New York Magazine

Explore the New California Cool in Sacramento

No longer sitting in the shadow of cool-kid cities like San Francisco and L.A., California’s capital is showing off some newfound swagger. Its booming craft beer and cocktail culture, an explosion of noteworthy restaurants, and thriving arts scene are all turning heads like never before. But come for a visit, and you’ll find that even with its recent popularity, Sac still sticks to its old-school roots with friendly locals, tree-lined streets that beckon for a bike ride, and lively, welcoming neighborhoods.

Photo: Carol Highsmith/Getty Images

Where to Eat

Inspired by his London roots and California cooking style, Oliver Ridgeway’s Camden Spit & Larder is a brand-new eatery in the booming Downtown Commons neighborhood. The menu features unfussy, rib-sticking mains like spit-roasted beef, chicken, and pork (from $27) and plates perfect for sharing, like salt cod fritters ($9) and steak tartar with cured egg yolk ($18), plus caviar and a robust cheese selection. The 4,000-square-foot space is a stunner, with a central bar area, British design touches like Windsor chairs and houndstooth ottomans, and an open kitchen and adjoining bar space where patrons can watch Ridgeway and his team in action.

Dine around the wood fire hearth at Beast + Bounty. Photo: Courtesy of Beast + Bounty

One of the city’s most highly anticipated restaurants, Beast + Bounty finally opened in July following nearly two years of meticulous planning and construction (and several pushed-back opening dates). Helmed by the venerable entrepreneur–and–executive chef duo of Michael Hargis and Brock Macdonald, the restaurant, whose green-and-pink interior alone is worth a visit, revolves around hearth-driven cuisine, with a wood-fired oven anchoring the 2,200-square-foot space and a menu that gives as much weight to vegetarian (“bounty”) dishes as meat-centric (“beast”) ones. Standout dishes include grilled octopus ($24) and meat- or veggie-centric ramen ($18 and $17, respectively). For a sweet ending, head to the adjacent Milk Money for housemade ice cream and artisanal doughnuts.

Sink your teeth into authentic flavors at the aptly named South, whose husband-and-wife team of Ian and N’Gina Kavookjian (she’s originally from New Orleans) have created a cult following with their family-recipe-inspired dishes. The menu is divided into “Old School” favorites like hush puppies ($9) and fried chicken ($14) served with greens and a biscuit, and “New School” takes on traditional dishes, like a pimento-cheese fritter ($9) or the seafood hot pot ($27), brimming with shellfish, corn, and new potatoes; be sure to save room for the delectable housemade banana pudding ($6). The limited cocktail menu includes a hurricane ($10), and, true to Southern form, you can also get a nip of bourbon (from $6) — which you might want to order while you wait in the almost-always-long line.

Plan to linger at the Empress Tavern, a subterranean stunner below the historic Crest Theatre, where two movie theaters used to reside. Meat takes center stage on the menu, from traditional favorites including succulent rotisserie chicken ($20) and prime rib French dip ($24) to family-style show-stoppers like the côte de boeuf, a 32-ounce bone-in rib-eye that’s carved tableside ($150, including salad and sides). Located just upstairs in a pocket-size space, Mother is owned by the same restaurant group but offers a wholly different dining experience, churning out hearty vegetarian and vegan cuisine. The chicken-fried mushroom po’boy ($10) and the T-Man’s Wedding Lasagne ($15) are perennial favorites; if you go for lunch, prepare for a wait.

What to Do

Safely drink at a mobile bar as you cruise around town on the Sac Brew Bike. Photo: Courtesy of Sac Brew Bike

Raise a glass to Sacramento’s red-hot craft-beer scene with a ride on the whimsical Sac Brew Bike, a 15-passenger trolley-style contraption that you’ll pedal around to some of the city’s most popular breweries, including Der Biergarten, a German-style spot made from shipping containers (from $27 per person). Prefer to paddle rather than pedal? Hop aboard the brand-new Sac Brew Boat, which offers 90-minute BYOB tours along the Sacramento River (from $30 per person). Bike Dog Brewing has a dog-friendly tasting room in industrial West Sacramento and a newly opened tap room in downtown. And for a truly hands-on experience, check out Hop School at Ruhstaller (classes run from April to September; $30 each). Participants dig into how hops are planted and harvested; the fee includes a locally sourced lunch, beer, and a donation to the nonprofit Center for Land Based Learning.

Sac has upped its art game in a big way in recent years, starting with a $100 million expansion in 2010 that tripled the gallery space of the Crocker Art Museum. Opened in 1885, the Crocker was the first museum available to the public in the West; keep an eye out for the $40 million event space and adjacent outdoor art park. Another noteworthy new addition is the snazzy Sofia Tsakopoulos Center for the Arts (also known as the Sofia), the just-unveiled performing-arts complex for the long-standing B Street Theatre (performances start around $9). Sac’s street-art scene is equally impressive, with dozens of massive murals and graffiti artworks brightening building façades and alleyways throughout town. Get the inside scoop on the artists behind them from longtime local Jenn Kistler-McCoy, who offers running and walking tours, as well as a Lady Bird–inspired option that stops by some of the landmarks in the movie.

Sac is brimming with a creative, DIY culture and the enterprising types who feed it. A fitting starting point for digging into the artisan action is the booming Historic R Street District, a former industrial area whose warehouses have been converted into galleries, shops, and boutiques. The Warehouse Artists Lofts, for example, is a 9,000-square-foot mixed-use space that houses trendy spots like Bottle & Barlow, a hybrid barbershop-bar that keeps customers sitting pretty while sipping cocktails and getting throwback services like a straight-razor shave. Kicksville Vinyl and Vintage, meanwhile, is a delicious den of retro treasures, from 45s from the 1950s to funky home décor that would be right at home in Jack Tripper’s pad. Also worth a stop nearby: the nearby All Good flagship store, where you can stock up on quintessentially Californian apparel; Benjamins, which custom-crafts exquisite shoes; and Old Gold, a beautifully curated shop that specializes in bespoke and vintage jewelry and home décor. Sac’s incredible array of culinary artisans will tempt your taste buds, too, from the sumptuous plant-based gelatos of Conscious Creamery (find the sweet treats at events listed on the website) to delectable shrubs and switchels, perfect for mixing up a kicky cocktail, by Burly Beverages, whose recently opened tasting room and gift shop is a home mixologist’s dream.

Where to Stay

Soak up the polished 1920’s decor and dine farm-to-fork at the Citizen Hotel. Photo: Courtesy of the Citizen Hotel

Stay in the style in Sac’s booming Downtown Commons, or DoCo, district at the dazzling Kimpton Sawyer Hotel. The palatial, light-filled lobby and upscale rooms (from around $250), done up in subdued but sophisticated palettes of gray and cream, make it the snazziest digs in town. On-site dining options abound — get your protein fix at Echo & Rig, whose handsome, 7,000-square-foot dining room, accented with marble and wood flooring and leather chairs, marks the second outpost of the Las Vegas–based restaurant; or get your game face on at Punch Bowl Social, a sprawling restaurant and entertainment space brimming with big-screen TVs, video games, and even a bowling alley. The hotel also has a pair of custom-designed bikes perfect for cruising, and you can snag a lounge chair at the beautiful pool area, which transforms into a see-and-be-scene lounge, Revival, at night.

Revel in Gatsby-style glam at the Citizen Hotel. This historic circa-1925 building oozes with the dapper charm of the 1920s, with rows of leather-bound books and black-and-white drawings from a famous mid-century Sacramento Bee cartoon in the foyer, and rooms (from around $250) that feature stately decor with soaring ceilings and pops of red throughout. The real star of the show, however, is the on-site Grange Restaurant, a pioneer in the farm-to-fork movement. Sacramento native Dane Blom, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, has overhauled the menu since being named executive chef in March — try the savory foie gras terrine, made with blackberries and hazelnuts ($21), and the corn agnolotti with pork ragù ($25).

Make your home in the heart of midtown at the Inn Off Capitol Park, located an easy walk from the state-capitol building and its gorgeous namesake park, with palm-lined pathways perfect for strolling and convenient access to museums and other attractions. The property’s unassuming façade belies bright, spiffy rooms (from $129) with crisp white interiors accented by black-and-white photos of the capitol; some rooms come with an extra sitting area set off by French doors that’s perfect for stashing a suitcase. Enjoy complimentary breakfast in the cheery, light-filled atrium before setting off for a day of exploration.

Expert’s Tips

Hitch a ride on immaculately-preserved engines at the California State Railroad Museum. Photo: Stephen Saks/Getty Images/Lonely Planet Image

From Marvin Maldonado, Sacramento native and architect. He’s also the co-owner, with his wife, Bridgette, of Federalist Public House, a convivial neighborhood spot designed from shipping containers that serves up artisanal pizzas and local beer — and is home to an outdoor bocce court.

“Sacramento is synonymous with breweries, and local craft beer has a fantastic scene here. There are so many to choose from, from industrial warehouse-type spaces with open garage doors to these really interesting taprooms and tap houses. In terms of outdoor breweries, I always think of Berryessa Brewing Co., which is outside of Sacramento in the charming town of Winters. The brewery is located near Lake Berryessa, nestled between almond orchards. You’d expect this kind of country setting from a winery, but you don’t expect it from a brewery! In the heart of Sacramento, New Helvetia is located on Broadway in a historic building. It’s really planted its roots as a local favorite, and its name reflects local history as the original name of the region before California became a state. And, as a design aficionado, I love Sactown Union in East Sacramento. It’s housed in an old creamery building, and it’s just a beautiful space.”

“My wife and I love Hawks Public House on Alhambra. It’s the second restaurant by Molly Hawks and Michael Fagnoni, a married couple who are both chefs. They do a fantastic job of farm-to-fork fare, and the setting and atmosphere is very intimate. Their menu is seasonal, and their pastas are to die for. And if you’re up for about a 20-mile drive to Granite Bay, their original fine-dining restaurant, Hawks, is well worth it.”

“If Vietnamese cuisine is your jam, you can’t miss this little enclave called New Saigon on Stockton Boulevard. They have hundreds of great little báhn mì shops and noodle places. There is a huge Asian population in Sacramento, so for years they’ve been serving locals, and in the last few years báhn mì and other Vietnamese cuisine has become so popular and people are seeking out these authentic places. One of our favorites is Duc Huong. The bread is fantastic — good báhn mì always starts with good baguette. It’s perfectly crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside, with salty meat and spice.”

“Sacramento is full of great parks. Two of the most popular that trade off as the civic hubs of the city are Fremont Park and Cesar Chavez Park. At Fremont Park, there’s yoga in the park, free concerts, and this amazing chalk-art festival called Chalk It Up. At Cesar Chavez Park downtown, they have free concerts and a big outdoor beer garden that’s ton of fun in the summertime. McKinley Park also is fantastic, with a duck pond and a beautiful rose garden. And every kid in Sacramento knows about Fairytale Town, which is based on fairy tales and nursery rhymes. Don’t miss the Crooked Mile — kids absolutely love it. You can sit on a bench for an hour and your kids will go nuts just running laps around it. There’s also a small edible garden there that’s amazing.”

“It’s touristy, but Old Sacramento really gives you a good look at the city’s history. There’s an Underground Tour that lets you see the unique geography of the city, and how it was lifted up 15 feet to account for the Sacramento River regularly flooding. So when you go to the alleys in Old Sacramento, you’re actually at the original street level. And there are some really cool underground basements you get to explore. I also love the California State Railroad Museum, because I love engines and seeing the mechanics of how things work. I just turn into a kid when I go there.”