April 29, 2008
In the Works: An Heir for Pava's

Twenty years ago, a charming little restaurant occupied a converted Victorian at 24th and K streets in midtown Sacramento. It was called Pava's, a name that still resonates with oldtimers not just for its grilled lamb chops, housemade ravioli, fruit cobblers and hearty breakfasts but for its loyal following, which ranged from the powerful to people who still were being called hippies.

When fire destroyed Pava's in 1990 after a 14-year-run, a Bee editorial lamented its loss and fretted that both the initiative and homeyness it represented also would be lost. The editorial was prescient, for the lot that Pava's occupied has stood largely vacant for nearly 18 years.

Now, however, Sacramento developer Thomas Allan Roth and Bay Area restaurateur Matthew Engelhart are drawing up plans for a restaurant to revive the individualistic spirit if not the name and culinary style of Pava's. Both have confirmed that they've signed a letter of intent to bring a branch of Engelhart's Cafe Gratitude to 24th and K.

Engelhart opened his first Cafe Gratitude in San Francisco in 2004 and now is up to four branches in the Bay Area, with a fifth to open this summer in Healdsburg. "It's a school of transformation disguised as a vegan organic restaurant," says Engelhart of the restaurant's concept.

He says he is being drawn to Sacramento in part because of its proximity to Vacaville, where he has bought a farm to help keep his restaurants supplied with the seasonal, sustainable, organically grown ingredients on which his menus are based.

Lots of restaurants these days boast of seasonal, sustainable, organically grown provisions, but Cafe Gratitude takes the commitment a step further by using the ingredients in solely vegan dishes. The Cafe Gratitude menu is a study in positive vibes, with each dish bearing a name meant to be self-affirming: "I Am Present" is an appetizer of buckwheat flatbread with mushroom herb confit and cashew mozzarella, while "I Am Terrific" is the restaurant's version of pad thai - vegetable noodles with kale, cucumber, tomato, sprouts, teriyaki almonds and a Thai almond-butter sauce. Desserts include "I Am Amazing," lemon meringue pie in macadamia-nut crust.

"The restaurant's décor is derived from a board game developed by the owners and built into each table. It encourages diners to express gratitude for one another and for the bounty the universe has bestowed upon anyone likely to walk in the door. After seating us, the hostess looked in our eyes and asked, 'What's great about today?'” wrote Gregory Dicum in the New York Times last fall after visiting the Mission District branch of Cafe Gratitude.

Roth gives three reasons for wanting a Cafe Gratitude on his lot: His own vegan diet, his memory of Pava's as "a wonderful place to go," and Engelhart's style of cooking, which he has found "delicious" and "consistent." "Pava's was busy most of the time, so this seems like it would be a perfect fit," adds Roth.

He owns buildings housing two other restaurants in the neighborhood - Rick's Dessert Diner and True Love Coffee House - as well as a three-story 1926 structure on the northeast corner of 21st and L he is looking to convert into a restaurant. Though prospective operators have toured the building with the thought of putting a "high end" restaurant in the structure, the shaky economy has cooled their enthusiasm. In the meantime, he's moving ahead with hopes of opening a restaurant on the old site of the revered Pava's within a year.

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