Courtesy of Ryan Donahue

The buzz may be building around California's modest capital city, but what's new and shiny isn’t necessarily the best.

David Landsel
February 27, 2018

There is a distinct possibility that you will not fully appreciate the oldest and largest farmers market in Sacramento at first glance. Held on Sunday mornings, all year round, and offering a breathtaking selection from the embarrassment of agricultural riches rising out of the ground that immediately surrounds California's state capital, you will find the market huddled underneath a freeway overpass, as if nobody wanted it, as if it had no place else to go.

This is, admittedly, a wholly inauspicious setting for such a grand buffet of fresh produce, and if you have recently called on nearby San Francisco and its flagship farmers market, held out along the Embarcadero, with one of the country's first modern high-end food halls as an anchor, you will wonder if you have made a bad decision, driving all the way out here to Sacramento, to what was now famously referred to in hometown girl Greta Gerwig's Oscar-nominated film, Lady Bird, as "the Midwest of California."

There's no exaggeration in that statement, not even the slightest little bit—Sacramento may rule over California, one of the world's largest economies and one of America's brightest, loudest, most charmingly American places, busily and boisterously going about the business of trying to have it all, but if you roll into town on any given Sunday, you may wonder if you have not somehow hopped both the Sierra Nevada and the Rockies, landing somewhere far more modest, somewhere much less prone to attention-seeking.

Yes—should you find the light and the color and the crowds and the beauty to all be a little bit too much along the coast, the exit ramp, it turns out, is just up the road, barely an hour from the center of the needs-no-introduction Napa Valley, and a little more than that from San Francisco. Sacramento, when you need it, is there for you, and on the weekends, always relatively quiet here, it's downright relaxing.

There is that feeling, as if you've gotten away with something, made an end run around the hordes, wandering the aisles of the farmers market, which begins at 8 o'clock in the morning and ends right at noon. You haven't, and there are no hordes, at least not the kind you might expect at such a market. Even on the busiest summer and fall days, there's plenty of room to breathe. Vendors patiently offer samples of everything from organic cheeses to freshly picked blood oranges. You will recognize many of the farms and dairies and other producers from menus and farmers markets around the Bay Area, but here it's all dialed down, more relaxed—it is the best of all possible worlds, and why shouldn't it be—for many of the growers represented here, this is home. This is their neighborhood. (There's a reason Sacramento has proudly branded itself America's Farm-to-Fork Capital—get high up in the buildings that form the city's downtown skyline, and you can practically see out into farm country.)

For the longest time, explaining Sacramento was kind of a difficult task, not because it's complicated, because it is absolutely not—the difficulty was getting people to listen.

With San Francisco, the wine country and everything else people come to Northern California for just up the street, why would they? It's no secret, however—everything is changing in this part of the world, once again; an expensive region to live in has become even more unattainable, not just for newcomers, but for those who have been in the Bay Area for part or all of their lives. That Sacramento would now be in the line of fire for investment, for growth, is just common sense.

Talked up repeatedly as The Next Big Thing, it very well might be—there has certainly been a lot of movement around here lately. Many of the restaurants, hotels, and other interesting developments that you will encounter when you visit these days, are pretty much brand new. There is the Oak Park district of the city, easily one of the most of-the-moment neighborhoods in the state, away from the coast, anyway. At the heart of a slowly coming to life downtown there is the ambitious DoCo development, home to the Sacramento Kings, high-priced residences, a Kimpton hotel, restaurants, shops, with more on the way—these projects and others like it reflect Sacramento's renewed ambition, bringing an excitement to the city that seems, well, something like the California that most of us will come here looking for. Sacramento, it would seem, is ready to be a big deal, a happening, a place worth detouring for.

Still, none of the new can quite compete with what's been here, all along—so many of the things that make Sacramento special, so unique, have been here for a long time, like that farmers market, which casually displays some of the most astonishingly good fruit and veg to be found in the country, certainly at this time of year. While the folks back in Boston or Omaha or even just a day's drive away in Portland are shoveling snow, or at least watching it fall from the sky, Sacramento is snapping up local Meyer lemons, Russian kale, strawberries—it's inspiring, really, how much of everything there is, and how reasonable the prices will typically be.

Not that you should spend your entire morning at the market, because the lines at the Tower Café, just a short drive down Broadway, can get awfully long on Sundays. Opened in 1990 (on Earth Day, they'll tell you) and every bit of it a throwback to that gloriously non-minimalist era, this cheerfully over-the-top, self-styled eclectic restaurant was, is, and will very likely remain, for a long time to come, one of Sacramento's favorite places for brunch.

There are a great deal many things you can order from the menu here, but what many of the people are lining up for is the custard-dipped French toast, which you can get in a half or full order. Unless you are superhuman, you might start with the half, an absolutely massive, thick-cut piece of satisfyingly chewy bread, drowned in egg-rich custard, and topped with too much butter, which is never a bad thing. The dish comes out perfect—chewy around the outside, rich, melting away to nothing on your tongue in the middle, and it is quite easily one of the best things you can eat for breakfast in this city. Come to think of it, get the full order, because while this may be the Midwest of California, it's still California. Go ahead, give it your best shot—try to have it all.