These meals were a feast for the city
By R.E. Graswich
Holiday season makes me think about my friend Randy Paragary. Randy, who died from pancreatic cancer in August 2021, loved the holidays. He decked out his restaurants in classy Christmas motifs and smiled as reservations filled up with parties.
Sometimes holiday celebrations took over every seat, with one exception. Randy always saved a table for our weekly lunch. That lunch is what I miss most.
Our lunch was more than two friends getting together for drinks and food. It was an event that grew into something like a local institution.
That was the whole point. We engineered our lunch. We planned it as memorable and fun—convivial gatherings inspired by French and Italian salons in centuries past. We didn’t achieve anything so grand, but we succeeded on a level ideal for Sacramento.
Our lunch was held at Esquire Grill, 12th and K streets. Randy owned the restaurant. Every Tuesday he made sure to reserve the big round table near the front door. “Table One,” Randy called it.
The table’s location was important. It allowed us to see the entire floor and forced everyone to walk past us, which produced an atmosphere of conviviality and serendipity.
Four founding lunch partners created the blueprint. Beyond Randy and me, there were Rusty Areias and Bob White, two guys not passively involved with politics and lobbying.
As founders, our job was to invite guests who would make lunch interesting. Rusty and Bob tended to invite politicians and people in town for business with state officials. Randy often invited people involved with restaurants, hospitality and commerce. I brought friends. The mix was solid.
Our lunch began a week after Esquire Grill opened in 1999. Word spread and people began to seek invitations. Lunch became so popular that people would appear uninvited and loiter around until we asked them to sit. We tried to find room for everyone, even gate crashers. Sometimes there were a dozen guests crammed around our table.
Big shots often came to lunch. They didn’t need invitations. Arnold Schwarzenegger dropped by when he was governor. He was usually in a hurry and rarely ate much. He stayed long enough to grab a bread roll, make a joke and say auf wiedersehen.
Other celebrities relaxed and lingered. Clint Eastwood was in no rush to get back to Carmel. Willie Brown never missed our lunch when he was in town. Same with Gary Condit.
Dusty Baker liked to join during the baseball off season or when he was between jobs. Bubba Paris and John McVay reveled in our leisurely meals, which could run two hours. A porn star named Jay Grdina stopped by and reviewed his industry from a perspective I hadn’t considered.
My favorite guests were local stars. Janet Trefethen revealed trends among Napa Valley vintners. Darrell Corti described the delights of a wedge salad. Dr. Viva Ettin shared insights into legal disputes she encountered as an attorney and physician. Kevin Starr explained the Sutter Club. Linda Katehi talked about UC Davis admissions. Everything at our lunches was off the record.
Esquire Grill closed in 2019, when the Community Center Theater shut down for renovations. Two decades earlier, Randy helped revive K Street, but he couldn’t prevail without theater dinner crowds. Today the place is vacant. K Street languishes again.
We tried to move our lunches to other Downtown sites not owned by Randy, but it wasn’t the same. The energy and spontaneity, sustained for 20 years at Esquire Grill, was gone.
At its best, our lunch encapsulated Sacramento. Many guests wanted something—legislation passed or killed, public dollars for a bright idea. Some guests could grant those wishes. Others played support roles. Some were brilliant, some simple, some grifters. A reflection of Sacramento.
In 2023, I hope a Downtown restaurant owner gets together with a young lobbyist and reporter and starts a new tradition in Sacramento lunch. Here’s the blueprint: Ignore political affiliations. Don’t worry about motives. Ask questions, talk less, listen more.
If there’s ever an empty chair, I’d love an invite.
R.E. Graswich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.