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Biba Restaurant makeover marks 25 years

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Biba Restaurant reopened Tuesday with a soft new look after a remodel to celebrate its 25th anniversary in Midtown.

Sacramento restaurateur, TV show host and cookbook author Biba Caggiano added a new color palette and made other changes at her namesake Italian eatery. The restaurant at 2801 Capitol Ave. was closed July 3 – Monday to allow work on the its two dining rooms.

The makeover was done in time to mark a quarter-century in business next month.

"Just like a beautiful woman, you don’t stay beautiful forever unless you do something," Caggiano said during the lunch hour Tuesday. "This place needed something: color, other things. I’m very, very, very happy."

Both rooms opened Aug. 6, 1986, with white walls, white wood and white linens broken up by black lacquer chairs. The lounge walls had later been painted light peach, but the color was too soft to be noticed. The overall effect was stark, formal and a bit cold, and the décor changed little over 25 years, Biba Restaurant Manager Scott Smith said.

Caggiano said she didn’t know exactly how to get away from the restaurant’s established look, but interior designer Bruce Benning – with input from Caggiano and management – found the perfect solution.

The remodel gives the main dining room and the lounge dining room new color, upholstery and accents. Restaurants have a lot more color now, Smith noted.

The goal was to update the restaurant’s look and create different moods or experiences in the two rooms. The new yellow main dining room has a summery vibe like a formal sun room, while the darker lounge dining room resembles a more subdued study, said Benning, who pushed for the big color change.

The changes were conservative to save money, said Smith, manager of the restaurant for 24 years.

The main dining room was painted a yellow poppy color to give it a Mediterranean summer feel with the white wood accents that remain.

Brass accents were removed, and glass partitions were removed from a service area and between two banquettes. Handpainted Italian silk sconces by Fortuny were added. Crema marfil marble was added to a ledge near the back wall, Benning said.

The marble was used to add sophistication. The sconces were added to invoke a sense of Italy, Smith said.

They also reupholstered 150 chairs and 10 bar stools. More padding was added and the covers changed from orange paisley to blue.

The lounge dining room was repainted slate blue and raisin brown to give it the feel of a study. Faux wood panels measuring 4 feet tall were added. Brass and glass accents were removed to soften the overall look of the interior. Mirrored panels were added above the bar, Benning and Smith said.

"The thought was to warm this up a little bit," Benning said.

Management and Caggiano listened to younger customers who commented on Yelp to make changes to reduce the formal atmosphere. Those comments also helped lead to a change in employee uniforms.

Some customers commented on Yelp that the restaurant’s brass and glass gave it a 1980s “Miami Vice” look, they said, referring to the TV show. Others commented on what they felt were stuffy waiters and formal service.

Bow ties and white jackets with big shoulders have been replaced by lightweight gray shirts, which are cooler in the summer, Caggiano said.

"I have a little girl who works here, and with that jacket, she looked like she was going to war," Caggiano said.

Raised in Bologna, Italy, Caggiano opened the restaurant to bring quality Italian food and more diversity to Sacramento’s restaurant scene.

The California Travel Industry named her Northern California Chef of the Year in 1999. The restaurant has won accolades in publications such as Gourmet Magazine, Travel and Leisure, Condé Nast Traveler, Wine Spectator, The Sacramento Bee and Sacramento Magazine.

She hosted 100 episodes of the internationally syndicated cooking show, "Biba’s Italian Kitchen," on the Discovery Channel and TLC. Her ninth cookbook, "Spaghetti Sauces: Authentic Italian Recipes from Biba Caggiano," has just been published by Gibbs Smith and is now being shipped to bookstores.

"I tried all the recipes when it was coming together," Smith said. "It’s a book I will use at home. It’s phenomenal."

The 25th anniversary will be celebrated with book-signing nights in August and a more formal celebration in September, after the book has been out awhile and the summer restaurant season ends, Smith said.

The restaurant’s summer menu began June 27. Lunch entrées are $16.50 to $19.50, and dinner entrées are $17 to $30. The restaurant offers a $30, three-course fixed-price dinner Monday – Friday.

The restaurant has lost a third of its customers because of increased competition from the expanding number of restaurants in the central city, the recession and Sutter Medical Center construction that has closed down streets, moved a parking garage and confused customers since 2007, Smith said.

The restaurant was forced to offer more expensive valet parking. Older customers, which the restaurant caters to, have been intimidated by the construction and don’t want to walk the extra block to the new parking garage, especially in winter, he said.

"With the recession, we took a double hit," he said.

Longtime patron Art Rankin, a retired engineer with the state Department of Water Resources, admired the changes during lunch Tuesday.

"I think they’re fine. It’s less formal," Rankin said. "This is probably – outside of the Bay Area – the best restaurant in Northern California.”

Suzanne Hurt is a staff reporter for The Sacramento Press. Follow her on Twitter @SuzanneHurt.

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