Tower Cafe: The United Flavors of Broadway

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(Sacramento, CA)
Friday, November 13, 2009
          There’s only one restaurant on Broadway that acts as the street’s big tent for any and all cuisines – Tower Cafe. For owner Jim Seyman, a former truck driver and filmmaker, Tower Café is a personal and lifelong project that's benefitting an entire community.
           Why would Seyman take on a location next door to Tower Theatre where an ice cream shop had failed? When the space again became vacant in the late 1980s, Seyman believed all the ingredients he needed for inspiration had been on Broadway all along.
         “Broadway is a wonderful street,” Seyman says. “It covers a lot of ground -- different people and different ethnic backgrounds. So, there’s not a better place to show the diversity of Sacramento than, I think, Broadway.”
          The art deco spire of the Tower Theatre has pierced the Sacramento skyline since Nov. 11, 1938 – 71 years. Tower Café is nearly 20 years old. Together, the two icons anchor what’s now known as the Tower District at the busy intersection at 16th and Broadway.
          Tower Café is in the original site of Sacramento’s most famous music shrine, Tower Records, begun by Russ Solomon in his father’s drug store. Before tackling his café concept, Seyman sought advice from Solomon.
          “I told him I was going to do a café based on a multi-cultural kind of global theme. And he said “what kind of food are you going to serve?” Seyman replied, saying “it will be everything from Thai, Chinese, Asian, Italian, Mexican. And he says, ‘Oh, you’re just going to confuse people – aren’tcha?’ And I said ‘I don’t think they come into your store just to buy rock and roll.’”
            For Seyman, variety was at the heart of his vision for what a café should be.
            “A café to me represents a certain amount of a free spirit, a lack of formality, and yet a very sophisticated place,” Seyman says.
            Seyman has eclectic tastes reflected not just in the art stuffed into every inch of wall, ceiling and shelf, but also in the kitchen. The menu hops around the world – jerk chicken, Havana salad, New Mexico cornmeal pancakes, Thai slaw, Greek omelet, Irish stew and Mediterranean salad.
             Seyman visits the kitchen every day. “I go over the specials. I go over and look and taste all the different things that are here,” he says, standing next to his chef, Piag, who is Thai. “It pretty much settles my need to eat during the day.”
             Customers use Tower Café for everything from job interviews to corporate meetings or a bite before or after a movie.
            “One doesn’t have to come here just to eat a big meal…,” Seyman says. They can come in for dessert, " … a very big dessert.” They’re oversized cakes, pies, muffins and snickerdoodles. The “bombe” is flecked in 14ct. gold leaf. A yin-yang design on a cake is vanilla mousse swirled in place next to dark chocolate ganache.
             Think of the décor like this: If Pier I were a restaurant, it would be Tower Café. Fill a space with traditional art from every culture. Add a menu with food from around the world, and you’ve got a reflection of Broadway’s ethnic excess. But there was one more consideration. It’s no accident that Tower Café opened in 1990 on Earth Day.
            “I think I do have a great appreciation for the concept for ecology and what that really means inside of an urban setting,” Seyman says. “This is all part of bringing history in a folk-art sense to that place where people, art and nature all combine with one another and live quite happily, actually.” 
             Seyman may talk in metaphysical mind-benders, but he looks like a truck driver. If you see someone in jeans, ball cap, plaid shirt, beard – that’s him. Jim Seyman was a truck driver. It paid for film school. So, it’s not that big a leap, standing at the corner at 16th and Broadway, that the brain of a filmmaker like Seyman would imagine a café as his stage.
             It’s not lost on him that everything inside Tower Café – every beaded lizard, Buddha, ceramic jug and winged sentinel – is a reflection of him.
            “It’s pretty humbling in that respect, “Seyman says. “I love this place.”
             For people who wait in line for brunch, it may come as a surprise that Seyman loves the food, but he’s crazy about the landscaping he designed himself as Tower Café’s outdoor seating. To him, it’s not a patio. It’s a park -- a public park.
            “The park, particularly, I think, is one of the best things I’ve done in my life.”
             On what was once a concrete slab unclaimed by the landlord or the City of Sacramento, transplanted palms, evergreens and big leafy foliage create a microclimate several degrees cooler than summer’s hottest days. You might call this shady, moist oasis Broadway’s town square.
             The centerpiece is a fountain five tiers tall. It’s unavoidable whether you’re headed to the theater or the café.
            “The beauty of the fountain is people use it to make wishes,” Seyman says. “You’ll see sometimes hundreds of pennies, and of course each one of those represents a nice little wish. And I believe in wishes.”
             Whatever happens to his restaurant, Seyman will have left something permanent in the Tower district. “The Café, I hope, will stay a long time; the park and these trees even longer than that.”