No promises on your own home-baked goodie provided by a regular.
There are dive bar experiences you see coming. Maybe the building looks like it’s about to fall over. Maybe the history is well known. Maybe the sign above the door references Prohibition. And then there are dive bar experiences jarringly and amazingly surprising, nights and environments impossible to see coming before that first visit. Sacramento’s Mother Lode, candidly, was the last dive bar I visited over the course of multiple days in the city, a final last gasp for a quick beer. What I found was easily the best experience of the trip, one that begged me (successfully) to stay much longer than anticipated.
History around Mother Lode is scarce, but walking into the dive bar at opening (4 PM) as the only customer allowed me to ask a few questions of the bartender who just happened to own the place. In tracking the story of the space, her ownership stretched back to 1981 but the space has operated as a bar as far back as the 1960s. The building however well predates its life as a bar, serving as a dusty general store outpost as evidenced by one of the black & white photos lining the space depicting past incarnations of the space. To underscore the historical pedigree of Mother Lode, the wagon wheel attached to the outside wall of the building is said to date back to actual usage rather than stock decoration.
The signage outside mentions a few of the Sacramento dive bar’s key amenities like sandwiches, beer, wine, pool and cocktails, but conspicuously absent is the clear calling card of Mother Lode, karaoke. As the evening unfolded, sets of locals slowly trickled into the bar during its pre-karaoke hours, lightly filling the space and predictably picking up in pace as karaoke hour arrived. The setup is the most legit dive bar karaoke arrangement this reviewer has ever seen, a dedicated both with dual microphones, string lighting and ample screens for lyrics.
Rex is the dedicated karaoke host, even live streaming each night’s festivities through a Facebook page under the moniker Hitsville Productions. There are karaoke hosts who fade into the background and even some that annoy, but Rex is a master at his craft, using a Rex-only microphone to get things going, chime in on duets with regulars and otherwise keep the show moving. Distributed screens throughout Mother Lode feature scrolling song lyrics, encouraging group participation. The effect is a community-driven, locals-heavy, crooning neighborhood karaoke vibe that breaks the mold of most dive bar karaoke nights.
And locals do more than just stream in for karaoke. This reviewer, a stranger from out of town, was offered home-baked cookies while sitting at the bar from one local couple. An hour or so later, I was offered fresh-made peanut brittle from an entirely different set of locals. While digging into each delicacy, a military veteran and a pair of friends settled down at the bar next to me, eager to sing karaoke. More comfortable at the bar, Rex was kind enough to bring a microphone over to allow said veteran to sing the song of his choice from where he sat. He did just that, the assembled crowd ate it up, as did I, and the community vibe strengthened bit by bit in that same fashion throughout the night.
With that kind of backdrop, it seems almost over-simplified to talk about the space and the decorations and the walls and dollar bills when a dive bar experience that pure supersedes the space itself. But every inch of Mother Lode lives up to the high standard set by the experience, a deeply wood-paneled, dive bar classically-decorated oasis in northeast Sacramento. Walking in the front door, the space opens up into a cavernous enclave with low ceilings and scarce natural light. Every inch of Mother Lode is densely decorated, vintage lamps along drinking ledges, old beer decorations along the walls, novelty signs above the door, dollar bills stapled to the ceiling. String lights stretch sporadically throughout the space, some of it draped along the mural behind the karaoke stage depicting a horse-drawn stagecoach.
Seating is far from standard, inclusive of padded chairs, the occasional couch and a wicker furniture in pockets through Mother Lode. The back patio is no different, really more of an open-air interior room than a porch, bundles of wooden stools, wicker chairs, love seats and old gasoline signs under yet another low roof. The best seats of the house are no doubt around the zig zagging bar itself, all with clear view of the karaoke booth and its associated show.
It is hard to know where to stop when gushing about a dive bar the quality of Mother Lode. Facebook livestreamed karaoke. Wicker chairs in strong supply. Locals providing baked goods to out-of-town strangers. A history that includes past lives and past names. All of it adds together to create not just an unforgettable dive bar experience but a the kind of community gathering place that is rare to find and equally compelling to take part in. Sacramento’s purest dive bar and best experience is, without a doubt, Mother Lode and well worth the trip just northeast of town.