I’ll be honest: when one of my best friends told me that she was moving to Sacramento, California’s capital city, I immediately thought, That’s too bad — you can say adios to great food and drinks!
As a California native, however, I should have known better. Sacramento has been called “America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital,” and with good reason. The region’s 1.5 million acres of regional farmland and Mediterranean climate, among other things, make it an agricultural powerhouse.
I recently explored Sacramento as part of a visit to my friend’s new digs in February 2017. Though my main goal was to explore Lodi’s excellent wine country, I was caught off guard by how much I genuinely loved Sacramento’s bars and restaurants.
Some stops I made were intentional and others accidental, but they all shared one thing in common: the caliber of the drinks was top notch. Here are my favorite places to grab drinks in Sacramento.
Best Cocktail Spots in Sacramento
Shady Lady Saloon
1409 R Street, Sacramento, CA
Open Monday to Friday, 11:00 AM to 2:00 AM; Saturday & Sunday, 9:00 AM to 2:00 AM
Let’s start with one of the best, shall we? Shady Lady Saloon, a craft cocktail bar in the Downtown area which opened in 2009, was named one of America’s best bars in 2014 by Esquire. With its red sofas and red wallpaper, plus vintage photographs adorning the walls, you’ll be easily transported to the 1920s era.
While bartenders seem to be increasingly outdoing each other with innovative ingredients and riffs on various classics, I really appreciated Shady Lady’s focus on “classics made right.” Case in point: their whiskey sour, pictured below, is as beautiful to see as it is to taste.
That’s not to say that Shady Lady’s drinks aren’t fun, however. I enjoyed “Jameson and the Giant Peach,” a mixture of Jameson Irish Whiskey, peach liqueur, Genepy, fresh lemon and orange juice, and sugar ($10). The “Japanese Cocktail” — which balanced brandy, lime juice, and orgeat — reminded us of eating Tootsie rolls on an elementary school playground. Whatever you order here, you can’t go wrong.
Pro tip ⇒ Happy hour here is Monday to Friday, 3:00 to 6:00 PM.
1013 K Street, Sacramento, CA
Open Monday to Thursday, 11:30 AM to 10:00 PM; Friday, 11:30 AM to 11:00 PM; Saturday, 5:00 PM to 11:00 PM
Empress Tavern charmed me with its delicious food, drinks, and classy architectural design. The place’s interior reminded me of Grand Central station, specifically the Oyster Bar. Our group of four remarked quite a few times that Empress Tavern would be an ideal, cozy date night spot.
Standout cocktails here include the “Rumplesloegin,” a mixture of pineapple syrup, sloe gin, lemon, rum, and egg white (or so I’m told by my friends, as I’m allergic to pineapple), as well as “The Boss,” a sippable bourbon drink.
While the food and drink may be seriously good, these guys also know how to have fun. On a whim, we ordered the roasted bone marrow with a complimentary whiskey luge. Yes, it was divine. Yes, photographic evidence exists of me drinking whiskey being poured slowly down a bone. No, you cannot see it (unless you ask me nicely).
Pro tip ⇒ Happy hour here is Monday to Friday, 3:00 to 6:00 PM.
Best Spots for Beer Lovers in Sacramento
Fieldwork Brewing Company
1805 Capitol Ave, Sacramento, CA
Open Sunday to Thursday, 11:00 AM to 9:00 PM; Friday to Saturday, 11:00 AM to 11:00 PM
OK, so this may kind of be cheating, since Fieldwork Brewing Company is a craft brewery founded in Berkeley, California. However, its Sacramento taproom, which opened in August 2016, has quickly become a required stop for craft beer lovers.
I had one goal in mind upon my arrival: to taste Fieldwork’s “Imperial Hot Chocolate,” pictured above. This delectable Mexican imperial stout (11.5% ABV) contained notes of chocolate, hot chilies, and nutmeg. It was basically like Santa decided to ditch his gift-giving duties and party with Rudolph and Gael Garcia Bernal. Take heed, though: it was super spicy and not for the faint of heart!
Fieldwork also offers light snacks and sandwiches to sop up that beer, which is key for all the beer drinking you’ll be doing in SacTown.
Big Stump Brewing Company
1716 L Street, Sacramento, CA
Open Monday to Wednesday, 3:00 PM to 10:00 PM; Thursday, 3:00 PM to 11:00 PM; Friday and Saturday, noon to midnight; Sunday, noon to 10:00 PM
Big Stump is another recent entry to Sacramento’s craft beer scene, having opened in September 2016. I wandered in here by accident, but am so glad that I did!
Owners Larissa and Alex (the latter apparently went to law school at the same time as Mr. Five O’Clock!) were present, working diligently on their beloved enterprise. Patrick, who was behind the bar at 3:00 PM, provided excellent service, guiding me through a flight of Big Stump’s beers. (Don’t worry — I didn’t drink seven beers; Catwoman showed up to help.)
We enjoyed the Tree Town IPA (5.5% ABV), as well as their Coffee Infused Russian Imperial Stout (8.3% ABV). The orange beer pictured above is their Blood Orange Infused Wit (5.8% ABV), which is a light and refreshing option for the upcoming warm months ahead. If this flight is any indication, we bet that Big Stump will be around for a while to come!
1530 16th Street, Sacramento, CA
Open daily at 2:00 PM; closes at midnight on Sunday to Tuesday and 2:00 AM Wednesday to Saturday
Karma Brew is that homey, unpretentious bar that you’ll want to claim as your local hangout. The European-style pub wasn’t overly crowded on a Tuesday night, but that said less about the joint than the time of day we wandered in. Karma Brew’s interior was dark and inviting, but the patio area looked perfect for sipping on day drinks in the summer.
While Karma Brew has plenty of beer available — their list spans from Belgium to California and beyond — they also feature quality wines (including some from Lodi), house made sangria (only $5!), cocktails, and loose leaf tea to boot.
In addition, University of Beer, located at 1510 16th Street, boasts Sacramento’s largest selection of craft beers on tap. With 100 rotating handles, they’re not messing around! Though we didn’t get the “full experience” there, as we arrived near closing time, we really appreciate the staff letting us in for a quick pint.
Sacramento Restaurants Where You’ll Want To Drink
1601 16th Street, Sacramento, CA
Opens Monday to Wednesday, 11:00 AM to 9:00 PM; Thursday to Friday, 11:00 AM to 10:00 PM; Saturday, 8:00 AM to 10:00 PM; Sunday, 8:00 AM to 3:00 PM
Magpie Cafe turned out to be one of the surprise hits of my trip to Sacramento. While waiting for Catwoman to finish up her workday, I headed over to Magpie for an early dinner. I sat lazily on my bar stool, quietly downing mac and cheese and staring at my phone, until the bartender asked if I wanted a drink.
“Something with bourbon or rye,” I replied, not expecting much.
Luke returned with the delicious “Port of Rye” cocktail, pictured above. We eventually got to chatting; Luke introduced me to Genepy, an herbal liqueur which reminded me of chamomile. We also befriended another Sacramento local (hi Brian!) who bought me a drink as a welcome to the city. I credit Magpie Cafe with introducing me to the awesome drinks scene and friendly hospitality of Sacramento, so I’ll definitely stop by whenever I’m in town.
1518 Broadway, Sacramento, CA
Open Sunday to Thursday, 8:00 AM to 10:00 PM; Friday to Saturday, 8:00 AM to midnight (desserts and drinks only from 11:00 PM to midnight)
You wanna brunch somewhere in SacTown? Tower Cafe should be at the top of your list.
Though its decor is quirky — did somebody from the TV show Hoarders decide to round up a bunch of gargoyles, fake flowers, and Frida Kahlo-inspired prints and put it up haphazardly? — you can’t deny that this is where Sacramento folks want to be on the weekends. We waited about 45 minutes to get in, which turned out to be fine as we took a walk around the neighborhood.
You’re not getting craft cocktails here, but that’s OK — this is more about #brunching and less about impressing David Wondrich. You’ve got a roster of french toast, omelettes, salads, and burgers to choose from, plus various sparkling cocktails, to make your brunch experience complete. Just don’t wander over to the dessert counter… resistance is futile.
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