people who want intense flavor. They get it in the most popular sauce: Rinauro’s Mexican vanilla vinaigrette, which is served with the tostada salad with micro greens, lime won ton, candied lotus root and creamed miso.
Come for: A culinary walk on the wild side
While here: Shop. Murphys is southern Gold Country’s answer to Sausalito.
Get here: Highway 49 south past San Andreas, left on Highway 4 to Murphys, left on Main Street
419 Main St., Murphys; (209) 728-9743; mineralrestaurant.com
There’s definitely a buzz about this restaurant on Placerville’s Bee Street. You’ll feel like you’ve arrived at the gates of Tara. The burger has never known so gracious a setting.
Inside, you’ll tread thick floral carpet and breathe in the perfume of stargazer lilies stunningly arranged in antique vases. In summer, sit on the sunny veranda perched high over Bee Street. In winter, cozy up next to a fireplace—there’s one in every room.
Sequoia takes up the first floor of a vast Victorian mansion called the Bee-Bennett House, originally built in 1853 by Col. Frederick Bee, a pioneer merchant who helped establish the Pony Express, and later expanded by Judge Marcus P. Bennett to accommodate his large family.
But my friend Morgan and I didn’t trek to Placerville just for a history lesson. We came for lunch. Instead of ordering one of the impressive Alsatian-style whites, we had Virgin Marys, prepared with housemade Bloody Mary mix. (The bartender makes it every day with fresh horseradish and brave flecks of pepper.)
Morgan’s elegant sea bass sat high on an Asian noodle cake, with sweet pineapple pieces cascading down to the plate. My fish and chips—three huge, fresh cod filets in a light batter—arrived so hot from the kitchen, I had to wait a few minutes to dig in.
Large, pretty portions of game, skirt steak, lamb and herb-roasted chicken make for a hearty menu, but it’s the burger I will return for. Sequoia’s may land on a table set in full cloth-and-silver regalia, but it’s a hand-formed affair on a big roll sided with bulky wedges of skin-on french fries.
If you’re in the mood just for dessert, Sequoia is close enough to Highway 50 to stop in for apple crisp a la vanilla-bean ice cream, tricked out with daubs of creamy caramel.
Come for: Romance and elegance, served up with generously portioned, honest food
While here: Visit Hangtown’s historic sites
Get here: Highway 50 east to Spring Street exit, north a few blocks to Bee Street
643 Bee St., Placerville; (530) 530-622-5222; sequoiaplacerville.com
Le Bilig French Cafe
Oh, stop staring at the Tuff Shed exterior. And that bail bondsman next door? Look on the positive side: You never know how your night will end. Going to Le Bilig French Cafe is like cutting into puff pastry. Once you get through the layers, it’s warm inside.
Le Bilig is a fully realized French restaurant. Spend 40 minutes driving to dinner, and it’s as though you’ve flown to Brittany.
My friend Darrell and I accidentally entered Le Bilig through the kitchen door, a few steps from a little garden of herbs, tomatoes and squash. On a back burner on one of the stoves, there’s a peculiar cast-iron pan gently domed in the center. It’s the bilig, Brittany’s crêpe pan.
Le Bilig’s chef, Marc Deconinck, who hails from Lille, France, is a country cook with a style that bears twinges of haute cuisine. Will it be mussels with tomatoes and garlic in a sopping sauce or escargot in tarragon butter? Roasted lamb with country beans or duck leg confit with pommes sarladaises? Regardless of season, ingredients will be fresh, local and in season, with each dish made completely from scratch.
I was jumping out of my skin for duck confit and saw a chance to get it on top of romaine with goat cheese as a starter. Darrell’s frogs legs came centered in a brilliant-green parsley sauce, enough for both of us to sop up with housemade country bread.
Between courses, there was no ignoring what was going on in the kitchen. Maybe it’s a primitive ventilation system or the swinging door to the kitchen that doesn’t fully close, but there’s nothing like the promise of the smell of butter melting, a steak caramelizing.
Before the drive home, dessert and coffee is as much for reviving as an excuse to get a crêpe from a real bilig. The wine list is short and changeable, always with surprises from France or nearby wineries, such as Green Family Barbera 2003 Sierra Foothills.
If you’re in the neighborhood at lunchtime, Le Bilig’s probably the Frenchest restaurant around, with a drive-through takeout window for quiche, soupe du jour, salads and Le Bilig’s BBLT: brie, bacon, lettuce and tomato.
Come for: The real French deal
While here: Sightsee in Auburn’s Old Town
Get here: Interstate 80 east to Highway 49, left on Atwood Road
11750 Atwood Road, Auburn; (530) 888-1491; lebiligfrenchcafe.com
Putah Creek Cafe
Heading to Napa or Sonoma to go wine tasting? Don’t start the day with an empty stomach and a dull drive. Take the scenic road through Winters. There’s a lot happening at the intersection of Railroad and Main, particularly the fresh fixings at Putah Creek Cafe.
Step into the old-brick and knotty-pine building for food made with ingredients as fresh as what’s growing right outside the window. Local peaches fill the hand-crimped pies. Walnuts from down the road appear in fruit salad and unspeakably huge apple cinnamon buns. (More on these later.) Ripe Yolo tomatoes fall nonchalantly into salads and top hand-plumped hamburgers.
The action takes place at the lunch counter lined with stools and at wooden booths with tables covered in bright, country-style oilcloths. My friend Gary couldn’t believe his eyes when a server passed by with a cinnamon bun as big as a cinder block, dripping with brown-sugar caramel and studded with apples and walnuts. These buns have made the cafe a local mainstay.
Breakfast is served until 1 p.m. We arrived with two minutes to spare, so we got to try the Putah Creek Scramble and a town favorite, Santa Fe Mexican Corn Pie. The pie is a cross between a quiche and a wedge of cornbread and is somehow airy despite a load of cheese, green chilies and sour cream. The scramble is an everything-in-the-pan concoction with chorizo, broken tortilla chips and chilies. I asked for my eggs to be cooked soft, and they were. To think we missed out on the Belgian waffles and Texas french toast!
f you’re short on time, get sandwiches and sweets to go. Burgers and sandwiches come with an unforgettable coleslaw made with green apples. The bakery churns out oatmeal apricot cookies, cranberry white-chocolate biscotti and Martha’s Tres Leches Cake. Coffee for a perfect cappuccino is roasted specially for Putah Creek Cafe. For me, a to-go order has to include a strawberry shake.
Putah Creek Cafe is across Main Street from the source of its ownership: the famous Buckhorn Steak & Roadhouse. If you frequent Buckhorn’s new location in midtown Sacramento, you’ll recognize some of the dishes served at Putah Creek, including the Yik Yak Salad, with garden greens, sesame dressing and sesame noodles.
Come for: Huge portions of fresh, expertly prepared food made with local ingredients whenever possible
While here: Shop for antiques or cruise Yolo back roads in search of farm-stand fruits and vegetables
Get here: Interstate 80 west to Highway 113 north to the Winters exit; take West Covell Boulevard to Winters, left on Railroad Avenue, two blocks to Main Street
1 Main St., Winters; (530) 795-2682; buckhornsteakhouse.com
A restaurant that doesn’t take credit cards gets to make its own rules.
Rule No. 1: Take it or leave it.
Rule No. 2: Don’t call with reservations because they don’t take ’em.
This river-rat restaurant on a Delta slough is rough on the outside and rough on the inside. The plates are plastic. The bar’s long and full. It’s the oldest restaurant in the Sacramento River Delta and, in its liquid surroundings, doesn’t look like it ought to still be standing.
But for more than 100 years in Giusti family hands, the restaurant has created an expectation of pleasant incongruity: Behind these rustic walls, owner Mark Morais keeps the wines fine and the food fresh, big and delicious.
Enter smack into the bar. You’ll be standing under hundreds of ball caps hanging brim-down from a low ceiling. They’ve all been donated to the decorating cause otherwise pierced by neon Bud signs.
I’m usually at Giusti’s when it’s hot outside; this was no exception. So I started at the bar with a gin gimlet. My friends Gary and Joni joined me. We were impressed by a wine list proud of its location. Delta wineries in and around Clarksburg, and nearby valley wineries from the Lodi appellation, are listed with their Chardonnays and their great big Zinfandels.
In the dining room, deer heads mounted on the wall seem to stare at your food. The kitchen never disappoints. The menu is classy home-style, which is why if Giusti’s were even farther away than Walnut Grove, I’d still make the drive.
First, we ordered an enormous wedge of Point Reyes blue cheese, my favorite. But my weakness at Giusti’s is the fried chicken. The batter is thin and smooth, with lots of black pepper. One order is half a chicken.
Gary got rack of lamb, cooked a perfect medium-rare. My friends laughed when it came with mint jelly, but I appreciate that two of spring’s things—lamb and mint—became buddies in a kitchen somewhere and developed a strong working relationship.
If you’re a lobster lover, come on Wednesdays for two-for-one lobster night. If not, there are mussels, fried oysters, pasta, prawns, prime rib and burgers. Wear shorts.
Come for: Dress-codeless relaxation and no bad food; bring cash or a debit card
While here: Dream you’ve got your own houseboat
Get here: Interstate 5 south to Thornton-Walnut Grove Road exit, cross over two bridges, right on Old Walnut Grove Road
14743 Walnut Grove-Thornton Road, Walnut Grove; (916) 776-1808; giustis.com
A Food Shop Worth the Stop
In Vacaville, the Capay Valley Farm Shop at The Nut Tree (yes, it’s back) showcases Yolo County as a slice of foodie heaven. It’s in a sun-dappled modern shed of a space, owned and operated by a community of family agricultural artisans from scarcely 25 miles away from the store. Talk about farm-fresh.
Produce from the Capay Valley’s most recognizable organic growers—Full Belly Farm, Good Humus Produce, Riverdog Farm—is for sale here, along with olive oil from Taber Ranch and wine from Capay Valley Vineyards.
To find the shop—a cross between an indoor farmers market, a takeout restaurant, a wine-tasting bar and a retail store—prepare for a lack of signage. Drive into the vast parking lot past the new, undistinguished chain outlets and through a gateway called The Village. The Farm Shop is in a barn-shaped building and is open daily 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
The first display that got my attention was the wine-tasting bar. I was on my way to San Jose with my husband, David, and our cousin Tom, with two hours of driving ahead of us. But after spotting a spit bucket in full view, I went ahead and sampled the wonders of Capay Valley Vineyards’ Viognier, Syrah, Tempranillo and Petit Verdot. It just so happened that on this afternoon, the winery’s owner, Pam Welch, was manning the tasting bar. I learned from her that Capay is one of California’s newest wine appellations and that every grape in every one of her bottles is estate-grown.
At an open kitchen around the corner, there were so many bowls and plates of samples set out on a counter, they screamed, “Try me!” If you’ve never had a Suncrest peach, sample one sliver and you’ll buy a bucket of them. We dipped pieces of Acme bread in unfiltered Hillstone Arbequina olive oil and popped late-harvest cherry tomatoes into our mouths.
We also picked up food for the road. The chilled, three-melon salad featured three watermelon varieties—Crimson, Orchid and Yellow Doll—from Full Belly Farm. The green bean salad was an all-local affair made with Riverdog Blue Lake beans, Yolo’s Bloom Ranch almonds and a drizzle of Taber olive oil. And if we hadn’t had on our nice clothes, I would have snagged some of Full Belly’s roasted white corn. —Elaine Corn
Come for: FOSL (fresh, organic, seasonal, local) sandwiches, salads, soups and products to eat in or take out
While here: Shop at factory outlets
Get here: Interstate 80 west to the Monte Vista exit, right on East Monte Vista Avenue
Nut Tree Market Pavilion, 1661 E. Monte Vista Ave., Suite 104, Vacaville; (707) 451-8950; capayvalleyfarmshop.com
More Restaurants Worth the Drive
Al’s Place Restaurant—Aka “Al the Wop’s”; serves steak under a money-plastered ceiling in the century-old town of Locke
13936 Main St., Locke; (916) 776-1800
Auburn Alehouse—Brewhouse favorites such as onion strings battered in Fool’s Gold Ale, along with six to eight craft beers on tap
289 Washington St., Old Town Auburn; (530) 885-2537; auburnalehouse.com
Buckhorn Steak & Roadhouse—Brings in the crowds with its meat-centric menu
2 Main St., Winters; (530) 795-4503; buckhornsteakhouse.com
Caffe Via d’Oro—Steak, seafood and chops served in a newly renovated 1870s building
36 Main St., Sutter Creek; (209) 267-0535; caffeviadoro.com
Citronee Bistro & Wine Bar—Organic food in a French country setting
320 Broad St., Nevada City; (530) 265-5697; citroneebistro.com
Grand Island Mansion—Sunday Champagne brunch that runs the gamut from Italian toast to sea bass fillet
13415 Grand Island Road, Walnut Grove; (916) 775-1705; grandislandmansion.com
Imperial Hotel—1879 brick hotel and bar; Wednesday night chef’s special includes salad, entrée and dessert for $25
14202 Highway 49, Amador City; (209) 267-9172; imperialamador.com
Isleton Joe’s—Known as “the place for crawdads”; you can’t miss the large lobster painted on the exterior brick wall
212 Second St., Isleton; (916) 777-6510; isletonjoes.com
Moore’s Riverboat—Drive up or dock the boat for a family-style Italian dinner on the Delta
106 Brannan Island Road, Isleton; (916) 777-4884; mooresriverboat.com
Ryde Hotel—Famous for its Sunday Champagne brunch of bottomless bubbly and seafood
14340 Highway 160, Walnut Grove; (916) 776-1318; rydehotel.com
St. Pauli Inn—Scrumptious German dumplings in a rustic cabin setting
10120 Highway 50, Pollock Pines; (530) 293-3384
Sierra Pines Country Store—Take a pretty drive through aspen trees to the yummiest burger
19750 Highway 89, Markleeville; (530) 694-2949
Susan’s Place Wine Bar & Eatery—Award-winning foothill wines and Mediterranean/California cuisine
15 Eureka St., Sutter Creek; (209) 267-0945; susansplace.com
Vasquez Delicatessen—Excellent chicken burritos and tacos
620 E. Main St., Vacaville; (707) 448-2950
Wine & Roses—Elegant food and lodgings
2505 W. Turner Road, Lodi; (209) 334-6988; winerose.com