Left-handed chefs revive their popular Nevada City restaurant after not one but three devastating floods.
By Kathleen Vivaldi
Photography by Colleen Vivaldi
Nevada City, California started out as a gold mining town in 1849. Today, its historic downtown bustles with restaurants, breweries and shops that still reflect the original mining era.
This quaint nature encompasses Lefty’s Grill, a two-story restaurant that sits nestled among shady trees and overlooks the soothing sights and sounds of Deer Creek. Owners John Cammack—a Nevada City native—and longtime friend Chris Duncan are both left-handed (thus the name) and worked together at four different restaurants prior to going into business together. In fact, the friends began talking in the late ’90s about a joint project.
“The town needed a restaurant and it had always been a dream of mine,” Cammack says. “(With) Chris and I being friends for a long time and working together, it became a dream for Chris too.”
When Cammack and Duncan first started looking at properties almost 15 years ago, the current Lefty’s building was vacant. “We looked at the property, but at the time it was just too big to start off,” says Cammack. So the original Lefty’s opened a couple blocks up—at 221 Broad St.—in 2003.
The smaller space served Cammack and Duncan well and provided the foundation to eventually move to a larger restaurant space. “Within the first year it was obvious we were just too small, but we were there for five years,” he says.
In 2008, Lefty’s moved to its current address, 101 Broad St., on the corner of Broad and Sacramento streets. The 5,000-square-foot restaurant now boasts two stories, two dining rooms, two dining patios, a large bar and a lounge area to host locals, bike riders, hikers, campers and tourists.
The Business and The Food
Cammack and Duncan gave a lot of thought and consideration to creating a restaurant that could serve Nevada City as well as be a business they could sustain. Their end philosophy? “We stay true to our roots, take care of the locals and tourists, (and) build trust with the community,” Cammack says. This thoughtful business philosophy carries over to their food ideology as well: Lefty’s prepares all dishes from scratch and offers daily specials. “Chris and I (also) have the same food approach: Try to stay true to the food and not too many ingredients,” says Cammack. “We try to keep it (simple) and bring out the best with what’s available.”
Menu changes occur every three months for seasonal diversity, and seasonal produce helps shape many of their menu items. “We always throw something in there that tells us when to change (with the season),” he says. “When cara cara oranges are almost out of season, we will take off or change up our beet salad (for example), which has the cara caras.”
Similarly, their menu now contains a lot of fresh corn and tomatoes, such as Lefty’s deconstructed Caprese specialty summertime appetizer. “For summer, we (also) offer a really nice corn crepe that we are famous for,” adds Cammack.
What are the most popular menu items, any time of year? Cammack answers without skipping a beat: the Napa Style Pizza, as well as their Friday-only fish and chips.
Lefty’s Napa Style Pizza is brushed with olive oil and topped with mozzarella cheese, sliced pear and gorgonzola cheese, then drizzled with a balsamic reduction and topped with fresh herbs. In fact, this pizza earned both a “Best of the West” and third-place award in the 2009 World Pizza Championship.
Lefty’s traditional fish and chips, served with house-made clam chowder, usually sell out on Fridays, so customers should get their orders in early.
Lefty’s obtained their full liquor license over a year ago and now has two bartenders on staff specializing in handcrafted cocktails. Christy Sayles, one of Lefty’s “mixologists,” for instance, has her own creation on the menu: The Hippy Horse. This gluten-free version of a Moscow mule uses Deep Eddy potato vodka, muddled fresh cucumber, elderflower, fresh lime and ginger beer, served on the rocks.
The Hippy Horse is just one of more than 25 refreshing cocktails to enjoy on a warm summer day, relaxing on the deck, taking in the view.“We are doing a lot with fresh herbs and citrus. Many drinks have mint, rosemary, basil,” Cammack says. “We will be steeping a lot of our own liquors and making up different drinks.”
Many of these cocktails are also offered on their happy hour menu, in addition to Lefty’s local craft beer on tap and a good selection of wine.
The Winter and the Supportive Community
Winter hit hard in California in 2016 and while the rain was desperately needed, Lefty’s took the brunt of Deer Creek’s flooding. In fact, before the end of the season, the restaurant flooded three times.
The first and second flood came within three days of each other, so only minimal cleanup had begun. But the third flood was heart-breaking. “We had just put the finishing touches on the wood floor and we were getting ready to bring all our stuff back in when we got the text. That was very disheartening,” Cammack says. Although both chefs were concerned, they stayed calm. “It (could be) a blessing in disguise,” Cammack recalls of their decision to remain positive and figure out how to use the temporary restaurant closure to their advantage. “We made a lot of improvements. A lot of things the customer won’t see, but improves the overall functionality of the restaurant.”
It is not easy in business to survive a lengthy building closure, however, but the tight-knit community in Nevada City stepped up big-time for Cammack and Duncan. A friend started a GoFundMe page, for example, and the two chefs never expected the amount of support they would receive.
In addition, some close friends of Cammack and Duncan organized a spaghetti feed to help ease concerns and raise awareness in the community. “Chris, the crew and I made spaghetti, salad and garlic bread, and 600 people showed up,” Cammack says.
Cammack and Duncan also sold $100 gift certificates and in return gave buyers $125 back in credit. “We were just hoping that people would bet on our future—that we’d actually reopen—and they did,” says Cammack, who adds he and Duncan are still extremely humbled by the generosity of all who helped during a very difficult time. “The community here is amazing.”
Lefty’s is a self-described “white tablecloth casual dining restaurant” and is located at 101 Broad St., Nevada City, CA, 530-265-5838, leftysgrill.com. Hours of operation are Wednesday-Sunday, 11:30 a.m.–9:00 p.m.; happy hour is 4–6 p.m.