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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Despite those defeats, “Randy [often] knew how to do the good balance of what was special and what was ordinary,” says grocer Darrell Corti, a longtime friend. “That is fortunately one of his strengths. He’s not tied to a particular model.”
And while not every Paragary restaurant has been a hit, many have pushed Sacramento’s dining scene just a bit further—giving us the city’s first wood-fired pizza oven, the first restaurant to have its own garden, and the first craft cocktails (screwdrivers with fresh-squeezed juice instead of condensed).
His kitchens have been the training grounds for generations of Sacramento chefs. Like Mulvaney, Rick Mahan—chef-owner of renowned restaurant The Waterboy—worked for him for years (as chef at Paragary’s Bar and Oven), as did Chris Nestor, chef-owner of Ink Eats & Drinks and Capitol Mall’s House, Ella’s current executive chef Rob Lind, and literally dozens of others. In turn, they’ve trained their own batch of professionals, as is the custom in the industry. “It’s sort of like the genealogies of Scripture,” quips Corti. “So and so begat so and so who begat so and so.”
He’s also been instrumental in the creation of a handful of other hot spots like The Red Rabbit, BarWest and Assembly (a live performance venue that will reopen soon with new partners) in varying roles from advisor to silent partner to landlord.
But he’s not a chef and had little passion for food for the first 14 years of his run, when he focused on bars. Back then, serving meals meant a ham sandwich or pasta with canned sauce. “I think he was a little bit out of his depth when he first started,” says Corti, referencing an early Italian joint called The Arbor. “Some of the dishes were just terrible. Sometimes the food was just awful.”
Cooking is a skill Paragary alumni largely learned from each other. But what they all learned from Paragary was how to survive in an industry that’s notoriously difficult. “The people who worked for Randy by and large learned how to run a restaurant,” says Corti.
That, says chef-restaurateur Nestor (who counts Paragary as a silent partner of Ink) is a talent that might be more valuable than culinary artistry.
“Not too many people can open up one restaurant,” he points out. “Opening up two restaurants is a leap in anyone’s eyes. For him to have as many locations as he does at the same time is something to aspire to.”
And the learning didn’t stop when they left. Patrick Mulvaney says that he turned to Paragary frequently when he first started his own celebrated establishment Mulvaney’s B&L. “The first couple of years I would call and say, ‘Hey, I need help.’ The phone call was always returned promptly and he’d say, ‘Here’s the answer’ or ‘This is a big one—come down to Esquire and you buy the wine and I’ll buy dinner.’ ” That, he adds, is how Paragary deals with all his workers when they move on.
“He does have a kindness that not everyone is aware of,” says Spataro. “Usually, you see it when individuals ask for help. They might be employees, they might be friends, whatever. He can be kind and generous in that way. A lot of people don’t see that because he doesn’t make a big deal about it.”
That mentoring and largesse has pushed him to be called the godfather of Sacramento’s ever-growing restaurant culture enough times to make the moniker stick.
“That’s a great feeling knowing that there’s been this family tree created from being in the business for so long,” Paragary says. “I’m very proud of that.”
But godfathers don’t survive without being tough.
Paragary got his first taste of that crucial grit at Parapow.
In December 1969, K Street closed to cars as part of a downtown revitalization meant to bring the heat of city life back to the urban core (an experiment undone in 2013). Councilmen spoke at the kickoff event. A Mexican hat dance was performed. It was a big deal.
But for a certain crowd, the center of action was 20 or so blocks east at the corner of 30th and O, where Paragary and his high school friend Patrick Powers had just opened a Western-themed joint titled with a mash-up of their last names—Parapow. Hamm’s beer was 25 cents and live bands played every night—which sometimes were just guitar-wielding hitchhikers pulled off the nearby freeway ramp. “We had a lot of fun. We were breaking every rule we could because we didn’t know the rules,” says Powers, now a public relations professional. “I’ll be honest with you—we just wanted a place to party.” He, Paragary and Paragary’s first wife, Carol, took turns bartending as easygoing crowds mingled on the peanut-shell-strewn floor.
“It was a blast,” Paragary recalls. “I had the only game in town for kids my age. That was a big part of the success, providing something that there was a demand for.”
Even then, though, he was naturally equipped to handle the serious stuff, he says. His dad, a longtime Aerojet employee, left the aerospace industry to manage a lodge in Tuolumne County above Sonora (where Paragary worked in the summers) and his mom ran a jewelry shop on K Street with her second husband (she and Paragary’s father divorced when he was in ninth grade), so he had seen how business was done.
“I had enough common sense to know that at the end of the night that money in the till wasn’t just mine to stick in my pocket,” he says. “I did have to pay payroll. I did have to cover the expense of buying beer and that kind of thing. Somehow I was disciplined enough to do that without blowing it.”
The good times went on for two years. But then it started to change. The idealistic ’60s gave way to the darker ’70s. Inside Parapow, there was a “mixture of drugs and alcohol with bad people,” says Paragary. “Enough to make me nervous.” Powers had lost his taste for being a barkeep and sold his stake to Paragary.
Not all the patrons were rough, though. One of his well-behaved customers was the dean of the nearby McGeorge School of Law, Gordon Schaber, who came in to drink beers with his students. Paragary harbored a notion of becoming a lawyer (a career he thought sounded respectable and paid well), but hadn’t finished his degree at Sacramento State. Schaber pointed out that an undergraduate degree wasn’t required for admission. “He goes, ‘Why don’t you just come over, take the LSAT and I’ll get you in.’ ” Paragary recounts.
Paragary—who never intended hospitality to be his career—took the offer, sold the saloon for $15,000, and started night school.
If Paragary was cool in the ’60s, he was swinging in the ’70s. In the summer between his second and third years of law school, he says he started thinking, “Wouldn’t it be great to open a restaurant?” He talked another buddy—this one, Jim Moore, a friend going back to California Middle School in Land Park who had briefly become a police officer—into partnering.
Soon The Arbor—the Italian place whose food Corti tolerated for the atmosphere—was up and running in an old grocery store in midtown on the opposite corner from where Paragary’s Bar and Oven would one day be. It was a spot that was all about “sex, drugs and rock and roll,” says Jim Mills, who helped him manage it. Not long after, Moore and Paragary bought the dive bar across the street and began remodeling it after a place called Henry Africa’s on Broadway and Polk in San Francisco—the world’s first “fern bar.” Think Three’s Company’s Regal Beagle, with dark wood, Tiffany lamps, leaded glass and hanging plants—then the funkiest fashion around.
They named it after a WWII media tycoon in Britain with a ridiculous name, funny and slightly naughty—Lord Beaverbrook’s. And when they finished decorating, it seemed like the most far out of achievements.
“I remember when it was completed looking at it and thinking, ‘This is the ultimate. I am set. There is no way this will ever go out of style,’ ” he says. Others agreed. “We packed the place,” he says. “It was like a New Year’s Eve party almost on any given night.”
After-work happy hours were back in vogue. Come 5 o’clock, the place was booming, blenders buzzing. Frozen daiquiris and “slushy margaritas” in curvy poco grande glasses flowed freely among the chain-smoking patrons. Fresh juice was squeezed because it was the thing to do, hip in places like San Francisco and New York, and “the cocktail waitresses were hot,” Paragary, then “single and divorced,” recalls.
“Those were John Travolta days,” he says. “It was Saturday Night Fever.”
Disco was in—Kool & the Gang, the Bee Gees, Donna Summer. Women came in “hose and dresses.” Men went for shiny polyester Nik Nik shirts with big collars and bold prints. “You kept it unbuttoned down to here,” says Paragary, pointing low on his sternum. “And you had a chain with a coke spoon on it. That was just sort of what certain people did in certain age groups in certain bars and restaurants.”
But unlike with the marijuana and other substances that had plagued Parapow, “We had no misbehavior here,” he says. “I’m not saying everybody was an angel all the time, but no violence, no fights, no overdosing.”
Still, the prevalence of illicit substances among the crowds at Paragary’s early bars led to rumors about him, including rumors about where he got the seed money at such a young age for Parapow (or The Arbor or Lord Beaverbrook’s, for that matter). “It wasn’t something I was selling, but it was sort of around in those days,” he says of cocaine during the Beaverbrook’s era.
It was the same for marijuana at Parapow and The Arbor, he adds. “I was there at the forefront of it and I was kind of high profile because I was in business. I owned a business where kids did smoke [marijuana], so therefore I was associated with it. Even the police thought [The Arbor] was a marijuana hangout because there was a concentration of people of that age and that persuasion. Therefore, ‘Well, who owns that place? Oh, it’s Randy Paragary so he must be the ringleader.’ So that reputation got there just because I was that age and everybody that worked there and around us smoked it after work. I think it’s that simple.”
But even in those days of excess, he kept his head. He had a business to run and played the enforcer with his staff.
“We never allowed [marijuana] at our restaurants,” he says. “I never allowed it while you were at work even when we were that age—that was still a no-no.”
In fact, during the ’70s, Paragary was living an unlikely double life. He passed the bar in 1976 and began practicing business law during the day while doubling as a restaurateur at night.
By the ’80s, the party had changed again—and so did Paragary.
He got serious about food, mostly because it was good business. By then, disco was dead. “Beaverbrook’s had run its course,” he says. So had his ambition of being a bartending barrister. He’d taken on a handful of law clients, meeting in the spartan offices above Lord Beaverbrook’s, but it wasn’t working. “I didn’t like the pressure of a deadline of doing something for somebody else when I should’ve been taking care of my own stuff,” he says. “I enjoyed restauranting or owning bars better.”