Drink Easy, Sacramento

Posted on April 1, 2010 – 3:00 AM | by OldManFoster
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By Tony King photos by Scott Duncan

It’s late afternoon, and the Sun is taking its time setting in the west. As the last rays of light beam through the skeletal trees lining the R Street Corridor, patrons dine out on the patios of the all-brick former bread factory between 14th and 15th streets. At the corner of 14th and R, groups of friends sit around, sipping cocktails and catching up, while Billie Holiday’s “Rain Or Shine” hovers overhead.

Welcome to The Shady Lady.

Walking through the saloon’s double doors is almost like crossing through a portal to the prohibition era. The mood is subdued, with elegant dark woodwork, dim lighting and downtempo music, while bartenders in dress shirts, button-up vests and arm garters mix a vast array of mostly vintage cocktails. If you didn’t know better, you’d think the owners had painstakingly refurbished a speakeasy to its former glory; in fact, this month marks The Shady Lady’s one year anniversary.

The Shady Lady is the realization of a dream shared by three longtime friends and servers-in-arms, Jason Boggs, Alex Origoni and Garret Van Vleck. Having done tours of duty behind the bars and at various restaurants around town, the trio decided it was time Sacramento had an establishment that celebrated the art of craft cocktail-making as much as they do.

In order to kick-start their venture, Van Vleck sold his shares in a family corporation, while Boggs invested his inheritance. It was Origoni, however, who took the biggest risk. “Alex said to us, basically, ‘Look, if I sell my house to do this, you guys better not back out on me,’” Van Vleck recalls, laughing.

During the three year planning process, the partners looked at every available space in town. They considered the ballroom above what was Postcards, Etc., the space that is now Aura, and even looked into purchasing The Distillery, but nothing quite fit. “We just knew that we couldn’t force a concept into a space and they wouldn’t have worked in a modern loft/lobby building.”

As it turned out, the perfect spot was down the block from the trio’s previous employer, R15. “I remember walking by here and looking through the window, thinking, ‘That would be a cool place to open a bar,’” remembers Van Vleck. As luck would have it, representatives from D&S Development, Inc. (who redeveloped the 95-year old building), approached the budding partners with the same idea.

Six months before it opened, Origoni, Boggs and Van Vleck decided on The Shady Lady’s turn-of-the-century theme, taking inspiration from their favorite San Francisco bars, Bourbon & Branch, Rye and The Brickhouse Cafe. Despite opening during the Great Recession, The Shady Lady was an instant success, with a packed house and lines of customers waiting down the block on Friday and Saturday nights.

“It’s the most fun I’ve ever had.” says rookie bartender, Jayson Wilde. “After working behind the bar, I was like, ‘this is exactly what I want to do.’”

“I love that everyone who works here is passionate about what they’re doing,” says long-time bartender, Alisa Bazan. “We’re all very close. It’s a team/family thing.”

“We all get on very, very well,” echoes bartender and native Englishmen, Richard Liggins, of the camaraderie. Van Vleck seconds that emotion: “I love my bar. I love my job. And I love the people that work here.”

“It’s just a really cool atmosphere,” says customer Olivia Harrison. “It’s different. There’s no other bar like this in Sacramento, so it has that edge on everybody else.”

Additional aesthetic accents include gold ceiling tiles, plush wallpaper, and Victorian light fixtures. The U-shaped bar, handcrafted by Norm Mailer, takes center stage, while booths line the perimeter. Any seat in the house affords a clear view across the room, and vintage black and white photographs of immodestly dressed women greet you at almost every turn.

“I love that the bar is themed. Sacramento totally needed that,” adds regular, Nicole Martin. “When it opened up, Shady Lady basically reached out to everybody that didn’t fit into the dive bar or ultra lounge scenes.”

“You can come here dressed-up or really casual,” says Van Vleck. “This is a place where my Grandma can come to have a drink and sit down right next to a group of tattooed Midtown kids.”

Music is another key ingredient of The Shady Lady. The sounds of classic jazz, reggae, ska, dancehall, and indie-rock mix with the ambient noises of the bustling bar. On weekends, The Harley White Jr. Orchestra and The Alex Jenkins Trio perform live on the corner stage, while a host of local DJ’s spin records on week nights.

Then there’s the food. “We have a Southern New Orleans influence,” notes Boggs. Using local and organic ingredients almost exclusively, dishes such as The Shrimp Po’ Boy sandwich, Jambalaya, and the popular Fried Green Tomatoes compliment the drinks and the atmosphere. “Everything is made by hand, and it’s very labor intensive,”

You won’t, however, find televisions at The Shady Lady. After debating it, the three partners quickly decided that even one flat screen TV would detract from the bar’s style and decor. Instead, they wanted an establishment that provided their clientele with an atmosphere perfect for socializing.

The Shady Lady’s drink menu is extensive. The 11-page cocktail assortment reads like a proper way to get loose; drinks are divided by type (whisk(e)y, Scotch, gin, rum, brandy, tequila, vodka and even Absinthe), and the corresponding cocktails artfully made from each. (click here for three of the most popular cocktails.) Draft and bottled beers, wine, and non-alcoholic options are available too, but “people come in here specifically to have nice cocktails,” says Liggins. “Five times out of 10, though, they’ll say, ‘I don’t know what I want. What would you recommend?’”

“That’s the best part,” adds Wilde, “when you gain somebody’s trust and you’re like, ‘Try this!’” Quality is clearly a point of pride for the bartenders, who garnish their drinks with produce fresh from the Farmers’ Market.

“If somebody comes in and orders an ‘Adios Motherfucker,’ I’ll be like, ‘We don’t make those kinds of drinks, but here – let me make you something better,’” says Boggs. “It’s just a learning curve. We’re becoming a big city, and we have to start drinking like a big city.”

The Shady Lady’s birthday celebration is Monday, April 5th. “It’s kind of an off night, but that way we can pack the place with all of our regulars, friends and family,” notes Boggs. “We really want to say thanks to all the people that were there to help us in actually opening the place up.”

“For completely creating a bar from scratch,” adds Van Vleck with a glint of pride. “I think we did about as well as we could possibly do.”

Cheers to that!

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