In the spring of 2009, Magpie opened for business in the newly repurposed and suddenly bustling 1400 block of R Street. Its neighbors included an unheralded new restaurant and bar called Shady Lady Saloon, a second location of Burgers and Brew, and R-15, a Paragary-owned bar adjacent Cafe Bernardo.
Despite Magpie’s reputation in some circles for its quality catering, this new place – part casual eatery, part market and a staging ground for its catering operation – opened without fanfare. Business was slow at first. Co-owner Janel Inouye ran the front of the house, greeting customers, pouring wine and serving food. Her partner in life and business, Ed Roehr, manned the kitchen with Chris Woo, now the executive chef.
It wasn’t long before things took off and word spread about the food – seasonal, rustic, edgy without being trendy or pretentious. Within a few months, it was difficult to get a table during peak hours at lunch or dinner.
Because of that, it wasn’t long before the business model changed course and more emphasis was placed on Magpie the restaurant. Its hallmark was local ingredients bursting with flavor and color. The name was tweaked, too. The clunky Magpie Caterers Market and Cafe became Magpie Cafe.
The restaurant had a friendly, informal vibe. But while many began to see Magpie as the best restaurant in Sacramento, there were shortcomings. The layout was cozy but awkward. There wasn’t enough seating for the restaurant to truly flourish.
Now Roehr, Inouye and company are moving Magpie to 16th and P streets in the new 16 Powerhouse building, which includes 50 luxury apartments and four ground-floor businesses, including a new Insight Coffee Roasters, Sun & Soil Juice Co. and Orchid Thai Restaurant & Bar.
With Magpie poised to open Monday, its original site will be reconfigured as Nido (Italian for nest), a casual eatery and bakery run by Inouye, Roehr and crew. Their Yellowbill, at 14th and O, which serves coffee and light fare, will remain.
Magpie’s new location and look is a major event on the local restaurant scene. What follows are all kinds of tidbits about Magpie past, present and future.
Full bar, more seating
Magpie 2.0 will look vastly different than the original. It will feature a full bar (instead of just beer and wine) with more bar seating. There will be a large patio along the P Street side of the restaurant, where customers can lounge and enjoy a drink while waiting for a table. Unlike R Street’s, this patio will enjoy afternoon shade.
But the most noteworthy difference will be the color scheme. The R Street location featured an exposed brick wall and blond wood tables. In the new place, the walls are black or charcoal gray. The tables and chairs are black, too. The overall feel and flow of the room will be more seamless, functional and flexible than the original.
Designed by a friend
Magpie didn’t have to look far when it came to designing the new space. Designer Curtis Popp is a serious foodie and one of Magpie’s most devoted customers. He and Roehr are the same age (44), both grew up in Sacramento and they hit it off immediately when they met at the restaurant early on. Popp Littrell Architecture + Interiors does mostly residential work, but it has designed spaces for Ginger Elizabeth Chocolates and Masullo Pizza.
Popp’s challenge, he said, was to help Magpie continue to evolve in the new location. It would look and feel more sophisticated without abandoning its original personality.
“We worried we would lose a little bit of the soul of Magpie going into the new building,” said Popp, who collaborated with Dustin Littrell on the design. “We know the food is going to be great. We know the service is going to be great. We just have to make sure the space doesn’t disappoint and doesn’t try to be too design-y.”
Offers 30 more seats
Why the move? Why tinker with success? Magpie had simply outgrown its digs. On paper, the new location is not significantly larger. The old location had 2,350 square feet and seating for 60. The new spot has 2,900 square feet and seating for 90. But it looks much larger, and the kitchen has been designed to be more efficient for the cooks and service staff.
Although the restaurant was often full, there simply wasn’t enough seating for the business to pencil out and truly thrive. “We knew four years ago what had to happen for Magpie to be successful,” Roehr said. “We’re trying to think about the future of Magpie and the future of the restaurant industry.
The menu will be much the same in the early days at the new location, but Roehr says that will be a starting point. Expect to see signature dishes like the chicken for two, the pork belly salad or some version of gnocchi with duck.
To the excitement of many, Magpie will feature a burger on its regular menu for the first time. On R Street, the kitchen wanted to be a good neighbor and, despite numerous requests, did not serve a burger because Burgers and Brew was just a couple of doors away.
The beef for the new burger will be chuck from Niman Ranch. The pickles will be made in-house. The aioli will be made with miso and capers. The bakery department experimented with several versions of bun before settling on the ideal brioche. And yes, there will be bacon.
Island concept deserted
Magpie, the way it is now, almost didn’t happen. The original concept Inouye and Roehr had was to do a Hawaiian-style restaurant called Makai. The couple (they are not married but Roehr often refers to Inouye as his wife) lived for a time in Hawaii. But then they decided that wasn’t the right move, so they kept brainstorming. They began jotting down words and “magpie” emerged.
The industrious magpie is a very Sacramento bird and the name, it turns out, helped the couple zero in on the concept for a very-Sacramento restaurant that would feature the bounty of regional farms.
Three salaried chefs
Magpie has three salaried chefs, unusual for a restaurant of its size. Chris Woo is the executive chef, meaning he oversees all of the menus and the overall vision for the food. Kelly Hogge is the dinner chef; Matt Kramer, a vegetarian, is the day chef.
The restaurant is also a family operation. Roehr’s two brothers and sister work there. Charles oversees the beverage program while Frank and Susan are servers. Inouye’s sister, Lauren, is Magpie’s controller.
Yellow stool, anyone?
When Popp began discussing design ideas with Roehr and Inouye, they made it clear what Magpie wouldn’t have: no Edison lights, no mason jars, and no typewriters in the decor. But there is, among all the dark chairs and stools, one yellow stool. It’s too soon to say if customers will consider that a novelty, a good luck charm or if they will even notice.
In a departure from the original Magpie, there will also be banquettes featuring so-called lovebird seating – two people sitting side by side with no one on the opposite side of the table.
Some soups are vegan
While Magpie is highly regarded for its meat dishes, it is also vegetarian friendly. Its hearty and seasonal vegetable and bean soups are not only vegetarian but vegan. Delicious and unfussy, the food isn’t always as simple as it looks. The demi-glace for the rib-eye steak, for instance, is made by using the duck bones from the duck confit dish, which is simmered with mirepoix for three days until the appropriate depth of flavor is achieved.
“A lot of our food,” Roehr said, “is deceptively complicated.”