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3 The Old Way
Some things don’t change on the waterfront
By Greg Sabin
If you haven’t been to Old Sacramento recently, you may not know the historical district has undergone a rebrand. The dining scene remains varied and, like most tourist districts, fluid. But three local treasures—The Firehouse Restaurant, Rio City Cafe and Fanny Ann’s Saloon—have stayed the course. They offer novel dining experiences that are quintessential Sacramento.
The Old Sacramento Waterfront, as it’s now known, aims to draw tourists and locals with an interactive, playful take on the historic district. You’ll find Instagram-ready sculptures, amusement park rides and more candy than a dentist would recommend. You’ll also find food and drink worth a visit.
Rio City Cafe celebrated its 25th anniversary not long before COVID-19 shut down restaurants. It’s fully reopened and the spacious riverfront deck is still one of the most pleasant places in the city to grab a drink or meal. Rio City’s location on a wooden boardwalk jutting over the Sacramento River creates a sensation between time travel and timelessness.
Locals know Rio City for weekend brunch. The crabcake Benedict and prime rib chilaquiles are both worth the visit. Go on a bright Sunday morning, sip a brunch cocktail and watch the boats go by.
What some of us overlook is Rio City’s dinner menu, which features one of the area’s best clam chowders, an insanely indulgent sourdough cheese loaf and prime rib on weekends.
Rio City Cafe walks the line between special occasion destination and casual local joint. You’ll see a Downtown business crowd having lunch next to a T-shirt and shorts party. It all works. The high-ceiling dining room, built to evoke the riverfront shipping warehouses of the 19th century, brings charm and comfort.
Two streets away, you’ll find a nonstop party at Fanny Ann’s Saloon, a bar and restaurant that’s been serving up questionable fare to questionable patrons for nearly 50 years. (And I mean that in the nicest way.)
Since 1973, Fanny Ann’s has been a 3 1/2-story funhouse filled with arcane memorabilia of the city’s past alongside unexplainable bric-a-brac from around the world. It’s the kind of place where you’d expect the signature dish to be a hamburger smeared with peanut butter.
You haven’t heard of the Jiffy Burger? A massive patty topped with bacon and jack cheese liberally doused with gooey peanut butter, the Jiffy might be Sacramento’s second-most famous burger after the Squeeze Inn’s Squeeze With Cheese.
You’ll need a beverage to wash it down. Thankfully Fanny Ann’s has a sizable beer selection to accompany its version of “haute cuisine.”
At the other end of the spectrum is The Firehouse, the grand dame of Sacramento dining. The sumptuous 19th century dining room feels like it hasn’t changed since 1870, but the modern Firehouse has been slinging the city’s most upscale hash since 1960.
Under Executive Chef Stephen Ashley, the menu ranges from wild game to fresh-caught fish to decadent plates with ingredients from around the world. The chef’s tasting menu, an elegant tour of the season, is an evening’s entertainment, especially when paired with wines from the legendary wine cellar.
The Firehouse Courtyard remains one of the most serene outdoor dining spaces in town. If there’s not a wedding or political fundraiser underway, get a table beneath the trees and enjoy the warm Sacramento night.
Among these three standouts, visitors and locals will find something to like. The history of our region is on display at the Old Sacramento Waterfront. We’re lucky our culinary history is on display as well.
Rio City Café is at 1110 Front St.; (916) 442-8226; riocitycafe.com. Fanny Ann’s Saloon is at 1023 Second St.; (916) 441-0505; fannyannssaloon.com. The Firehouse Restaurant is 1112 Second St.; (916) 442-4772; firehouseoldsac.com.
Greg Sabin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.