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There’s an Old Sacramento that exists even when famous jazz musicians and your relatives are not in town.
It’s an Old Sac for locals. It values alleyway bars, airy restaurants and interesting characters above taffy and T-shirt shops.
It’s always there, but not always easy to find.
“I (first) came here by accident,” Melanie Dinos, 36, said as she stood at the bar of the Back Door Lounge in Firehouse Alley. “I was walking down the alley and said, ‘What’s that?’ That must have been more than 10 years ago.”
Dinos, a state worker, has been coming to the Back Door ever since. No longer a drinker, she remains a barfly and can appreciate the Back Door, a cocoon of red velvet, black vinyl and blasting air conditioning.
“It’s the only place where I hang out in Old Sac,” Dinos said.
Dinos and pals Lauren Margaux, 25, and Elizabeth Sivell, 24, were at the Back Door on a Friday night last month to catch popular lounge singer Lee Diamond before he left town.
Performing Sinatra and Bobby Darin hits over recorded music, Diamond packed the bar on weekend nights. But he was off to Florida, he said – a place flush with upscale Italian restaurants and lounges and potential gigs..
Live entertainment or not, Dinos and her friends said they will keep coming to the Back Door.
“There is more culture” in older bars than in new places, said Margaux, who also works for the state. “You hear more stories in dive bars than you would in some place that’s new.”
The Back Door’s chief storyteller is the welcoming, instantly likeable Nick Stathos, 81, who works nights Monday through Thursday.
The lounge (and breakfast and lunch restaurant) has been around since the 1960s, and Stathos behind its bar since the ’70s. He’s worked for current owner Gail Dick since the ’80s, rubbing shoulders with plenty of greats, not just Lee Diamond.
He shows a photo of himself with former Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante. Ronald Reagan came to the lounge’s threshold but never entered, Stathos said. Same with Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Willie Brown came in. A few times.
“This was his hideout,” Stathos said with a laugh.
Down Firehouse Alley lies the entrance to the Crescent Club speakeasy. It’s tough to find, since the address that pops up on Internet searches – 1150 – does not match what should be the 1000 block.
Club owner Mike Wahba is sticking with it, until he gets official word of an address change to 1050.
A speakeasy “is not supposed to be easy to find” anyway, Wahba said.
Guests at special Crescent Club speakeasy events, dressed as gangsters and molls, have found the alley entrance easily enough, gaining entry to the building via peephole and password.
Chumps and law-abiders visiting the club on a regular Friday night can use the official entrance, 1023 Front St. It’s also the address for Café Americain, the restaurant that Wahba and his wife, Natalya, run atop the subterranean Crescent Club.
Natalya is executive chef at Café Americain, which specializes in caviar, champagne and raw foods. She learned about caviar from her father, the caviar sommelier for their village in Natalya’s native Ukraine.
Natalya looks a bit like Kelly Macdonald, the female lead in HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” set during Prohibition.” Any further resemblance to the HBO show, or the forthcoming Ken Burns documentary “Prohibition,” is a happy coincidence.
After the Crescent Club opened last year, “a guy came in and said, ‘This is unbelievable – Did you see “Boardwalk Empire”? ‘ ” Mike Wahba recalled with a laugh.
He had not heard of the show. He had heard of Sacramento’s Shady Lady Saloon but hasn’t been there.
His fascination with speakeasies started before either existed. Originally from Egypt, Mike Wahba learned about the free-wheeling Prohibition days through two of his favorite films, “The Cotton Club” and “Once Upon a Time in America.”
Wahba wears novelty silk suspenders adorned with images of pinup girls or colorful lizards. And not just on Fridays and Saturdays, when his club is open.
“He dresses this way every day,” Natalya Wahba said with an indulgent smile.
Wahba has owned the building, first occupied by Gold Rush merchant-turned-California Gov. Newton Booth, since 2002. It most recently housed a dance club, then a rockabilly club. Neither worked out.
Mike wanted a nightclub to go with Café Americain, but not patrons who might get drunk or tear up the place. The underground setting – on Old Sac’s original street level – said “speakeasy,” jazz and swing bands, and respectful audiences.
The Harley White Jr. Orchestra is a club favorite, and loose-knit groups such as the Crescent Katz have formed around the club.
Like the Prohibition era, the 6,000-square-foot, multi-roomed Crescent is posh and rough. A VIP room, modeled after an opium den, holds an antique Chinese wedding table and an “emperor carrier” used to transport young Chinese royals.
The antiques contrast with a concrete floor and crumbled pillars and walls left from when underground Old Sac was the first floor.
“We wanted to show the bones,” Wahba said.
The main rooms hold stylish tables where patrons can order caviar, borscht or beet ravioli from the cafe menu. The black-painted bar holds ingredients for aviations and old-fashioneds. Most drinks run $7 or $8.
“It has an authentic feel,” Russell McAndrew, 26, said while relaxing with friends Claudia Matthews, 25, and Alec Olson, 21, in a Crescent Club side room.
McAndrew, who works in IT for PG&E, came with his friends on a Friday night to hear their pal, singer Dana Protsenko, perform. It was their first time at the Crescent Club, and all said they would return.
“Didn’t it used to be a real speakeasy?” McAndrew asked.
Probably, Wahba later said. A filmmaker contacted Wahba about the filmmaker’s Japanese American grandfather, who ran bootleg sake in the 1920s. The Front Street space was among his drop-off spots, the filmmaker told Wahba, and he might want to shoot there.
Locals seeking more light and earlier nights head to the riverfront Rio City Cafe. With its white tablecloths and ceiling fans, the restaurant is elegant yet cozy, a melding of yacht club and riverboat aesthetics.
“A lot of state workers come here for happy hour,” Rio City Cafe owner Bill Diaz said. “They need choices, whether they go here or to (Second Street restaurant) Ten22.”
Workers in Capitol Mall businesses also come to enjoy half-price drinks and $5.99 plates of calamari. Other happy-hour visitors are even more local.
Lonnie Chapman, 55, sat at the bar on a recent Thursday with Sharon Heizenrader, 50. The couple live in and manage Old Sac’s Clarendon House apartment building, and said they like to patronize Old Sac businesses.
At Rio City, they like the friendly service “and the $2.50 beers,” Chapman said as he hoisted his.
The waterfront Rio City, like the history-steeped Back Door and Crescent Club, are Old Sac naturals. Less intuitive is Ten22, a spacious restaurant that does not look as if you step off a wood-plank sidewalk to get there.
The red brick that characterizes Old Sac becomes tan brick at Ten22, the light color palette and open floor plan of which evoke midtown and Napa Valley restaurants.
Nearly two years since it opened, and with chef Jay Veregge creating good buzz, this unusual Old Sacramento spot is “being discovered,” Ten22 general manager Owen Ward said.
“It has taken two years for locals to find we are down here, and that Old Sac is not just a place to take the relatives when they are in town.”
The bar area fills up during happy hour, when Ten22 sells $2 domestic beers and $4.95 pizzas and sliders. Sold on their happy-hour experiences, locals come back for lunch or dinner.
Ward has worked in Old Sacramento restaurants for years, watching locals come to Old Sac for the day with family, but then leave for dinner in midtown or a favorite restaurant close to home.
But Ten22 has “become that neighborhood restaurant,” Ward said.
Ten22′s shared ownership with Old Sac staple The Firehouse has helped.
“We do get some of their clients,” Ward said. But if the more formal Firehouse is the place for a special anniversary date or important business dinner, “we can be that everyday place,” Ward said.
And part of everyday, every-night Old Sac.