With an eye toward family, community and quality, a flock of ambitious young restaurateurs open Blackbird, a seafood restaurant and raw bar in downtown Sacramento that’s setting its sights sky-high.
Blackbird’s front façade features a mural by local artist Shaun Burner
Photos by Ryan Donahue
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On a Monday in April, two weeks after its opening day, the fledgling seafood restaurant Blackbird Kitchen & Bar—a surprise in a once-dilapidated, hand-restored building on a revitalized stretch of 9th Street between J and K that also includes the exciting new Estelle’s Patisserie—is still very much a work in progress. Executive chef and co-owner Carina Lampkin (formerly of San Francisco’s acclaimed Bar Crudo) is creating new dishes for a soon-to-debut snacks menu. Chef de cuisine Kevin O’Connor (who has worked at The Kitchen and Ella) is poring over the website of Capay Organic, planning out new dishes with spring produce. General manager Dona Bridges, who worked with Lampkin at Bar Crudo, is answering phones and doing a little bit of everything. Meanwhile, outside, local muralist Shaun Burner is using black spray paint to complete a trio of striking blackbird-themed paintings, including a portrait of mother, father and sibling birds that Lampkin says, in part, symbolizes her restaurant family.
That family is local and very much involved in this collaborative venture, too: Lampkin’s mother, for instance, found a vast, rough-hewn communal table at a Napa estate sale. That table now forms the centerpiece of an upstairs dining room that’s available for private and large parties. Less glamorous tasks Lampkin’s mother helped tackle included chipping layers of grease and plaster off the walls to reveal original architectural details like intricate plaster molding. (Formerly Gaesorn Thai and Il Posto, the building was empty for about two years before the Blackbird team took over.) Sister Stephanie also helped with design and construction, and still comes in daily.
This team approach is a key part of Lampkin’s vision for Blackbird, where everything from the restaurant’s name to the murals to the smaller redwood tables in the main dining room upstairs has layers of meaning that may not be immediately obvious. Those gleaming, rich redwood tabletops, for instance, symbolize the community of Sacramento restaurateurs. “Other restaurateurs instantly see me as competition, [but] I’m only here to collaborate. Why I love redwood so much is because they have to grow in a grove, because their roots go out and not down. If there was just a single tree there would be too much weight to support by itself and it would fall over,” says Lampkin of the trees’ linked root systems that stabilize the grove. “I think the same is very much true within a community. You have to grow together or you fall down.”
Lampkin, age 31, knows all about falling down—and about recovering with the help of a community. When she worked at Bar Crudo, a tiny spot with just five employees, she and two colleagues were in a devastating hit-and-run car accident one night after work in 2006. Lampkin, who had no health insurance, spent a month in the ICU; her friend Gracie Sholl died in the crash. Bridges and other Bar Crudo workers threw a benefit to help with medical bills and funeral costs. “The name is in honor of [Gracie],” Lampkin says, tears in her eyes. “The raven [which is a black bird] is an animal that can transcend between death and life in Native American culture.”
Lampkin also finds meanings in birds’ migratory patterns: “When birds are flying from north to south, when one gets tired it falls to the back and then someone else goes up front. This project’s been so hard that that has happened within our migratory pattern from construction to fruition. So, I get tired and then Dona will take the lead. Or if Dona gets tired, then my mom will take the lead. We support each other as a group.” Finally, the eatery’s name also refers to the Beatles song “Blackbird,” which Bridges and other friends played frequently in Lampkin’s hospital room; when she woke up from her medically induced coma, “that song was stuck in my head,” she says. “So there’s a lot of meaning in this restaurant for us.”