“Is this one of those eat-in-the dark places?” Rich asked as we stumbled out of the bright heat of late afternoon into the near-black interior. I was taking him out for a birthday drink at Sacramento’s Dive Bar, chosen because Rich loves a casual gin joint with low lighting and slightly seedy charm. In darkness so dense we could barely navigate, we groped our way towards the gleam of backlit bottles and the glow of a forty-foot aquarium where large, colorful fish swam among fake rocks and treasure chests. Then a live mermaid slithered into the tank.
She wasn't a real mermaid, of course, but a young woman dressed in a fish tail and a few strategically placed clam shells. She swam back and forth, blowing languid, bubbly kisses to the crowd, which at that hour consisted of Rich, myself, and one or two others. The act wasn’t particularly racy; in fact, it looked like cold, hard work to me. I backed up to get a photo and almost bumped into two young women staring up at the tank.
“Aren’t you glad you don’t have to do that for a living?” I remarked.
“Actually, that is what I do for a living,” one said. “I work here as a mermaid.”
Oops. “Wow. Really?" I turned to her companion. "You too?”
“No, I don’t work here,” she said. “But I am a mermaid. I have my own traveling tank.”
We chatted a while about the life of a professional mermaid, and I reflected that Sacramento was turning out to be a lot more interesting than I'd expected.
Sacramento suffers from constant and, if I am to be brutally honest, not terribly flattering comparison to San Francisco and LA. As a California city in which to pursue business or pleasure, it’s considered an also-ran. That must be disheartening for a town that was once the hottest destination on the planet. In 1838 the discovery of gold at nearby Sutter’s Mill made it the epicenter of the California Gold Rush, and everyone with a get-rich-quick itch showed up, many adding their own brand of wildness to the legends of the Old West.
Since then, Sacramento has settled down into something of a cultural backwater, and now locals are working hard to renovate the city’s infrastructure and reputation. Four years ago, the mayor declared it America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital, citing the area’s year-round growing season and 1.5 million acres of farms and ranches. OK, we thought, they had plenty of fresh ingredients available, but did that guarantee quality? We decided to give the town’s cuisine a test run with a Local Roots Food Tour of K Street, once the city’s main thoroughfare.
Our knowledgeable and vivacious guide, Cearra, first steered us to Mayahuel, named for a Mexican fertility deity. Under the slightly unnerving gaze of the goddess, we sampled así sabe (fresh watermelon, cucumber, lime, and tequila rimmed with chile), accompanied by the signature chile poblano soup. Wow.
Next came the Ambrosia Café, a casual eatery beloved by nearby office workers. “Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger used to stop in,” Cearra said. Easy to see why. Our grilled cheese sandwiches were amazing: crusty, homemade focaccia bread, gruyère cheese, artisan herbed cream cheese, and thin slices of apple. Yum. “I’ll be back,” Rich told the hostess.
Dessert began at Andy’s Candy Apothecary, winner of the city’s first Calling All Dreamers competition, which awarded the owners startup costs plus services donated by local pros. “Andy wanted apothecary in the name,” Cearra explained, “because candy cures all ills.” I certainly felt better after sampling the dark chocolates, salted caramels, and other treats.
Our final stop was Cornflower Creamery, where owner Cynthia explained her “farm-to-scoop” approach: fresh, local ingredients sweetened with fruits and vegetables, using minimal sugar and no artificial flavors or corn syrup. Somewhat skeptically, I tried the current special, Pride Confetti, flavored with purple carrot juice, studded with candied fruit and granola. To my amazement, I loved it.
Strolling up K Street, Cearra regaled us with city history, such as the devastating floods of 1853 and 1862 that caused the town to raise whole neighborhoods ten to twenty feet higher. This left many underground rooms that are, naturally, said to be haunted. In fact, our Dive Bar host told us hair-raising, first-person tales of whispering voices and demonic laughter. “And of course,” he added casually, “the Crest Theater across the street has been haunted ever since the marquee fell down and killed two people.” Yikes!
This kind of vivid backstory is a boon to locals who are working to redefine Sacramento’s future. Will the city become a vibrant alternative to overpriced, traffic-choked San Francisco/Silicon Valley just two hours to the south? With ghosts, mermaids, and a hot new foodie scene, I think they’ve got a good shot. Good luck, Sacramento! We’ll be back.
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Unlike some of my better-organized and more practical blogger friends, I do not accept sponsorships of any kind. All gin joints, mermaid tanks, and eateries mentioned in my blog posts are included solely because I believe you might find them interesting and/or useful in planning your own adventures.
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TO I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain.
Wanderlust has taken me to more than 60 countries. Every week I provide travel tips and adventure stories to inspire your journeys and let you have more fun — and better food — on the road
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