A sum total above and beyond its amazing parts.
A great experience at a dive bar can come from any number of factors such as the people in the bar that day, the historical context of the building, the sheer inexpensiveness of a cold domestic beer or any combination of those and other traits. South Sacramento’s Swiss Buda combines all of those traits with a few new ones I didn’t know I needed in a small footprint in a somewhat remote strip mall south of Sacramento’s urban core.
Maybe the most compelling aspect of Swiss Buda is the story behind its founding and naming, a partnership between original owners Pete Rossi and Glenn Kiotani. The space occupied by Swiss Buda today sits where Kiotani’s previous venture was located, a restaurant fittingly named Kiyotani’s. In 1968, the restaurant was converted into a bar and given the perplexing name of Swiss Buda. As told by Rossi, the name consisted of Rossi’s background (Swiss) and Kiotani’s nickname (Buddha), but to save on pay-per-letter signage, Buddha was shortened to Buda and the rest is now decades-old history.
During the subsequent years, Kiotani exited the business and Rossi brought on new business partner Melvin Ah-Yun before ultimately exiting the business completely in 2007. Though Melvin Ah-Yun has since passed away, ownership today sits with his son, Bull Ah-Yun, continuing the lineage that serves as the foundation for what is now one of Sacramento’s best dive bars. One more recent transition has been the rebirth of Swiss Buda’s kitchen, now occupied by local BBQ outfit Good Eats after itself being displaced from its original location.
The story behind Swiss Buda’s founding and existence sets a high bar for the experience, one that the Sacramento dive bar lives up to upon visiting. There are strip mall dive bars and then there’s Swiss Buda, a tiny alcove with a brown door and barred window that would be easy to miss if not for the epic sign above the door inscribed with the name of the bar on a white background with martini glass to add a little flavor. The window is almost entirely filled with sports logos, the color not hugely dissimilar from the faded brick that makes up the building’s façade, creating the feeling of a dive bar alcove.
Inside, the space is every bit the jumbled, random, eclectic mix of dive bar decorations needed to live up to the epic history of the bar. Red carpet stretches the majority of the main room that seems to stretch on into perpetuity, giving way to a black & white checkered dance floor as well as a wood floor back game room. Inside the front door, no surprise, a Buddha statue greets all who enter in a small display case complete with a watercolor depicting the building. The Swiss Buda bar sits just off the front door, a rounded semi-circle flow that provides a little bit of face time with those sitting across the bar in true conversational dive bar fashion.
Elements of the bar have certainly been refinished, including the beer taps and back bar space, complete with microbrews and seltzers. But history is alive and well here as well, indicated in a number of features ranging from carved relieves above the bar to faded photos and dollar bills to a random Buddha statue here and there to remind you where you’re drinking. The space feels wide open, a series of small circular tables and chairs filling some of this main room before giving way to padded booths along the wall.
A few wooden pillars separate the main drinking and seating area from the dancefloor where weekend karaoke has given Swiss Buda its modern reputation as one of the best sets of karaoke nights in the city. Padded seats and ledges for drinks dot the space, an area easy to envision as makeshift stage for karaoke night and other activities. The taxidermy game is strong here and extends along the dive bar’s back wall, ranging from mounted fish to a pair of enormous, mounted deer heads & antlers that dominate the drinking area up front.
A room in back doubles as gaming area and overflow storage, the bar’s digital dartboard mingling with outdoor heaters brought in from the outside during the summer months. A pinball machine hides behind stacked chairs and a range of sports trophies lines a wall in this semi-forgotten room that adds the perfect amount of dive bar atmosphere to this part of Swiss Buda. Other parts of the space are dedicated to a long shuffleboard table and some additional seating, but the open floor plan and spaced out nature of the furniture makes Swiss Buda feel like a sprawling dive bar oasis.
Great dive bars become great through layers of the experience that complement each other. It is easy to argue that Swiss Buda has every layer covered from an amazing backstory to an epic space to a semi-off-the-beaten-path location to a local reputation for karaoke and poker nights. Adding well-reviewed food to the mix out of a small kitchen just off the main room sets the experience over the top, creating a true Sacramento dive bar destination in a small strip mall south of town.