Backdoor Lounge

Posted on May 3, 2011 – 6:42 AM | by Admin
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By Niki Kangas Photos by Scott Duncan

Tucked out of the way in a cobblestone-paved alley in Old Sacramento, a small old worldly sign quietly beckons the passerby: take refuge at the Backdoor Lounge.  I’d often passed it up in my monthly treks to these parts. I frequent the California Railroad Museum to quell my sons’ obsessive need to play with Thomas trains, and when they’ve been sufficiently placated we head to Sock City and Sacramento City Dry Goods for some prime stocking and costume shopping.   Though I’d heard a lot of buzz about Backdoor Lounge from friends, I hadn’t stopped in until we started talking about MidMo’s Old Sacramento issue.

Entering the bar for my 9AM interview with Gail Dick, the owner, I drink in the scene laid out before me: brick, burgundy damask wallpaper, antique mirrors, faded photos and dimly lit portraits in oil. The bar is smallish and bi-leveled, with a central staircase carrying patrons to the second tier of tables. A stage with a lonely piano fills a corner of the lounge, a giant television stares blankly, a jukebox begs for quarters, and a full bar stretches across one wall, (wo)manned by the grandmotherly owner, who looks like she shares my need for some coffee. Sitting down on a barstool, I sigh at the sight of only one beer on draft, but hey… at least it’s a good one:  Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.

Unused to hitting up the bar this early, I need a drink to get into the right mindset. Answering my caffeine withdrawal’s call, I order an Irish Coffee and take a gander at the breakfast menu (note: they also serve lunch until 2PM). Unable to pick an entree I ask Dick what’s good. She says that a lot of people like the biscuits and gravy, and I smile, “Sold.” She kindly tells me it’s a humongous portion and says I look like a “half order” kind of girl.

Dick makes my Irish Coffee, and together we make small talk. I take a sip. The coffee is strong, mixed with a dollop of Jameson and is topped with whipped cream to sweeten the deal. The edge is immediately taken off. Soon thereafter, my biscuits and gravy are slammed down on the bar with breakfast potatoes on the side. They’re just four bucks, and I couldn’t consume more than a half order unless I’d just finished a hike.  The potatoes are precooked, then grilled with bell peppers and onions, and are on par with other yummy breakfast potatoes I’ve had around town. The biscuits are fluffy and chewy at once, big as softballs, and swimming in rich, salty, peppery country gravy.

Regulars begin to flock to their morning haunt. Dick seems to have her customers’ names and drinks memorized. I ask her if most of her clientele consists of the tourists that overrun Old Sac or if she mostly gets locals. My hunch is confirmed: this is a locals’ bar, with a small number of tourists passing through the alley door.

Liquor runs through Dick’s veins: her father was essentially always in the bar business. He opened his first bar when Gail was two, and when I-5 was built, the course was plotted right through his establishment, destroying it. He decided to skedaddle to Old Sac and founded the Backdoor Lounge in 1968. After several years, he sold it to four men from whom Dick bought it in 1980. It is now in its 43rd year, making it the second longest-running and still open biz in Old Sac after the Firehouse Restaurant.

Dick tells me that things have really slowed with the downtrodden economy, but that Friday and Saturday nights are still jumping. She books a singer who does “Sinatra-style” music those evenings whose name is Lee Diamond. She delves into other recent difficulties: city government, she says, is making it tough on small businesses.  She cites a recent Health Department fee increase from $75 annually to $1800. She also claims that meter maids stalk their prey like vultures, and it hurts Old Sac businesses while padding the city wallet. A regular at the bar who bartends at neighboring Fanny Ann’s- he’s there having a drink before work- adds that there is one nice meter maid who will notify him when she’s going to start giving out tickets so he may warn his customers. This conversation reminds me that I better go feed the meter myself.

There are only eight employees at the Backdoor Lounge, including “Nick at Night”, who has been working there for 35 years and is 80 years old, making him likely the oldest bartender in Sacramento. She smirks that people ask her why she keeps someone that age on board, and quips, “So I can go home and sleep at night.” She feels it’s more difficult to trust younger people to have the same dedication, and that they can be self-entitled. She can’t be there all the time- she has two grown daughters with daughters of their own, plus a dog, to enjoy her downtime with.

I ask her, “So why did you want to buy this business back from the men your dad had sold it to? Why are you a bar owner?” Comically, she slumps her gray head and suspires languidly, “I. Don’t. Know.” Peals of laughter erupt from her barflies. Then she confesses, “I like it here, it’s all I know, and it’s who I am.”

Backdoor Lounge, 1112 Firehouse Alley, (916) 442-5751 

  1. 5 Responses to “Backdoor Lounge”

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    By Matias Bombal on Jan 2, 2012 | Reply

    Of Greek descent, Nick “at night” is a Sacramento legend. As a local Bon Vivant/Boulevardier I’ve been going to the backdoor lounge since 1988, and Nick would serve me Doubonnet Cocktails. I’ve had to move up to Campari and soda since Gail no longer keeps Doubonnet on hand. If I were to have favorite bar tenders, Nick would be the best in town followed by Augustín and Rob at Dawson’s Grill. The best thing about it is that it is quiet compared to other watering holes, and you may actually practice the art of conversation where people actually look at your face rather than their smart phones.

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