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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But along with thinking he might make a career in hospitality, he started feeling that the bar business was too fickle—anyone could pour a beer and looks alone didn’t keep crowds.
“A few years later, people wanted white walls with minimalism with tin-hood light fixtures and maybe some sheer wispy curtains,” he says of Beaverbrook’s. “It taught me a lesson. Things do change. There’s no such thing as a look that’s going to last forever.”
He remembers thinking, “The only way I’m going to resurrect this place was to turn it into a restaurant.”
He started looking around for a catchy concept and landed at the casual upstairs cafe of Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse in Berkeley, which opened in 1980. Unlike the formal main dining room, this space was relaxed, dominated by a wood-fired pizza oven—but still focused on the ascetic approach of local, fresh ingredients gently prepared.
“This would be great in Sacramento,” he remembers thinking after trying the thin-crust pies and salads for the first time. “There was pent-up demand for that kind of quality.”
He closed down Beaverbrook’s and had a friend get to work building a brick oven—the first in the city.
“The oven was the only cooking appliance we had,” says Paragary. “That was the simplicity of Paragary’s originally. Just some pizzas and salads and a couple desserts.”
But, says Corti, that restraint was a profound shift for Sacramento palates at the time, when good food meant steakhouses or pseudo-French fare.
While owning a pizza restaurant today is hardly out of the ordinary, “It was then,” says Corti. “It was really strange, especially [one with] a wood-burning pizza oven. In Sacramento, it was completely unfashionable.”
But Paragary’s dexterity at spotting what customers are hungry for didn’t let him down. The restaurant was a hit—lively and different from anything else on the scene, with the kind of food that gourmands had been traveling to the Bay Area to get.
Paragary’s pizzas came with local ingredients—pepperoni from Morant’s near South Sacramento and vegetables from an area farmer who would bring goods to the back door of the restaurant. During the next few years, he expanded the idea with a broader menu. He and then-Paragary’s head chef Rick Mahan took pasta-making lessons with Biba Caggiano in her home, adding hand-cut noodles and entrées to the offerings.
“All of the sudden we were involved in stepping up the game,” says Mills, who served as Paragary’s first pizza chef.
When Kurt Spataro took over as head chef of the restaurant in the ’90s, he evolved the concept further. Spataro, more than a decade younger than Paragary, was also a huge fan of Alice Waters. Even in his early 20s when he was a touring guitar player in a new wave band, he’d take along the Chez Panisse cookbook and read it aloud to his bandmates. “I was so impressed with it. I’d go, ‘Listen to this, check this out,’ ” Spataro says. He’d loved cooking since he was a kid, learning at the apron strings of his Sicilian grandmother in Oak Park on one side and his French Canadian granny in Elk Grove on the other.
Eventually, he helped Paragary’s put in its own garden across the street from the restaurant in an empty parking lot, growing produce like basil and tomatoes—another idea adapted from Waters and Napa restaurants like Mustards Grill who were building the concept of California cuisine as the hottest food trend of the decade (long before the ethos morphed into farm-to-fork).
“Somehow four or five years ago, ‘farm to table’ became the buzzwords with the same description,” says Paragary. “It’s sort of like a resurgence of that same philosophy and sensitivity to cooking and ingredients. It’s our philosophy. It’s what we do. It’s, ‘been there, still doing that.’ ”
Nestor, a former manager at Paragary’s, agrees, saying, “Before farm-to-fork really came into Sacramento, at [Randy’s] restaurants he was already doing that. He set that trend [locally] without even knowing it.”
The Paragary’s Bar and Oven is gone now—completely ripped out. Torn down to studs and subfloor with a cool November breeze blowing through, it’s tough to remember the excitement that it once brought to dine here.
But “there are thousands of stories of people who have been in this place over [the past] 40 years,” says Paragary, wandering through the hollow shell. “There are a lot of people who got engaged here and had their first date here. They were here the night before their first child was born,” he says, coming uncharacteristically close to sentimentalism. It was a place where people celebrated milestone moments, politicians did business, and memories—both infamous and significant ones—were made. Ballerinas once danced on the bar and Jason Sehorn worked here as a dishwasher when he was young (the former New York Giants star isn’t the only celebrity to have ever worked at a Paragary restaurant—Brandi Glanville, of Real Housewives fame, once greeted diners as a hostess at Capitol Grill).
In fact, it was here, at the bar, where Paragary met his future wife Stacy. Then 23 and a sales associate at Western Contract Furnishers, she wandered by in 1987 for after-work drinks with a girlfriend. Paragary promptly lied to her about his age, lopping a decade off his 41 years, and asked the two women to dine with him. Stacy and Randy have been a couple ever since (they have a 14-year-old son together, Sam, who is on the prestigious Jesuit High School robotics team; Randy also has a 48-year-old daughter, Lisa, from his first marriage). And Stacy has taken on many of the operational tasks over the years, along with the interior design (she’s consulting with local architect Sarah Ellis on the new Paragary’s)—though she started out as a minimum wage counter clerk at the first Cafe Bernardo across the street, learning the business from the coffee machines up.
It wasn’t until she became involved in the business that Paragary moved from opening individual places to building a restaurant group, something he credits her with helping to do. In the two decades since Spataro and Stacy Paragary got involved, the three have been running an intense gantlet of expansion, starting new spots at a pace that keeps increasing. Just the last few years have seen them open the doors on Hock Farm, KBar, Cafe Bernardo at Pavilions and on K Street and an Esquire Grill at the airport, to list a few. If Randy Paragary on his own was adept at finding single concepts to draw the crowds, the Paragary Restaurant Group team has honed their skills at creating a sweet spot of restaurants that are polished and pleasing enough to replicate again and again in ethos, if not by name (the five Bernardos share a similar vibe with their other properties, all the type of places that most people wouldn’t mind hanging out in for the atmosphere as well as the food).
“Setting aside [the fact that she’s] my wife, as a partner and as a restaurateur, she’s added a lot,” he says of Stacy. “She’s really organized and she’s got good instincts. She’s more cynical than I am. She’s made me [see] things through different lenses at times.”
Stacy contends that Paragary is the risk-taker and “big boss.”
“I joke with him,” she says. “I say, ‘You’ve never worked for anybody since you were 19. You don’t even know what it’s like to have a boss.’ He really operates on a level that’s very, ‘Don’t answer to anybody.’ I get upset, like, ‘Do you think maybe you could’ve asked Kurt and me our opinion?’ Ultimately, it’s ‘I do what I want to do.’ That’s been his attitude.”
But it’s one she’s well equipped to handle.
“I’m not the kind of wife that showers him with what he wants to hear,” she says with a touch of humor. “I’m just reality. I’ll tell you, it’s definitely not a recipe for a really smooth marriage when you’re in business [together].”
There’s a full-circle feel to bringing Paragary’s back to its glory, but it’s far from a swan song, says Paragary. It’s true that he spends less time running the restaurants (which he leaves to carefully hired managers and staff) and more time running a big business venture from the still-modest offices, with industrial carpet taped together at the seams, where he once practiced law.
Though he visits each place regularly, especially the Cafe Bernardo at Pavilions, which is close to his Sierra Oaks home, he’s OK with stepping back from the party. “He’s not out there every night anymore because of Sam,” says Stacy Paragary. “He wants to be home with his son.” Paragary agrees, saying, “One of the pleasures of my life is being a dad.”
But rumors of his retirement are just that. “I’m not done,” he says. He’s got a sixth decade on the horizon (it includes Esquire, Bernardo and Centro concession stands at the new arena when it opens next year) and he plans to be just as relevant as he was back in the days of that first bar, Parapow, when he started learning that consistent success means constant change. He’s even thinking about being a prep cook at Paragary’s when it reopens—just to finally learn how.
“It’s the people,” he says of what keeps him wanting more—staff and customers who make coming to work interesting and entertaining. His restaurants and bars are still the kinds of places where he can be himself.
And if the crazy fun of the early years has faded into tamer times, that’s all right. At 30, he says, he was disappointed that he “hadn’t made it,” despite running both The Arbor and Beaverbrook’s, hair still halfway down his back and a law degree under his belt. He thought, “There was going to be more.”
But approaching 70, he’s feeling better. “I’ve had a really good career in Sacramento,” he says. “I’ve got a good balance right now.” Forty-six years after thinking he could figure it out for a bunch of Hamm’s-swilling hippies at that first bar, he’s pretty much got it down. There’s no one in town who knows more than he does when it comes to hospitality, no one who has racked up more wins or survived more mistakes—be it shrimp heads or Stockton. He is, says Ink’s Chris Nestor, “Mr. Restaurant Sacramento”—the connoisseur of the convivial that younger restaurateurs hope to become. When the new Paragary’s opens, it’s a good bet the banquettes will be full and the bar buzzing. If you make it in, raise a glass to the host: a guy, as the old toast goes, who doesn’t see the glass as half empty or half full—just in need of topping off. S