Chris Nestor knows people are in need of a little comfort right now.
The chef behind INK decided the time is right for a restaurant which may be able to provide that. On Jan. 12, he will open House Kitchen & Bar at 555 Capitol Mall.
Opening first for lunch, House will serve re-imagined American comfort food in a warm setting, with dinner prices that won’t go above $17. The concept is a response to the times, with many people facing continuing economic challenges, said Nestor.
"Everybody has changed their mindset about what they want to pay when dining out," Nestor said. "Times are different right now. Meals are different right now. People’s needs are different. So I just think it’s a new day."
House is taking over the space where 55 Degrees closed more than a year ago. Dressed in chef’s whites Monday, 41-year-old Nestor supervised a kitchen already serving diners who stopped by its adjacent lunch counter café to get an early taste of the restaurant. The café offers lunch-to-go in a spot that housed a La Bou eatery for a year.
Nestor shies away from the spotlight. He credits his success to surrounding himself with successful people. He never wears his name on his chef’s jacket, so an air of being under pressure was all that identified him as the owner and head chef of a restaurant about to open.
Breakfast will be added one week after the official opening and dinner will be added by late February, after the liquor license has been granted, said restaurant manager Meagan Svendsen.
Lunch and dinner items and prices will be the same. They could include buttermilk fried chicken with bacon smashed potatoes and collard greens for $14.50, flat iron steak tacos for $13 and a drunken chicken salad for $12. The menu will change constantly, with half a dozen new items added daily.
"We want to take things they’ve had at their mom’s house — dishes they have some kind of nostalgic connection to — and make it the best in Sacramento," Nestor said.
The interior renovation of the main restaurant continued out-of-sight Monday behind windows covered with brown paper. House Kitchen & Bar will be a 180-degree departure from 55 Degrees, a minimalist, high-end French restaurant that operated there until closing on its three-year anniversary on September 5, 2008, Nestor said.
Cushy booths and butcher block tables will help make the space more inviting, Svendsen said. Artist Sandy Christensen of Unique Finishes created a faux-finish copper ceiling and artist Jason Byrd made a 30-foot sculpture of a kitchen tool to sit atop a wine cooler being converted into an art piece.
"We just want to warm it up — create that cozy feel," Svendsen said. "Like at home — sophisticated and classy, yet comfortable."
Nestor started out as a waiter. Pressure from his then-fiancée led him to enroll in the Culinary Institute of America. After graduating 16 years ago, he worked as the food and beverage manager for a Hilton Hotel in Fresno, then moved to Sacramento in 1995.
He later worked at Rio City Café, the Cheesecake Factory and Paragary’s Bar & Oven. Nestor opened INK in May 2003. When Sammy Chu’s closed at 15th and R streets after just eight months, mentor Randy Paragary brought Nestor in immediately to start a new restaurant. Nestor opened the glitzy Icon Restaurant and Lounge there in November 2004.
Icon operated for a year and a half. Nestor said he thinks the restaurant didn’t succeed partly because the location wasn’t well-known yet and not many people knew about the restaurant. It took a few more years for the area to become trendy and full of successful businesses.
Nestor said he and his staff plan to work hard to increase the liveliness of Capitol Mall, which has few restaurants.
The owner of 55 Degrees, Ali Mackani, said when closing the restaurant that the establishment didn’t work out because residential development did not grow in the Capitol Mall area as expected. He opened Lounge on 20 at 20th and K streets in July 2008.
House Kitchen & Bar is expected to draw diners from the Capitol Mall office buildings, the Capitol, nearby hotels and state agencies.
"Although this area is sophisticated, when people leave their offices, I think they want to be in a comfortable environment — yet still get superior service, phenomenal food and general comfort," Svendsen said.
The staff will make a special effort to welcome diners — right down to asking what they’d like to see on the menu.
"It’s our house. We want you to feel relaxed here," Nestor said.
Suzanne Hurt is a staff reporter covering business and development for The Sacramento Press.