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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Sacramento's Vintage Diners

20080224 Market Club, 1933
Market Club
2630 5th St.

You could easily live in Sacramento for a decade and never be aware that the Market Club exists. It's tucked away within the Sacramento Produce Market, which was built in 1933, in a light industrial area south of Broadway on 5th St. According to the Sacramento Bee, the restaurant opened when the market did, but the old city directories don't list a restaurant there until 1937, when the directory lists the Lincoln Fruit Co. Market Grill. Later it is listed as the Market Grill, and by 1953 as the Market Club.

20080224 Market Club

Inside is a counter with very old stools, and then there is a seating area with vintage beer advertising devices. It's the only place in town I know that you can get baloney and eggs, which I'm anxious to try soon.

20081018 Jim-Denny's
816 12th St.

Jim Denny's is a vintage diner on the corner of 12th and Terminal that used to be open 24 hours to serve people coming and going from a nearby bus depot that served the old American Buslines, Continental Pacific Trailways, and Gibson-American Buslines. The tiny little building with its lunch counter, and no tables, has survived while skyscrapers have been built around it. It's expensive, and after experimenting with extended hours, they've returned to closing at 3 p.m., but it's a real thrill for me to eat in a place like this where history is so palpable. Everything I've eaten there has been excellent too.

20050916 Jim Denny's Hamburgers

From what I have gleaned from various Sacramento Bee articles, Jim Van Nort and Dennis McFall opened the first Jim and Denny's on 16th St. in 1934, and opened the present location as Jim-Denny's No. 2 in 1940. Jim Van Nort cooked at the restaurant until 1988, when he retired and underwent coronary surgery. The restaurant only stayed closed a few months before opening under new ownership. I know it has been closed for at least one stretch since then, after another ownership change. Jim Van Nort died in 2001.

20070417 Trails Charcoal Broiler
Trails Restaurant
2530 21st St.

"Your adventure in good eating" (old Yellow Pages advertisement).

I'm very curious about this place, and haven't come up with solid answers yet. Rumor has it that America's Mermaid, Esther Williams, was owner or part owner of this restaurant. I do know that she owned a restaurant by the same name in Los Angeles, which she bought around 1950-1951. The first Trails in Sacramento opened at 1309 Fulton Avenue around 1952, and this restaurant, Trails No. 2, opened around 1953. By 1956 it was called Myrle's Trails, and I speculate that this Myrle might be the same one who was part owner of Al & Myrle's Platter, just half a block away (now Pancake Circus, discussed below). There is still a velvet painting hanging inside that says "Myrle's Trails."

The Fulton Avenue location closed around 1965, and was a series of other restaurants (Hegland's Charcoal Broiler, Golden Trails Restaurant, Pied Piper Restaurant, Claude's Restaurant, Vino Veneto Restaurant) before being demolished. Today a Rite Aid stands at that location. Meanwhile, the Trails on 21st is still in businesses, serving up the house special, Shish-K-Bobs.

20081023 Double Cheeseburger
Double Cheeseburger

According to a waitress, someone a customer told her that it was decorated just the way the Trails in Los Angeles was, thus establishing the connection to Esther Williams. On the other hand, it is a small and humble place, whereas the Los Angeles restaurant had monkeys, birds, and fish, and Howard Hughes used to hang out in the back. I'm not sure the current owner knows the history of the place, and anyhow, his English is not so good.

But he's very friendly and hard working, and I feel very good about spending my money at this place--and it doesn't take much, as you can get a sandwich plate for under $5. The old western-themed dishes and cups they used to use now hang on display, but the wagon wheel chandeliers are still in use. The cowboy wallpaper is new, but is just like the old wallpaper they stripped off several layers of, according to the waitress.

20080309 Capitol Park Cafe
Capitol Park Cafe
1119 9th St.

The Capitol Park Cafe is named after the Capitol Park Hotel, which is itself comprised of two buildings adjoining each other. The cafe is in the one marked "Siller Building" on the front. The buildings are from around 1912., and became the Lenhart Hotel around 1928. The first city directory showing a restaurant at this address is from 1929, when it was the Lenhart Coffee Shop, which apparently closed around 1937. In 1953, it was Bob's Coffee Shop, but it was vacant again in 1955. In 1957 and 1975 it is listed as Park Coffee Shop, and then it was Park Palace Coffee Shop, New Park Restaurant, and Oriental Express, before becoming the Capitol Park Cafe in the early 1990s.

20080303 T-Bone Steak & Eggs
T-Bone Steak & Eggs

I ate there shortly after moving to the area in 1996, and was amazed at the low prices. They aren't so low as to be amazing these days, but the restaurant is still a good bargain, and the two meals I have had there this year have been excellent.

20070422 Sammy's
2021 Del Paso Blvd.

"Since 1944" a sign tells you at Sammy's, although that is misleading. That is when Samuel Powell, who had various other businesses in the area throughout the years, started serving food there, but apparently he was serving it out of a gas station in the 1940s and early 1950s. By 1953 it was Sammy's Waffle Shop. The original place burned down in 1968, and Sammy and his son spent a year building the restaurant we have today. The interior colors were changed in the 1980s. Too bad--I'd love to see the 1960s burnt orange.

20071229 Deluxe Sammy Burger
Deluxe Sammy Burger

20080115 Sim's Diner
Sim's Diner
513 Broadway

There's no doubt about it when you look at this place from the outside: it's very, very old. Louis Rouppet opened up a restaurant here around 1930. It appears under the name on the neon sign outside, "Quick Lunch," in the 1948 directory, and was still operating under that name as late as 1982. To my surprise, it is listed as Edokko in 1996, but it was Sim's Diner when I ate there in 2005.

It's a tiny little place, and when I ate there, I was the only one who did not address the proprietress as "Mama." When I paid with a $20 bill, she had to send a young girl to a store on the corner to get change. But the food was good, and I hope to try their breakfast buffet soon.

20071214 Lil Joe's
Lil Joe's
1710 Del Paso

20061001 Steak & Eggs
Steak & Eggs

Syrian immigrant "Lil" Joe Halaway bought the Emerald Cafe in 1948, eventually changing the name to Lil Joe's. Lil Joe was famous for his loving nature and generosity, greeting customers with a smile and a "God bless you." Those words are now etched in the concrete before the restaurant's door. He stood by his employees and helped those who were down on their luck with free meals frequently.

And he saw a lot of people down on their luck. Shortly after he bought the restaurant on highway 40, Del Paso Boulevard was bypassed by a new freeway, and began a long decline. The area was, and still is (although it is starting to come out of it with major redevelopment efforts), beset by vacant buildings, empty lots, liquor stores, adult book stores, prostitution, drug use, and violence. According to the Sacramento Bee, police would avoid going to Lil Joe's (which used to be open 24 hours) because they didn't want to eat among the people they would be arresting later. The low point came in 1993, when a customer responded to being asked to put his cigarette out by stabbing the waiter to death.

When he was hospitalized in early 2002, the city council unanimously voted to honor Lil Joe with a lifetime achievement award for his assistance to the poor, sponsorship of youth sports, and general contribution to the community. He died a few months after being hospitalized. His son George, who started working the restaurant at the age of 14, carries on his legacy, as does his daughter.

Once I moved to nearby Arden-Arcade in August of 2002, I started eating at Lil Joe's frequently, mainly for the incredibly low prices. Then it was only $1.69 for a hamburger and a bag of potato chips (it's now $3.69). My only real complaint is the toast at breakfast--they need to get some better bread.

20080103 Pancake Circus
Pancake Circus
2101 Broadway

A 1997 Sacramento Bee article refers to the Pancake Circus as "a shrine to breakfast lovers for nearly 40 years." I've noticed that people writing restaurant reviews don't hesitate to make things up rather than do any real research. The Pancake Circus opened, in fact, around 1970, although the building dates back to around 1963. It was originally Al & Myrle's Platter, then Al's Platter, then Pancake Parade No. 3. I imagine not a lot of interior redecorating was required when it changed from Pancake Parade to Pancake Circus.

20070915 Pancake Circus

They've got a counter with stools inside and you can play Lotto from your seat. I'm not a big fan of pancakes, but fortunately I enjoy they do eggs Benedict well. It's one of my favorite dishes, but very easy to screw up if you have bad Hollandaise sauce.

20080120 Blueberry Pancakes
Blueberry Pancakes

20080820 Lucky Cafe
Lucky Cafe
1111 21st St

The Lucky Cafe at this address opened around 1962, right after the Lucky Cafe on 5th near J closed, presumably as part of the redevelopment associated with the construction of Interstate 5. I think they just relocated, although I was disappointed to find in an old photograph of the 5th St. location that the sign did not exactly match the current sign. The older Lucky Cafe opened in the mid 1940s.

Inside they have a countertop with a 1950s Googie design and a limited number of booths that are off limits to solo diners.

20071221 Eddie's Irish Village Coffee Shop
Johanna's/Eddie's Irish Village Coffee Shop
2906 Auburn Blvd

I just went to eat here the other day, and was disappointed to find that it had closed. Not surprised, but disappointed. Eddie's Irish Village Motel and Coffee Shop opened around 1963. In the 1980s it was Red Robin Coffee Shop, but by 1990 it was Johanna's Restaurant. It took me quite a while to discover this place, which wasn't quite as old as I really like, but was close to where I live, and inexpensive.

20080426 Chicken Fried Steak
Chicken Fried Steak & Eggs

200612104 Uptown Cafe
Uptown Cafe/The Coffee Pot
1121 Del Paso Blvd.

The Coffee Bar opened here around 1952. Then it became the Coffee Shop, the Del Paso Coffee Shop, the Coffee Pot, Beth's Coffee Pot, and then back to the Coffee Pot, before becoming the Uptown Cafe around 1997. It's a restaurant run by a chef, so the food is good, and also a little more expensive than most of these other old places. My most interesting meal here was during a power outage in a storm--given the circumstances, the menu was somewhat restricted.

20060309 Cheddar Cheese Burger
Cheddar Cheeseburger & Onion Rings

20070830 "Chicken Fried Steak"
Mary's Cafe
6498 Broadway

I missed out on getting a photograph of the 1970s sign for this restaurant. The strip mall it is in was recently redone, and the old sign disappeared. But nothing old is missing from the interior.

It opened around 1954 as Marie's Do-Nut Shop No. 2, with No. 1 being in Del Paso Heights. There's still a Marie's Do-Nut Shop on Freeport Boulevard. By 1955 it was Oleta's Coffee & Donut Shop, then Los Taquetos, before staying as Kindle's Kitchen for 15 years or more. Around 1975, it became Mary's Kitchen.

My first visit there was not auspicious. It looks really worn inside, and calendars from 1985 hang on the wall. Listed on the menu was "chicken fried steak" at the lowest price I have ever seen. But it turned out it was just a chicken patty. Now, the "steak" part is crossed off with marker on the menus, meaning it is listed as "chicken fried."

I've been much happier with my more recent meals. I wasn't asked how I wanted my steak when I ordered steak and eggs, but apparently they knew I wanted it medium rare--it was terrific. When I was there the other day, they were completely swamped, and couldn't handle the number of customers. But even though my food was slow to arrive, the shrimp omelette was tasty. The only thing that really bothers me is that unnatural yellow substance they put on the toast. But if you've got a really small appetite and are looking to spend around $2.35 for breakfast, this is the place to go. Try one egg and one pancake.

20080616 Eggie's
1650 Fulton Ave.

There are several breakfast/lunch places in my neighborhood that close in the afternoon, but this one has the best food of all of them. I used to be a regular there, with the chicken apple sausage & scrambled eggs with country potatoes (with onions and peppers) and sourdough toast being my most common order. Then one day I saw "Freedom Fries" featured on their daily special, and since then I have rarely visited. Vive la France.

20060405 Chicken apple sausage and eggs
Chicken Apple Sausage & Eggs

The place probably opened as the Coffee Hut around 1967, then was Kenny's for a number of years (not Denny's), briefly Quok's, and by 1978 was Eggie's.

20070327 Sam's Big Top
Country Waffles
2721 El Camino

The only thing inside that matches the Googie architecture are the hot pink tiles behind the counter. But the fact that it is the Sam Gordon Center is a dead giveaway that it was a Sam's Big Top, built around 1967. Like many of Sam's restaurant, this one was purchased by the Denny's chain, but it didn't stay a Denny's long. For a stretch it was Walt's.

20051009 Former Lyon's
2495 Watt Ave.

When I lived in Davis, every once in a while I would eat at the Lyon's (now another restaurant). The food always looked good in the photos on the menu, but I was always disappointed. When I moved to my current neighborhood, I used to eat breakfast at this Lyon's occasionally just to appreciate the building and the great round booths inside (unfortunately I never took any photos of the interior).

Not being a fan of the Lyon's chain, I assumed it must have been something different originally to have such a cool building, but no, it opened as a Lyon's around 1966. An older friend at work tells me it was the place to be late at night in the late sixties, when it was open 24 hours a day.

It didn't do great business, but probably had low rent in the parking lot of a a closed Montgomery Ward's. But soon after Wal-Mart moved into the Ward's building, the place closed, and it was demolished in 2007 to provide more parking for the Wal-Mart.