Behind the Counter with Patsy Lane
(By an SM writer-at-large)
Most long time residents of Sacramento have a Jim-Denny’s Diner story. Maybe it’s having a cup of coffee with their dad; their first date; a layover as they changed buses traveling through the city. It’s a memory that they keep.
The little white board building with red trim and a rusty tin rooster sculptor by the front steps has been an icon downtown for more than 70 years. The art deco sign out front still announces Jim-Denny’s Hamburgers and Chili, just as it has since Jim Van Nort founded the place in 1934.
The famous little diner at 816 12th Street had fallen into disrepair when the Lane Family bought it in March, 2005.
“We didn’t know the history,” said Patsy Lane, co-owner and manager. “We had been looking for a diner and saw a “For Sale” sign in the window. We bought the building and the business.”
Patsy, who says her daddy named her for country-western singer Patsy Cline, moved to Sacramento from Bakersfield after she and her daughter, Joanna, married two brothers. Their husbands, Sacramento natives, were astonished when the women told them they wanted to buy Jim-Denny’s. But within days they became the fourth owners of the establishment since Van Nort made it a local legend.
Sacramento was a small city with shade trees and Highway 99 cut right over the Tower Bridge and through the heart of town when Van Nort opened the eatery at 16th and J streets. When he returned home from overseas at the end of World War II, he moved his business to the little building on 12th Street, where it has been ever since.
With the Trailways Bus Station on one side, the train depot on the other, and a dance hall across the street, Jim-Denny’s was packed 24 hours a day. Simple fare of hamburgers and chili, hot coffee and milkshakes kept customers on the swivel chairs at the counter.
“It was known as the 10 busiest seats in town,” said Patsy.
Wanting to keep the ambiance of the diner, the Lane family scrubbed the walls and replaced the floor, but kept the Formica counter. Once red, the counter top is worn almost to the base through constant use and washing. The antique pay phone that customers use to answer still hangs on the wall, but it never rings anymore. In addition to longer hours and weekly specials, the menu is larger now, but still features mega hamburgers with a full pound of meat, and open-faced chili burgers that fill up an entire plate. Jim-Denny’s is known as a top contender in the hamburger wars. They also serve up lots of bowls of chili and give large helpings of everything on the menu.
“I make my own chili and soups,” said Patsy. “That’s what I’m known for.”
But breakfast will fill up the tight space also, and the entire Lane family, including grandchildren, comes to work on weekends. Wearing red T-shirts with the Jim-Denny’s logo, they are a friendly bunch who interacts with customers. They have added patio seating with long tables covered with red checked cloths and offer take out or express food. Patsy also runs a catering concern.
Patsy has her own history and experience in managing cafeterias in such enterprises as Kaiser Hospitals, the Sacramento Bee, and the Tumbleweed Inn in Rancho Cordova. What she likes about her new diner is the clientele.
“On any given day in our place, you could sit beside people from all walks of life,” said Patsy.
The 10 seats may be filled with a lobbyist next to a homeless person or a police officer next to a tattoo artist. State workers and the old Jim-Denny’s regulars are usually there. During the season, performers from the Sacramento Broadway Series at the Convention Center Theater eat there.
“They stay at the hotel next door and come in here,” said Patsy. “It’s friendly and comfortable.”
Before their show run is over, the actors often sign a show poster as a gift to the Lane family. Sometimes they give them tickets to see a performance. Currently, The Little Shop of Horrors poster hangs on the limited space next to reviews from two local newspapers.
Because of its importance to the community, Sacramento County Recreation and Parks Department designated Jim-Denny’s an historical landmark, insuring its place in the city.
“It has a cult following,” said Patsy. “And it has the best hamburgers in town.”
Wednesday, September 20, 2006
I didn't write this, but it will be in the magazine this month. I think it's awesome. (Go to Jim Denny's!)