Transforming a defunct subterranean movie theater into a bustling restaurant is no easy task. When Sacramento restaurant owner Bob Emerick first saw the underground remnants of the old Crest Theater auditoriums, he knew he had stumbled upon something special. It’s common for buildings in the older parts of Sacramento to have abandoned underground rooms, and often renovation efforts lead people to think of the mysteries behind these rooms and their past purposes. Fortunately for Emerick, he decided to reimagine this space as a restaurant that would continue to keep people intrigued by simultaneously capitalizing on the theater’s historical roots and transporting customers a world away. Thus, Empress Tavern was born and became one of the most unique and alluring spaces in the city.


Design Inspiration

While contemplating the design of Empress Tavern, Emerick and his family vacationed in St. Petersburg, Russia, where they stumbled upon a former horse stable that had been converted into a restaurant. The old Crest Theater auditoriums were also once horse stables and both spaces had an underground feel to them. The brick ceilings, barrel vaults, columns, dramatic bar and stunning ambiance of the St. Petersburg restaurant inspired Bob to mirror Empress Tavern after the distinctive features that left such an impression on him and his family. Bob made it his goal to bring some European flair to Sacramento.

A vital part of the design process was deciding how to incorporate brick that looked original to the restaurant. Bob didn’t want perfect grout lines or brick that was manufactured. He wanted the brick to look like it had just been uncovered and original to the building itself. Having an “unearthed” feel would bring authentic character to the restaurant, and Bob was initially under the impression that engineered brick would detract from the sense of originality.


Brick Veneer

After reviewing various types of brick, Bob’s contractor introduced him to brick veneer. “This is the real stuff,” Bob says while examining the veneer. “It looked more real than any other product.”

Although Bob initially wanted real stone, seeing the brick veneer in person changed his mind. With the broken up edges and color variation, the veneer looked just as he intended—unearthed after 100 years. Evocative of ancient Rome, the brick veneer Bob chose for this project is a wider-proportioned profile with an irregular shape that projects enormous visual interest. Whether applied on an accent wall or as the focal point, brick veneer offers an artistically timeworn appearance that lends texture and nuance to any space. Due to the lightness of veneer, the brick cascades across the entire ceiling, following the elegant arches and barrel vaults that real brick would be too heavy for, evoking the same unforgettable ambiance as the restaurant in St. Petersburg.

Empress Tavern was a hit from the moment it opened its doors. During the opening party, guests ventured downstairs to see the new space and their jaws dropped when they hit the landing that showcases the entire restaurant. It was something they had never seen before. The brick veneer stretches across the ceiling and walls, spanning the length of the restaurant, and it’s hard not to feel like you’ve stepped back in time. The effect is so convincing some guests were under the impression that the brick was original to the building, but Bob assured them that it was manufactured. Due in large part to the awe-inspiring brick veneer, Bob successfully crafted Empress Tavern into a space that captures an authentic, unearthed feel and is now a must-see spot in Sacramento. W&C