It's a Special Occasion

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Big Welcome 

Patrick Mulvaney’s popular midtown restaurant is like a reverse Cheers: At MULVANEY’S B&L, everybody knows his name. That’s because Mulvaney is the gregarious host of the best party in town. After running a successful catering business, Mulvaney opened his restaurant in 2006 in a historic brick firehouse. It’s comfortable and unpretentious, with exposed brick walls, simple wooden chairs and a Nerf basketball hoop over the door. One of Sacramento’s earliest proponents of farm-to-fork cooking, Mulvaney oversees a deeply ingredient-driven menu; whatever farmers bring in the front door goes on the plate. He combines classic techniques with flavors from around the world: Mediterranean, Mexican, Indian, you name it. In an homage to his Irish heritage, there’s house-smoked salmon with brown bread. Crispy veal sweetbreads are another menu staple. The kitchen makes just about everything in-house, including bacon. (Mulvaney loves pork.) That DIY ethos extends to the housemade sodas, in flavors such as hibiscus/ ginger and dragon fruit/mint. At the end of the meal, the check is cleverly presented inside an old hardback book, where diners scrawl comments and compliments on the endpapers and in the margins. 1215 19th St.; (916) 441-6022; mulvaneysbl.com 

In addition to the main dining room, Mulvaney’s B&L offers several secluded, private dining spaces, including the china and wine storage rooms—utilitarian by day, simply beguiling by candlelight. 

Luxury on Gritty K 

Back in 2007, Sacramento had never seen anything like ELLA. The Kitchen’s Randall Selland and his family spent $4.5 million to build the splashy downtown restaurant, hiring a Dutch design firm and 

sinking a small fortune into materials such as Carrara marble and Belgian bluestone for the bar, Italian linen for the drapes. With a gorgeous interior in shades of cream and white, Ella whispers quiet luxury right down to the Christofle silver. Executive chef Rob Lind and his staff produce tasty bites such as Hog Island oysters on the half shell, rabbit rillettes and cedar-plank-roasted Toma cheese. Entrees run the gamut from excellent fried chicken to grilled beef tenderloin with bordelaise. The 22-page wine list is international in scope, with a fantastic collection of aged German rieslings. There’s also a section devoted to aged bordeaux, including a Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion 1989 (a very good year) that will set you back $2,350. Ella attracts visiting celebs and athletes; San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich pops in whenever he’s in town. The place keeps dossiers on regulars, and staffers take copious notes on things such as water preference, allergies and aversions. This just may be Sacramento’s go-to restaurant for important celebrations: On a typical Saturday night, virtually everyone in the place seems to be celebrating something. 1131 K St.; (916) 443-3772; elladiningroomandbar.com 

Simple and Seasonal 

By day, it’s a casual spot where diners line up to order sandwiches and salads from a menu handwritten on a bit of butcher paper. By night, however, MAGPIE CAFE becomes a real restaurant. It wasn’t Simple and Seasonalalways thus. When married partners Ed Roehr and Janel Inouye opened Magpie back in 2009, it was a fast-casual, order-at-the-counter affair both day and night. But it soon became apparent that Magpie’s customers wanted a more elevated experience at dinnertime. In the evening, Magpie attracts a young, hip crowd who like elegantly prepared food without fuss or formality. Magpie takes a straightforward approach: a small menu (six or seven entrees max), top-notch ingredients sourced from local farms such as Soil Born and Azolla, a tight wine list and a killer beer selection. Chicken for Two is the kind of dish you dream about: The bird is cooked two ways—the body roasted, the legs prepared confit style in duck fat—and served in a wide white bowl with roasted potatoes and sprightly chervil sauce. Magpie fans love its brick-walled funkiness, but they’ll have to get used to slightly fancier digs when the restaurant relocates later this spring to a new, larger space on the redeveloped R Street corridor. 1409 R St.; (916) 452-7594; magpiecafe.com

Food and Wine

Napa Valley has become such a scene, many locals now prefer to go wine tasting in nearby Amador County. In addition to gorgeous scenery, little traffic and affordable tasting fees, Amador offers a gustatory draw: TASTE, the highly regarded wine-focused restaurant operated by Mark and Tracey Berkner. Located on Plymouth’s blink-and-you-miss-it main drag, Taste offers cosmopolitan food along with small-town casualness. (As Tracey Berkner says, “Dressed up in Amador County is clean jeans.”) The Berkners divvy up the duties, with Mark in the kitchen and Tracey in the front of the house. The food is playful and fun, but there’s seriousness, too, in dishes such as filet mignon with truffle and beef ragu cappelletti. (In 2013, Mark was invited to cook at the James Beard House in New York.) Servers are wine-cognizant and extremely accommodating. They can create a chef’s tasting menu—anything from two to seven courses complete with wine pairings—on the spot. 9402 Main St., Plymouth; (209) 245-3463; restauranttaste.com

Getting the Look Just Right

Whitney Johnson is Sacramento’s go-to gal when it comes to restaurant design. Her firm, Johnson & Ross, is responsible for some of the most stunning restaurant interiors in town, including Hook & Ladder Manufacturing Co., Shady Lady Saloon and Bacon & Butter. Next on her plate: a revamp of downtown’s Grange Restaurant & Bar, set to debut in summer 2015.

What do you think about when you design a restaurant?

You need to think about every aspect of the guest experience, not just the food. What’s the temperature like? How’s the lighting? Do the plates, silverware and glassware fit on the tables? We create an atmosphere so diners can leave their environment and experience something completely different for an hour or two.

How important is lighting?

It can make or break a restaurant. It has to be warm and inviting. It needs to make your face and your food look good. You have to be able to see the menu and the person you’re eating with. 

What about sound?

All those hard, cold restaurant surfaces are beautiful, but they’re terrible when it comes to acoustics. Hook & Ladder was too noisy, so we draped the ceilings with fabric for a quick fix. 

What’s one of your favorite parts of the job?

I love to pick out the silver, stemware, china, the check presenters. I’m very picky about the glasses I use. It’s all about how it feels in your hand and looks on your table. 

Name your favorite special-occasion restaurants from a design perspective.

I love Ella, Grange and Kru. Il Fornaio is one of the most beautiful restaurants in town. And at Frank Fat’s, you feel transported to a world far away. I recently ate at Bottega in Napa. The decor was beautiful. I was obsessed with the hand-hammered copper bar top.

Coming Soon . . .

For decades, Paragary’s Bar & Oven in midtown was one of Sacramento’s premier special-occasion restaurants, a place where locals went for a first date or a celebratory meal. But Randy Paragary himself admits that his 28th Street restaurant lost its luster somewhere along the way. “Over time, we weren’t having people come for first dates,” he says. “It just didn’t click with the younger generation.” So in February 2014, he closed the restaurant and embarked on a major renovation designed to make Paragary’s modern and relevant again. When it opens later this year, everything will be new, from the interior design to the menu. Even the name is new: PARAGARY’S MIDTOWN BISTRO. Inspired by the couple’s travels to France, Randy’s wife Stacy (head design honcho) is lightening things up with white walls, custom encaustic cement floor tiles and a neutral color scheme of grays, blacks and beiges with pops of French blue. The menu is also getting a French-inspired overhaul. Instead of pizzas and pastas, the kitchen will serve wood-roasted mussels and cassoulet. Brad Peters, head bartender at Paragary’s Hock Farm restaurant, is creating the cocktail program and experimenting with French aperitifs. The Paragarys hope these changes will inspire younger diners to give the restaurant a try. Says Stacy: “This is not your parents’ Paragary’s.” 1401 28th St.; (916) 457-5737; paragarys.com

Married to Their Work

HAWKS isn’t your typical mom-and-pop restaurant. Molly Hawks and Michael Fagnoni are culinary school grads who met while working at The Village Pub in Woodside, married and decided to bring a San Francisco-style restaurant to the Sacramento ’burbs. Their place is sleek and sophisticated, with tables covered in white linen and chairs upholstered in understated brown mohair. Hawks serves modern American food—things like grilled pork chop with chive spaetzle, and ricotta gnocchi with buttered Maine lobster and chanterelles. Even the burger is high end: Whole Niman Ranch chuck is ground (twice) in the walk-in refrigerator so the meat stays cold and firm, and everything on the plate is made in-house, from the brioche bun and hand-cut fries to the aioli and pickled cucumbers. For dessert, there’s always a souffle available in a flavor such as Meyer lemon or pear, and it takes only 14 minutes to prepare. But many diners opt instead for the Hawks Bar: a layered chocolate confection that looks like a candy bar and tastes like heaven. 5530 Douglas Blvd., Granite Bay; (916) 791-6200; hawksrestaurant.com

Historic in Old Sac 

With its iron columns, gold-leaf mirrors and Gilded Age decor, THE FIREHOUSE practically oozes special occasion. This Old Sac institution, situated in an 1853 brick firehouse, offers serene, candlelit surroundings and courtly servers who pour your mushroom-fennel bisque tableside from a copper pot. Executive chef Deneb Williams provides an upscale (and pricey) menu; the $56 signature dish, Frutti di Mare, includes Nigerian saltwater prawn, Maine lobster tail and pan-seared sea scallop with risotto. The restaurant is renowned for its wine program, with an 86-page wine list and a staff of nine sommeliers. General manager Mario Ortiz is eager to please: If you ask, he’ll give you a private tour of the restaurant’s cellar, and he once found a hotel room for Bay Area diners who decided to stay in town after a late dinner. 1112 Second St.; (916) 442-4772; firehouseoldsac.com

Family Friendly 

After 35 years in the restaurant business working for other people, Mark Platt decided to strike out on his own. In 2010, he and wife Karoline opened SIENNA in El Dorado Hills. Located in the 9,500-square-foot building that once housed Masque Ristorante, Sienna seems to know just what its suburban customers want: an affordable, family-friendly place for everyday dining as well as special occasions. There’s nothing stuffy here, from the tables topped with big slabs of teakwood to the pretty upholstered dining chairs trimmed with nailheads; instead of snowy white linens on the tables, there are modern Chilewich placemats. The accessible menu of contemporary global cuisine offers something for everyone in the family: burgers for the kids, grilled skirt steak and seared scallop risotto for Mom and Dad. (The person picking up the check will like that most entrees top out at $25.) Diners looking for something out of the ordinary can reserve the Chef’s Table right inside the kitchen for a four-course, $85-a-person dinner. 3909 Park Drive, El Dorado Hills; (916) 941-9694; siennarestaurants.com

Upscale Italian

Three decades ago, Biba Caggiano was a doctor’s wife and talented home cook who taught cooking classes in her spare time. At the urging of friends (including grocer Darrell Corti), she decided to open her own restaurant. It’s a testament to her talent that BIBA is still going strong 28 years later. Now in her late 70s, she can fairly be called the OG of Sacramento fine dining. Her namesake midtown restaurant is quiet and refined, filled with more than its share of well-heeled lawyers, doctors and celebrities. (Dusty Baker’s a regular.) As the restaurant’s very public face, Caggiano circulates through the dining room, leaving the cooking to executive chef Steve Toso. The menu is Italian—not red-sauce Italian but refined Italian, mostly from the central and northern regions. Many of the pastas are made in-house, including the ethereal Lasagne Verdi, served Thursdays and Fridays only. Servers are dignified and professional; you’ll never hear, “Hi, guys. How we doin’ tonight?” And in a throwback to a kinder, gentler era, a pianist plays show tunes on the baby grand in the lounge several nights a week. 2801 Capitol Ave.; (916) 455-2422; biba-restaurant.com

Piano Man

For the past three years, Rich O’Day has been playing piano every Wednesday in Biba’s lounge. For a magical evening, he says, there’s nothing like live music to set the mood. 

What kind of music do you play?

I play jazz, standards and show tunes—sometimes referred to as the Great American Songbook. My repertoire includes the music of Cole Porter, Jerome Kern and the Gershwins. 

Do you get requests?

I do. If I don’t know the song, I tell them I’ll learn it and play it for them the next time they come in. I don’t like to flounder through a song I don’t know.

Do people try to sing along?

Really no. That can be a catastrophic situation, especially after a cocktail or two. It’s embarrassing for everyone, including the pianist.

Do you have a tip jar?

Yes. That’s pretty standard.

What kind of tips do you get? 

The most common is a $5 bill.

Do you take breaks?

Yes, you have to, to avoid deep vein thrombosis. I take a break for 10 minutes every hour. Often, I walk around and talk to the customers.

Do you eat or drink when you work?

Never. To play well, you have to have all your faculties. When I’m finished, I’ll maybe have a glass of wine and a bowl of pasta. 

Supermarket Sweep 

Every February, Taylor’s Kitchen gets a small shipment of Pliny the Younger, the high-alcohol triple IPA worshipped by beer geeks. To celebrate, the restaurant offers a special beer-friendly dish; last year, it was a porchetta sandwich. Get in quick; the beer sells out in one night.

Rare is the upscale restaurant affiliated with a grocery store. When the space next to Taylor’s Market in Land Park became available in 2008, co-owner Kathy Johnson originally planned to expand the operation with a casual takeout joint. But in a flash of brilliance, she decided instead to open TAYLOR’S KITCHEN, which manages to hit the sweet spot between neighborhood hangout and destination restaurant. With brick walls, storefront windows and demonstration kitchen, the place has a hip, urbane aura that feels more like Seattle than Sacramento. In the hands of chef Richard Telford, the menu is small, seasonal, inventive and globally influenced. A Yorkshire pudding appetizer is served with puffed farro, a shirred hen egg and black truffle shavings, and the well-marbled Angus rib-eye—the same beef sold at the butcher counter next door—is a steal at $35. The all-world wine list, curated by master sommelier-in-training Keith Fergel, includes values such as a $28 Gerard Bertrand Picpoul de Pinet and a hard-to-find 2012 Wayfarer Chardonnay ($115 and worth every penny). At 36 seats, the dining room is miniscule, and the restaurant is open for dinner only Wednesday through Saturday. Reservations are strongly suggested, even if all you want is a seat at the bar or the kitchen counter. 2924 Freeport Blvd.; (916) 443-5154; taylorskitchen.com

Service With a Smile

Server Jennifer Noble has worked at The Waterboy since the restaurant opened. She has a reputation as one of the best servers in town.

What’s the secret to great service?

Consistency and willingness to take care of a customer’s special needs. You get to know your customers. It’s like waiting on family.

What’s your top server skill?

I remember what people like. I’m not that good with people’s names, but I know they don’t like lemon in their ice tea.

What do you say when a customer asks which dish to order?

I ask questions to see what kind of mood they’re in. Do they want something light or something hearty? And if the menu’s changing soon, I’ll tell them an item is going away, so they might want to order it now while they can.

Do you taste the food?

I taste the sauces, so when I’m asked a question, I have the answer. 

How are your tips?

Our customers are generous tippers.

What do you like about your job?

I love talking about food, and I love taking care of people.

A New Face in The Kitchen

Randall Selland doesn’t hand over the keys to The Kitchen to just anyone. Since late last year, the guy running the show at Selland’s high-profile demonstration restaurant on Hurley Way is a veteran of the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group, probably the most successful fine-dining operation in the country. For eight years, El Paso, Texas, native David Chavez worked his way up the Keller organization, starting out as a chef de partie (aka line cook) at Bouchon in Las Vegas before being promoted to sous chef within a few months. He ended up in New York, spending a little time at Keller’s Per Se, then opening and running the Bouchon cafe and bakery at Rockefeller Center. He was on track for a sweet (if peripatetic) career with the Keller group, but a stint at Bouchon in Beverly Hills convinced Chavez it was time to put down roots. His wife had lived in Sacramento after college and liked it, so the couple moved here. A Google search led him to Selland, who hired him. 

Acting as top chef at The Kitchen requires Chavez to be part ringmaster, part lion tamer. “I’m finding my voice, breaking out of my shell,” says the 31-year-old. “I love when the crowd’s into it. The hecklers, the yelling—it’s all fun.” A few months ago, Keller called his former employee, offering him a new restaurant project in New York. Chavez turned him down. He says Selland is the last guy he’ll ever work for. “For me, the next step is ownership,” says Chavez, who dreams of opening his own place in El Paso, doing for his hometown what Selland did for Sacramento. He sees similarities between his old boss and his new one. “For both of them, it’s all about the guest,” he says. “If someone wants a grilled cheese sandwich, give it to them. Never say no.”

Show Time 

Randall Selland is the P.T. Barnum of Sacramento dining. At THE KITCHEN, his popular demonstration-style restaurant, diners act as the audience as Selland or new executive chef David Chavez performs in the open kitchen, talking about ingredients and razzing customers while preparing a $135, seven-course tasting menu. Dinner is a leisurely affair that lasts about three and a half hours; a recent menu included squash bisque with ham hocks; Liberty Farms duck cassoulet; smoked wild salmon and fennel soubise; wood-grilled beef with maitake mushrooms; and honey-yogurt panna cotta. Halfway through, there’s an “intermission,” so you can stretch your legs and sample sushi and other tidbits on the patio outside. Service is stellar, and the customer is king: The Kitchen will accommodate just about any special request, from second helpings to chocolate souffle—even a sandwich if you’re so inclined. 2225 Hurley Way; (916) 568-7171; thekitchenrestaurant.com

Mediterranean in Midtown

One of Sacramento’s most successful restaurants is one of its most unprepossessing. When Rick Mahan opened THE WATERBOY in midtown in 1996, he didn’t have much money, so he opted for bare-bones decor, with exposed ductwork and large, unadorned windows. Even the white table linens were a necessity rather than a luxury, used to mask the dinged-up tables Mahan inherited from a previous tenant. Nearly 20 years later, the restaurant’s design still speaks in a whisper, not a shout. But oh, the food! Mahan’s sophisticated take on California cuisine borrows heavily from the European canon, mostly French and Italian classics with a dollop of Spanish for good measure. The stars of the show are the high-quality seasonal ingredients, which Mahan transforms using traditional techniques such as braising and roasting—no molecular gastronomy razzle-dazzle, thank you very much. Regulars know they can always find sweetbreads on the menu, along with steeped-in-tradition classics such as salt cod brandade, potato gratin and, in cold months, Mahan’s otherworldly cassoulet. With The Waterboy, Mahan has created that most unusual of restaurants: a simple yet refined place where you can go several times a week for an everyday meal or once a year for a celebratory blowout. 2000 Capitol Ave.; (916) 498-9891; waterboyrestaurant.com

Wine Shop With a Chef 

Auburn has a well-deserved reputation as a meat-and-potatoes town. So it’s an unexpected pleasure to come across CARPE VINO, a sophisticated, wine-centric restaurant serving elevated New American cuisine in Gold Rush surroundings. Located in a series of historic brick buildings in the heart of Old Town, Carpe Vino started out in 2002 as a wine shop. Four years later, father-and-son owners Gary and Drew Moffat opened the restaurant in response to customers clamoring for food to go with their wine. Heading up the kitchen is Eric Alexander, a classically trained chef who graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.; his girlfriend, fellow CIA grad Courtney McDonald, makes the desserts. The menu is small but wide ranging, designed to appeal to palates both adventurous and conventional—from bone marrow pho to roast chicken for two. (In a bravura presentation, Alexander walks the whole roasted bird to the table for inspection, then returns it to the kitchen for carving.) The wine shop’s entire inventory of mostly West Coast wines is available in the restaurant via a digital wine list presented on a tablet, complete with tasting notes. Instead of the traditional restaurant markup, diners pay the retail price plus $5 for corkage. 1568 Lincoln Way, Auburn; (530) 823-0320; carpevinoauburn.com 

City Style 

Hotel restaurants often don’t get a lot of respect. Not so GRANGE. Located inside The Citizen Hotel, this downtown restaurant and its swanky bar have big-city chic to spare. The restaurant opened in 2008 under the guidance of Michael Tuohy, who left in 2011 (and is now supervising food operations for the upcoming downtown arena). Replacing Tuohy was Oliver Ridgeway, an Englishman with an impressive pedigree: He’s worked on the QE2 cruise ship, at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen in New Orleans and for a slew of hotels, including The Carlyle in New York. Classically trained in French technique, Ridgeway takes a global approach to modern American cuisine. Dungeness crab and coconut bisque is flavored with galangal and lemon grass and topped with a ginger crab beignet. To accompany a New York strip steak, Ridgeway slow-cooks carrots in beef fat. On the small-plates menu, there’s a $2 dish called, simply, “Oil & Vinegar” that allows you to choose from a selection of carefully curated local products, including Bariani’s early-harvest olive oil, which tastes like fresh-cut grass. The restaurant is one seriously sexy space, with leather banquettes, a two-story wine tower and a glassed-in private dining room upstairs. Head bartender Ryan Seng is a genius with cocktails; if you ask, he’ll create a special drink just for you. 926 J St.; (916) 492-4450; grangesacramento.com 

Capitol Chophouse 

In 1999, city elders desperate to lure people back to the downtown core persuaded restaurateurs Randy and Stacy Paragary to work their magic on K Street. The result: ESQUIRE GRILL, which opened in early 2000. With its men’s club ambience and Masters of the Universe vibe, the place was an instant hit with the Capitol crowd. (Both Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger were regulars.) The Paragarys looked to San Francisco’s venerable Tadich Grill for inspiration and hired Bay Area designer Michael Guthrie to create a traditional chophouse with high ceilings, dim lighting, cushy upholstered booths and a handsome mahogany bar. The menu, produced by longtime Paragary partner and collaborator Kurt Spataro, is a mash-up of old and new, offering midcentury favorites such as deviled eggs and new-millennial dishes like pork belly confit. The intoxicating aroma of roasting meat wafts from the open kitchen, outfitted with a rotisserie and wood-fired grill that pumps out pricey grilled Delmonico rib-eyes and budget-friendlier burgers. The bar makes a killer martini (shaken, of course, not stirred). And in a tip of the fedora to the “Mad Men” era, a server will bring a box of Davidoff cigars to your table for a postprandial smoke on the patio. 1213 K St.; (916) 448-8900; paragarys.com