Host of the Town
Ever since opening his first bar back in 1969, Randy Paragary has personified the nightlife and dining scene in Sacramento. As Paragary prepares to reopen his flagship eatery, the godfather of good times looks back on five decades of food, music, décor—and even hair.
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IIf it weren’t for his hair, Randy Paragary might never have become our local mogul of mealtimes.
By 1969, the veteran Sacramento restaurateur—who was 23 at the time—had grown his staid Pat Boone barbershop cut down past his shoulders, joining the ranks of the hippie revolution that was already well entrenched in San Francisco, but just making its way here.
For Paragary—fun-loving and confident with a natural inclination toward the vanguard of pop culture—it wasn’t social rebellion, just fashion.
“I wanted to let my hair grow because I thought it looked better. It was cool. Actors, rock-and-roll guys, all the stars were doing that,” he says. But like the members of Five Man Electrical Band sang in their popular song of the era, the prevailing prejudice was “long-haired freaky people need not apply.”
Working the night shift on the Sacramento Northern Railroad as a brakeman—the “low man on the totem pole”—the long brown locks quickly earned him the derogatory nickname of Prince Valiant from the old-school engineers, as in, “ ‘Oh, great. I get to work with Prince Valiant tonight,’ ” he says.
Despite the fact that he was just another neighborhood dad of a 3-year-old daughter (he’d married his high school girlfriend shortly after graduating from McClatchy a few years before), half-heartedly taking classes at City College and living in a little bungalow on 16th Street in family-friendly Land Park, he felt “discrimination,” he says, because of that hair. It’s hard to imagine that such an innocuous choice as a ponytail could rile up haters, but in Sacramento’s still-conservative culture of flattops and bouffants, it was a statement about who he was that not everyone liked.
“Here I am, the same guy [that I was with short hair]—I wasn’t really super liberal or super antiwar. I didn’t go to Berkeley and march with the Free Speech Movement. I wasn’t politically leaning that way,” he says, anger briefly touching his usually impassive face. Still, he’d go places and hear, “ ‘Get out of here you longhaired scum’ or that kind of thing.”
“Chewing tobacco and spitting” to pass the time on the loud, rattling train during work, he’d daydream about a place he could be himself without judgment, hang out with other people who thought like he did and listened to the folk music he was into. Sacramento had some live music venues then, but none that played the Peter, Paul and Mary sound he dug. Someone, he thought, should fix that.
“I thought, ‘I’m going to open my own bar,’ ” he says.
While at McClatchy High, Paragary had spent two years working as a busboy at a then-popular bar and restaurant in midtown called the Elbo Room. It was there that he got his first taste of the hospitality business. He watched the hustle and bustle of Sacramento society stream in and out nightly. So when he wanted to create a place for others like him, he drew on that experience and $1,000 that he’d saved up and opened the Parapow Palace Saloon on 30th and O streets in 1969.
That rowdy joint, Sacramento’s first bar where longhairs were welcome, began a five-decade odyssey as the host with the most. He’s the guy who isn’t afraid to give people the kind of revelry they want even when they don’t know what they’re after, shape-shifting through the years to stay ahead of the ever-changing entertainment landscape. Time and again, he has divined what Sacramento was missing, what places like San Francisco and Los Angeles had that this city didn’t, and brought it here.
From bars to restaurants and clubs, his reach now spans more than a dozen spots (including Paragary’s, Esquire Grill, Hock Farm, Centro and five Cafe Bernardos) with more in the works. Paragary is a guy who, through discernment and sheer market dominance, has shaped how locals dine and drink for decades. His spots might not always rate four stars with critics (although some have), but they are inevitably popular. And when they’re not anymore, he pivots. Over nearly a half-century in a business with one of the highest failure rates, Randy Paragary has built our region’s biggest dining and drinking empire.
“All these things he’s done, what do they all have in common? They all have the vision of Randy,” says chef Patrick Mulvaney, who worked for Paragary in the 1990s. “His influence is wide-reaching.”
That much fun takes hard work—and a few tricks.
Now 68 with hair turning to gray and safely above the collar of his soft knit blazer (that fashionable crossbreed between jacket and cardigan) and plaid shirt, he is standing in the chaos of the construction zone that once was the site of his namesake restaurant Paragary’s Bar and Oven at the corner of 28th and N streets in midtown. He’s in the middle of a major remodel to reinvent the landmark spot 32 years after it first debuted in 1983. It’s the first Monday after Thanksgiving, and the place is slated to reopen in spring 2015. It’s got a long way to go, but he’s not worried.
Today, he appears settled and prosperous, and this latest restaurant transformation reflects his place in life once again. His bohemian background behind him now, his newest vision is for a French bistro with inspiration drawn from Napa’s Bouchon and New York’s Balthazar, genteel but energetic. Giant custom-made beveled mirrors will line part of the dining room, strategically tilted to give diners an expansive view of the long wood bar behind them (men, Paragary says, typically get stuck in the chairs facing the banquettes and boring walls—the mirrors are his trick for giving guys something to look at). Mosaic tiles in gray, brown and white will pattern the floor, while a specially made, perforated white tin ceiling will both brighten the room and dampen the sound, hopefully giving the space a more intimate and quieter feel than a typical Paragary place, he says.
The biggest change might be what’s gone—much of the back wall, where folding glass doors will open up to a redone patio, giving the space a lighter, indoor-outdoor feel that Paragary hopes will be a popular place for “upscale” Sunday brunches, a meal the old spot didn’t offer. “Breakfast is a really popular dining-out scene in this town right now,” he says, but “most of the places are casual. This will be a little bit more dressy.”
The menu will stick to the simple, local, fresh ethos he pioneered in Sacramento, this time with a nod to his French heritage (Paragary is a French-Basque name). But the pizza oven gets a reprieve—the popular thin-crust pies will remain.
“I was always proud of our food and service throughout, but after 30 years, it’s hard to keep the customers interested,” he says of closing the place last year. “To try and get some more time out of it, it was time to tear it apart and create a completely new look.”
If Paragary has one trait that’s remained constant over the years, it’s his individualism marked with an unassailable confidence, as evidenced by the fact that he shuttered this local institution and was certain he could reopen it as something relevant. That resolve has made him a one-man tour de force, hatching more than 30 restaurants and bars over the years, most of them moneymakers.
Paragary has a rare talent for turning profits while having fun. Often he produces both in great quantities, largely because of his “sharp business acumen,” says Jim Mills, a friend who worked for Paragary for decades as a manager and chef, and is now one of the key influencers of the farm-to-fork movement as sales manager for Produce Express, a wholesaler popular with local chefs.
Paragary is the guy walking the floor of his restaurants, greeting guests, remembering names. He is in the mix and the moment, like he is, as he puts it, “throwing a party 365 days a year.”
But he also knows exactly what’s happening in the kitchen, what the wait is for the people at the door and what kind of night it’s going to be for the bottom line. He’s cold-eyed when it comes to running a tight operation—a pleasure-seeking pragmatist who’s rarely sucked too deep into his own moveable feasts. By his own admission, he’s got almost no sentimental feeling for any of his properties, and is quick to shut them down and come up with new concepts when they stop producing cash. “If it’s not working, really in my mind, there’s no choice,” he says with a shrug.
“He’s very, very big picture, and relaxed,” says his business partner and wife of 21 years, Stacy Paragary, an engaging brunette with a smile as easy as her banter. She says that the couple has “opened and closed maybe 20 places at least” in as many years. Paragary had another half-dozen establishments with other partners before that. And the list of closed Paragary restaurants is longer than the list of spots he has today. Remember Sammy Chu’s? The politically themed Capitol Grill? Twenty Eight? The Cosmo Café?
“We’ve had some winners and some losers,” says Kurt Spataro, his other current partner in Paragary Restaurant Group. The company’s executive chef with an unruly shock of salt and pepper hair, Spataro started out as the pasta maker at a Paragary spot called Zito’s on Fair Oaks Boulevard in the early ’80s and weathered the closure of his namesake spot Spataro across the street from Capitol Park in 2013. It quickly reopened as Hock Farm and the bar Vanguard. “I think I’m much more emotionally attached to the restaurants and to people and to the whole thing. It’s more difficult for me,” he adds.
Knowing when a restaurant is losing money is a hard fact. Knowing what to open in the first place is a subjective art—and that’s the territory where Paragary has established himself as a tastemaker for the town. He has honed the ability to find ideas that are forward-thinking and slightly edgy without being uncomfortable (except, he says, for Sammy Chu’s, which was “too sophisticated in my opinion in retrospect—we had shrimp where you had to eat the head”).
And his success has been centered on his hometown. Two of his biggest failures happened when he ventured beyond our region’s borders. In 1987, he opened a Paragary’s in San Francisco on Van Ness Avenue that didn’t make it. More recently, in 2008, he opened a Paragary’s in Stockton, funded in part by a controversial $2.7 million subsidy and five years of free rent from the city (as part of a downtown redevelopment). There was outrage over the public funding and even a call for a boycott. That, along with a weak economy, forced Paragary to sell the restaurant two years later.