Kerry Kassis opened Slocum House in Fair Oaks Village in May of 1986 and ran it for 23 years, taking it from an aspiring but underperforming restaurant to one of the great dining destinations in the region.
In 2009, in the throes of an economic downturn that hit fine dining especially hard, Kassis sold his beloved Slocum House. Though he was on the sidelines, Kassis' heart was still in the business. Slocum House struggled for 18 months under the new ownership and then closed, leaving a charming but aging building and an iconic patio - complete with feral chickens roaming the grounds - empty.
Now Kassis is back in the restaurant game, moving from the suburbs to Old Sacramento. Kassis recently made his purchase of Rio City Café and says he is excited about its prospects. The deal is expected to close by mid-July. Kassis' transaction comes at a fortuitous time - just weeks before the city learned it would retain the Sacramento Kings and would build a downtown arena.
Why did Kassis get back in the restaurant business?
"I missed it immensely. I just missed the whole process of operating a restaurant," he told me during a lengthy chat by phone. "I missed the interaction with the employees, the customers, the purveyors. I missed the whole gamut. At some point, it becomes a way of life."
Rio City, a bustling but largely unheralded eatery that caters mostly to tourists, is a vastly different restaurant than Slocum House, which was known for its excellent food, romantic setting and special-occasion prices. Though Rio City is right on the Sacramento River, it never really made seafood a focal point of the menu. Kassis plans to change that, though he said changes will be gradual.
"I've always liked Rio City, since its inception in 1993. I've always liked to go there for the ambience and the river view. The food to me was always good enough," Kassis said. "As the years went by, I'd probably been there 30 or 40 times. I knew it well. I never had any inclination I would be the owner one day."
After bowing out of Slocum House, Kassis kept in touch with several brokers and agents, and let it be known that if there was the right deal out there, he was interested.
Rio City's original owner, Lou Miller, died in 2005, and the restaurant was run by his San Francisco-based family, which wanted out. The original concept for Rio City was Mexican food, though Miller soon changed it to middlebrow California cuisine.
With Kassis at the helm, Rio City will see several changes. He wants to have an outdoor bar with live entertainment on the deck to take advantage of the river views, including the Tower Bridge. For Sunday brunch, there will be a harpist playing on the deck. Some days there will be bluegrass.
He also plans to install a state-of-the-art smoker to do housemade smoked fish like salmon and Delta sturgeon.
"Right now, Rio City Café doesn't have a real identity of its own," Kassis said. "The menu goes a little bit of everywhere. I want to redirect that to complement our location. There were only four seafood items on the menu. That's not nearly enough. The menu changes will be gradual so we can see how they're accepted and how they're executed in the kitchen.
" I've also been watching this evolution of craft beers and it's very interesting to me. The popularity of them is soaring. The only thing that's restricting me is we don't have a lot of tap space, so I am going to be looking at that."
With a more focused approach to the concept and the menu, a greater emphasis on good beer and better wine options, and Kassis's track record as a hands-on owner, Rio City Café appears poised for a significant upgrade. If that happens, it just might get back on the radar as an option for locals. Currently, the clientele is 80 percent tourists, Kassis said.
Blair Anthony Robertson is The Bee's restaurant critic. Follow him on Twitter, @blarob.