Empress Tavern, a victim of its own unique design, is shutting down indefinitely

High-end basement dining was a mysterious, cool concept when Empress Tavern opened in 2015. Five years later, it became the restaurant’s Achilles heel.

Empress Tavern is closing indefinitely due to a lack of traffic stemming from the coronavirus pandemic and desertion of downtown Sacramento, manager Jose Carrasco said Thursday.

Sandwiched between the Capitol, Golden 1 Center and Sacramento Convention Center at 1013 K St., Empress relied on foot traffic that’s disappeared in recent months. The dark, refined meat hall and bar downstairs from the Crest Theater has no place to seat those few customers who wander by, and takeout has been slow, Carrasco said.

“Our greatest asset became our ultimate downfall. We’re underground and completely enclosed,” Carrasco said. “For the dining scene as a whole, hopefully people take (coronavirus) more seriously with the masks and those things to keeping the (infection) trend down.”

As areas such as the R Street Corridor and the Handle District have adapted to “al fresco” dining setups, downtown K Street has faltered.

Most restaurants on The Kay lack parking lots where they might stage outdoor tables, and shutting down the street itself is a non-starter because of the light rail line running through it. Empress has no patio but, even if it did, Carrasco said The Kay’s overwhelming homeless population makes outdoor dining less than appealing.

Pizza Rock, Empress’ neighbor across the street, encountered similar challenges before closing indefinitely in late July.

“The situation is really tough on K Street right now,” Carrasco said. “K Street definitely needs some attention and some help.”

Empress was arguably the hottest restaurant in the region by the time Michael and Lisa Thiemann opened in 2015. With Michael — Ella Dining Room & Bar’s former executive chef — in the kitchen and Lisa running front-of-house operations, Empress earned four stars in a Sacramento Bee critique six months after opening. The Thiemanns’ vegetarian restaurant two doors over, Mother, received four stars the year before.

Mother closed in January, though some dishes made their way onto Empress’ menu. Jim’s Good Food, the Thiemanns’ midtown collaboration with Lisa’s father Jim Holifield, shut down in March after only a month in business. Holifield recently opened a new restaurant called Legado where Jim’s had been, which lasted all of one week before being closed until further notice.

Empress tread water immediately after the shelter-in-place order and did OK during the six-week period where indoor dining was permitted in Sacramento County, Carrasco said. But the meat-centric restaurant always struggles during peak summer months under normal circumstances, and it couldn’t keep up as competitors began offering outdoor patio service.

The Thiemanns still have every intent of reopening Empress when K Street traffic improves or indoor dining is allowed again, Carrasco said. The prospect of mothballing is made more feasible by the fact that co-owner Bob Emerick also owns Empress’ building.

“We definitely approach it as a business with a future. It’s just that we have financial reserves we need to be responsible for,” Carrasco said. “The plan is for Empress Tavern to come back. Unfortunately, with no clear end date of this its hard to say (when).”

Empress has been open for takeout Thursday-Saturday, running on a four-person skeleton crew, Carrasco said. The restaurant was open six days a week and employed more than 30 workers prior to the pandemic.


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