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In the past seven years, Sacramento has seen a lifetime of change. In 2011, I remember exploring a city that I was confident I would never fully discover. I checked in at
Broadacre Coffee [CLOSED] every morning on FourSquare (to maintain my status as “mayor”), regularly chronicled The Beat’s (only selling on Amazon) great VHS finds on Facebook (Instagram wasn’t available on Android yet), and spent most of my week stalking the Krush Burger food truck’s (no longer in operation) whereabouts on Twitter (because I never knew when the need for sweet potato tots would arise).
We can’t experience many of those things anymore. Just like the world around it and the people within it, Sacramento is alive and changing a little bit every day. When I tell Trevor Shults of BarWest and Tim Harris of Insight that I’ve called Sacramento home for the past five years, they understand. “Oh man, you’ve seen a lot of change,” Shults says with a chuckle. But for the people behind the scenes at BarWest, the evolution of Sacramento hits very close to home. Harris motions a thumb toward Shults and then back to himself and admits: “We grew up here.”
Stopping into BarWest today isn’t the same as it was in 2011. While waiting in line for a concert at Harlow’s in November of that year, I wandered inside BarWest. I wish I could simply remember its SoCal beach-and-tiki theme complete with fish bowl cocktails and a surfboard behind the bar, but I also remember seeing a sea of tipsy people and ingesting an unhealthy amount of Axe Body Spray before quickly retreating back into the cold. It was an experience that should have been easily forgotten, but it has stayed with me ever since. Why? Mostly because it echoes the sentiments of many Midtowners when the name BarWest finds its way into conversation:
“Oh, you mean BroWest?”
Shults opened BarWest in August of 2011 because he felt that there was a hole in the Sacramento bar scene. His feelings were right, and BarWest became a local favorite overnight. Along with that success came a phrase that transcended the establishment and took on a life of its own. Before long, “BroWest” transformed from being a juvenile moniker for one of the best spots for wings in Sacramento to a sort of derogatory term for tank top-clad men notorious for ruining many nights out on the town and Sunday brunches: “Oh man, here comes BroWest.”
But for the people who knew better than to buy into that dogma, BarWest has always been a great place to grab a bite, a beer, and watch the game. Stopping in on a Friday afternoon was an eclectic experience without a single “bro” in sight; instead, I was able to catch the tail end of a soccer match with some folks who seemed like they’d been holding up their barstools for decades, enjoy a Go West! IPA from Anchor Brewing, and a plate of carne asada fries before turning my attention to The Master’s. It was so dramatically different from my first experience, and, when I mentioned that November night to the folks running the show, Harris simply responded,
“We’re a neighborhood bar. We want to be for everybody.”
Despite the desire to be for everybody, Shults and Harris have struggled to shake the perception that the natives have given to BarWest while making sure that it stays true to its original identity. Sacramento has been changing, and each passing year shows that the city’s transformation is becoming more and more dramatic. “Sacramento now has an identity,” Harris notes. It wasn’t but a couple of years ago that we were a cowtown that was most notable for being close to The Bay or Lake Tahoe. Now, though, Harris states with certainty something that we’ve all been feeling: “We’re on the up and up.” Suddenly, more people are looking to Sacramento as a destination than ever before, and Harris believes that is only going to increase in the coming years. This also puts a great deal of pressure on the current Sacramento businesses during such a time of flux – eateries like BarWest are helping to formulate Sacramento’s identity to the world at large whether they like it or not.Maybe it’s because, like many other local heroes running successful businesses on the grid, Shults and Harris have called Sacramento home for their entire lives, but they seem to be taking on such an arduous task with zeal. The walls of BarWest are adorned with local art that points to this sort of new journey that Sacramento is a part of. Looking down the concrete and reclaimed wood bar leads to a sign that touts “Go West!” – it’s not so much a command as it is an invitation that asks us to embrace the pioneering spirit that has made California and Sacramento (and perhaps BarWest) what they are and what they will become. There’s still plenty of Coors Light to be had at 2724 J Street, and the wings, which come in 11 flavors and 3 different styles, are touted as the best Sacramento has to offer. After spending two years working on redesigning the space, BarWest still has plenty of remnants of its roots. But now, it has a hyper-local focus that stretches from the décor all the way to the tap list. Elliott Ames helps curate the libations at BarWest, and he has seen how the city’s transformation has affected people’s culinary expectations. After inheriting an outdated draft set-up from their predecessors, BarWest has since upgraded to a completely renovated tap system that allows them to offer four times the amount of draft beers than when they opened the doors. It’s a point of pride for Ames to be able to dedicate taps to local breweries that are so small that he has to work with them directly, but he also has the flexibility to offer extremely rare beers that Sacramento seldom sees, like Pliny the Younger or Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout. He’s doing his homework and contacting brewmasters from both Sacramento and abroad about beers that distributors haven’t even heard of yet; with Sacramento’s culinary expansion and its growth as a hub for craft beverages, “no one’s seeing the same beers twice anymore.”
When pressed about Sacramento making its mark on the craft cocktail scene, Ames and Shults are quick to give acclaim to places like their neighbor, Red Rabbit. “We’re focusing on quality through freshness, but we want to stay approachable, too,” touts Ames. While the scratch bars in town are delicately crafting cocktails with ingredients that I would need an extra hand to count, BarWest is going back to basics while using some of the best ingredients they can get their hands on. Through such a time of transition, using BarWest’s roots to determine its future helped to ensure that they weren’t trying to be something that they’re not. “The fish bowls are here to stay,” Shults emphasizes with a laugh. Even the comically large ones, piled high with fresh fruit, whose vibrant colors seem to radiate off of the tabletop are something that BarWest wanted to hold onto. “You gotta have some fun,” said Shults.
But the transition has been about more than simply fun for the sake of fun. The brains behind BarWest know that Sacramento’s rapid growth stems from its community, so they are anxious to use this opportunity to give back. Toward the back of the restaurant floor, “Community Table” is emblazoned on the wall. Accompanied by a downward arrow, it directs patrons to plush, roomy seating around a large table, where a portion of patrons’ tabs that would normally be tallied as profit will instead be donated to a local charity, like Shriners Hospital, Big Brothers Big Sisters, or the Make-A-Wish Foundation. There is also a completely revamped and enclosed loft space that is available for anything from birthdays to baby showers. Equipped with everything needed to make a gathering perfect, including a full bar, food, and facilities, Shults and Harris wanted to have some part of their space private without concession, specifically for nonprofits. “There aren’t many places in Sacramento that offer something like this,” says Shults. “And we wanted to make sure that we could do it for no cost to non-profits.” BarWest and Sacramento are in the middle of a shift, and what the future holds, as always, is a bit uncertain. While we can count on only so much in life, we can always count on the fact that change is constant. As our city moves into an era of great growth, we will see how each little bit will help to redefine Sacramento, our borough, our block, and even our neighborhood bar.
Photos | Irene Chung
Stay connected with all things Sacramento and beyond.