The Rebirth of Cool

The late, great Nut Tree restaurant in Vacaville is one of the most storied restaurants in Northern California history. And, as it turns out, it was designed by a bunch of Sacramentans. Let’s bring it back.
81027 Nut Tree, 1958 1989
The legendary Nut Tree restaurant featured Eames chairs and a glass-enclosed aviary. (Photo courtesy of Dreyfuss & Blackford Architecture)

The Idea

If you grew up anywhere around here and you’re over the age of, say, 40-ish, there’s a decent chance you harbor warm and fuzzy feelings for the Nut Tree restaurant in Vacaville. Redesigned in 1958 during the height of mid-century modernism, the space was a design triumph.  Patrons passed through a glass-encased aviary with exotic birds and plants, which opened into a spacious room filled with Eames chairs (designed by Sacramento native Ray Eames and her husband Charles), California-themed art (including a piece featuring the State Capitol) and model planes hanging from the ceiling (the Nut Tree complex housed a small airport).  The cuisine also soared, attracting culinary stars like Julia Child and Martin Yan, and the restaurant is now considered by many to be one of the first farm-to-fork destinations in California.  As if all that weren’t reason enough to resurrect the iconic institution that was bulldozed in 2003, consider that it was designed and built nearly entirely by locals. The Nut Tree’s brilliant design director was Don Birrell, who grew up in Tahoe Park and served as the director of the Crocker before decamping for Vacaville. The architecture firm was Sacramento’s Dreyfuss & Blackford; the builder was Continental Heller Construction; the landscaping was handled by Davisite Bob Deering; and the birds were curated by UC Davis alum Bill Toone. 

The Players

Don Birrell passed away in 2006, but we could invite other members of the old Nut Tree gang to participate in this restaurant resurrection. Dreyfuss & Blackford can design it, and Bill Toone still remembers what kinds of birds he stocked the aviary with. Although the builder, Michael Heller Sr., is no longer with us, his son Michael Heller Jr. is one of the city’s most visionary developers (his most recent project is midtown’s inspired Ice Blocks complex) and he’s an unabashed Nut Tree fanboy—the clear choice to develop the roadside revival. While copyright issues might preclude references to the Nut Tree in the name, perhaps it should be called “Birrell’s” as a nod to the man who was the creative spark behind all things Nut Tree.

The Bottom Line

There are those who believe that designs from the past should be left in peace, but I’m not one of them, especially in cases when they were so exceptional. More than 60 years later, mid-century modernism is as in vogue as ever, and the space would not only delight a new generation of diners, but also pay tribute to a time when extraordinary local talents collaborated to create a storied California classic. Let’s relaunch it. We’d be nuts not to.