Restaurant owner N’Gina Guyton has hot dogs on the brain lately. There aren’t a lot of places you can get a quality hot dog for dinner in Sacramento, she says. Every now and then she’ll indulge at a baseball game, ordering multiple franks throughout the day with a beer, or sunflower seeds, or Dippin’ Dots — but mostly, she’s excited to dream up and serve the playful hot dogs she craves when she reopens the historic Jim Denny’s diner next month as its new owner.
One of those dogs, the Hey Papi, is made with chorizo and dressed in mango salsa, crushed Takis Fuego, and togarashi-spiked mayo, laid across a brioche roll. It’s as much a demonstration of Guyton’s commitment to giving her menu personality as it is an homage to another important piece of downtown Sacramento history close to her heart: the West End neighborhood from the late 1940s, where Mexican, Japanese, Chinese, and Portuguese immigrants, along with Black Americans, lived among and influenced one another culturally. The West End community was forced out in the late 1950s and ’60s when the city’s redevelopment agency authorized a demolition of the area, and along with it, much of the multiculturalism for which Sacramento was well known.
Guyton, 46, wasn’t alive during the height of the West End era, and the original Jim Denny’s didn’t offer hot dogs like the Hey Papi when it opened in 1985 — which is exactly why she wants to serve them now. “Having this opportunity at Jim Denny’s, I just want to have fun,” she says. “I want this diner to be light and easy and super approachable, and also culturally inclusive, having things on the menu for everybody, and you walk away full and happy.”
The concept of revival has also been on Guyton’s mind. Last June, she announced the closure of South, the popular soul food kitchen she ran with her former business partner and ex-husband, Ian Kavookjian. Kavookjian also sued Guyton in the midst of their separation and South’s shuttering, demanding rights to her family’s recipes — ones that formed the foundation of South’s success. Until the lawsuit is settled, she essentially cannot serve her own soul food.
Letting go of South, which served award-winning fried chicken based on Guyton’s family’s recipe, was emotionally and financially devastating, plunging her into an intense depression. But running Jim Denny’s lets her flex her skills as a restaurateur, she says, and to prove to herself, her supporters, and even her haters that she has even more to offer Sacramento diners than just succulent fried chicken. This new iteration of Jim Denny’s will also be a noticeable departure from the historic diner itself; Guyton shelved the breakfast menu in favor of a dinner service that set a moodier, more sophisticated vibe. “You have all that beautiful neon signage,” she says. “Why are you not lighting that up?”
Guyton wants to preserve much of the original diner’s interior outfitting but has transformed the counter into what she calls “this really sexy kind of sit-down adult experience,” complete with a beer and wine menu and, later, an assortment of cocktails crafted by bar manager Ciera Rusciolelli.
Her vision for the Jim Denny’s patio is multipurpose: A flora-lined trellis will have heaters and misters nestled into it to accommodate the seasons, with plenty of big tables to be shared among larger groups of people. Behind that will be clusters of tall tables, an outdoor bar, and a DJ booth. Guyton says this area is for friends who need a spot to hang out over a plate of cheese fries, which will come studded with lardons and sprinkled with green onions, as they pregame for a concert at Golden 1 Center or Ace of Spades — or maybe an event at Jim Denny’s itself.
The diner’s lone neighbor on the block is a Goodyear tire shop, and Guyton plans to take advantage of that. “It’s not residential at all, so we can do live music or movies on the brick wall,” she says, referring to the massive, blank panel that encloses the back end of the patio. “I want to celebrate Sacramento summer at its best, and how many places are able to do that in downtown proper?”
Jim Denny’s loyalists didn’t hold back in expressing their concerns on social media about some of Guyton’s changes, particularly the absence of a breakfast menu. But in its place, she promises to offer fresh, flavor-packed diner food, which she thinks would have been a natural progression for Jim Van Nort, the original Jim Denny’s co-owner, if he was still running the diner now. “If Jim were reborn today and he was a modern guy, how would he reimagine his own space?” Guyton asks. “I don’t think he would keep an antiquated menu or antiquated level of service to placate a small percentage of people that needed that nostalgia.”
That’s why her Ma’ the Meatloaf burger patty, a blend of andouille sausage and ground chuck, will be made in-house, and vegetables will be front and center in some dishes, like the No Cheat Days portobello burger with creamy Havarti and sprouts, or the Brussels sprouts, which will not be dunked into a vat of hot oil and fried, but roasted and served with roasted garlic-anchovy mayo. She’s even brought a bit of South with her, tucking fried chicken into a brioche bun, club sandwich-style, along with American cheese, bacon, shredded lettuce, tomato, and ranch dressing. Fried chicken also appears in the kale and red cabbage Caesar salad with cornbread croutons and anchovy dressing in an even more direct nod to her last restaurant.
With an eye toward a mid-August opening, Guyton is currently hiring staff. She still sheds tears when reflecting on her hospitality journey, which began when she took up a job as a server at Cafe Bernardo in Davis during a college gap year. “This journey has been a lot to get here,” she says. “A lot. I know for the first couple of weeks, I’m just gonna be an emotional mess every day I come to work, happily crying while flipping your burgers and making sure salty tears don’t end up in the product.”
Jim Denny’s (816 12th Street in Sacramento) is expected to reopen in September. Check the business Instagram for updates.