Chances are you've driven your carload of friends by or through Sacramento at some point, possible en route to Tahoe. And chances are also good that if you made a stop to eat on that long drive, you probably hit one of the many strip-mall fast-food joints right off the freeway.
While your mental image of Sacramento might be only of the state's political engine, quite a treasure trove of eats and drinks can be found there, in a big city that acts like a small town. Here's my guide and great excuses to plan a stop.
1630 S Street, 916-442-4885
Like many of the restaurants in Sacramento, Hook & Ladder has a focus on local produce. We Bay Area types think we're close to the action, but this city is surrounded by farmland and the fruits of that pristine agriculture can be found both on a plate and in a glass. Chef Brian Mizner's cooking is light yet substantial, and barman Chris Tucker's drinks are on par with some of the best in San Francisco. Since you still have a good drive home ahead of you, order one of their iced coffees on draft after a cocktail. They pour like a stout, but drink like a slow-brewed cup.
2718 J Street, 916-706-2275
This gastropub in the heart of Midtown is for those looking for a more casual tavern atmosphere, including seating out front (which you will actually want to make use of in Sacramento weather). Chef John Bays' twists on pub food highlight local products -- such as fresh asparagus tempura that crackles with each bite, plucked only a few miles away. Excellent drinks are the domain of veteran barman Matt Nurge, and include a few local classics like the Krakow Salt Mine (Zubrowka Vodka, apple cider, lemon, ginger beer, simple syrup, kosher salt). On the weekends, keep an eye out for Chris Sinclair, whose flair keeps the bar entertained.
1415 L Street, 916-440-8888
A glance at Hock Farm's backbar is like a roll call of the state's craft distilleries, with almost everybody in attendance. Drinks here are the domain of Brad Peters and his crew, who whip up a tiki-bar take on a blackberry daiquiri that's perfect for warm evenings on the patio. The food is farm-focused without being fussy, including fun bites like Fanta soda braised pork sliders. As it's located across the street from the State Capitol's rose garden, make sure to add time enough for a stroll to smell the proverbial roses after a meal.
1409 R Street, 916-231-9121
One of the city's best-known craft cocktail spots, this saloon has seen much of Sacramento's (and San Francisco's) top talent behind the bar. While primarily a bar, its kitchen does serve a selection of small plates and hot sandwiches as well. Even if you're already filled up on a Double Double, swing by here and try Sacramento's favorite classic drink, the Horse's Neck (rye whiskey, ginger ale, bitters).