Restaurant News & Reviews

First Impressions: Magpie offers more space, same seasonal freshness

Magpie Cafe now offers the Magpie Burger ($15), served with bacon and french fries.
Magpie Cafe now offers the Magpie Burger ($15), served with bacon and french fries.

First Impressions visits dining spots that are new or have undergone recent transitions. Have a candidate for First Impressions? Email us at

Magpie Cafe, the lowest-key member of Sacramento’s first class of restaurants, raised its profile considerably this month with a move to a larger space at 16th and P streets and an unusual tipping suggestion that accompanied it.

The new room, with its black walls and tables, lacks some of the warmth of its brick-walled, smaller predecessor on R Street. It compensates in function. This new space holds 90 seats compared with 60 at R Street, where things could feel a bit cramped, especially when waiting in line at lunch. This one feels open.

But many who have visited the new Magpie mention, before the room or the food, a new designation on the customer bills. Each bill now holds a space for a tip for the kitchen as well as for service.

Co-owner Janel Inouye said Magpie is trying this approach as an attempt to bridge a historical gap between front- and back-of-the-house pay.

Tips can be pooled in California restaurants, but within a “chain of service,” which can include hosts, busers and bartenders as well as servers. It’s illegal for a restaurant to require servers to share tips with the kitchen.

Inouye said Magpie pays its kitchen crew competitively, but equaling the pay servers get (with tips) isn’t possible for small-restaurant owners who want to stay in business.

Magpie does not build kitchen tips into food prices so it can keep its price point “accessible,” Inouye said. Thus the restaurant’s suggestion that along with a 15 to 18 percent service tip, patrons allot 3 to 5 percent to the kitchen.

The new tipping option has gone over better at dinner, Inouye said, when there is table service and a chance to explain the concept, than at lunch, when patrons order at the counter. “Some people do not tip anything at lunch, and we are fine with that,” she said.

Also new to the 16th Street Magpie: a full liquor license, and house cocktails to exploit it.

What’s not new is the seasonal, local emphasis on which Magpie built its reputation after opening in 2009. Inouye, co-owner Ed Roehr and executive chef Chris Woo have transported much of the R Street menu to 16th Street, including favorites such as the BLT and banh-mi sandwich and lemon chicken salad.

Menu: Other stalwarts that made the trip over are the house soup – which starts with miso and heirloom beans but alternates vegetables – and crispy pork belly, served with figs on the 3-5 p.m. bar menu and with Frog Hollow apricots at dinner. New for Magpie is a burger available from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Magpie did not keep a burger on its regular menu on R Street out of courtesy to neighbor Burgers and Brew.

Price point: Most lunch items are in the $10 to $15 range. Dinner prices range from $5 for grilled bread with olive and caramelized-onion tapenade to $26 for the Berkshire T-bone pork chop plate.

Ambiance: The new space is spare-looking, with a loft-style, unfinished-looking ceiling with exposed air ducts. The interior’s bright yellow accents (representing yellow-billed magpies) stand out amid the black. The patio, along 16th Street, is cozier, with plentiful rustic wood touches, from fencing to wood slabs on which people can sit, with drinks, while awaiting tables.

Drinks: Magpie brought its impressive Northern California wine list over from R Street and added a craft cocktail list that furthers the restaurant’s local, or local-ish, emphasis. The Modesto Bitter cocktail is made with bitters and with sweet vermouth from Modesto-headquartered Gallo.

Service: Good. Our french fries were lukewarm when they arrived. Our server did not blink when we asked for a new batch. He brought us hot, crispy fries and apologized, explaining Magpie had not had a fryer in its original space and still was perfecting its french-fry timing.

First impressions: The move to a larger space was a smart one, considering the amount of business Magpie draws. The food on our lunch visit was as high quality as ever. The heirloom tomatoes in the BLT were fat and juicy, and the bacon crisp yet malleable. That bacon also contributes to the ingredient- and flavor-stacked goodness of Magpie’s burger, which is anchored by a substantial, perfectly seasoned Niman chuck patty.

Try it if: You already appreciate Magpie’s status as a brilliant yet low-key contributor to Sacramento’s farm-to-table movement and want to see the new space. Or if you support marriage between a delicious, fatty piece of bacon and a plump heirloom tomato in general.

Forget it if: You don’t want to do math in a restaurant. Because figuring out two tips by percentage and adding them to the total and each other requires it.

Magpie Cafe

1601 16th St., Sacramento

  • Information: 916-452-7594,
  • Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Wednesday, 8 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday. Opens at 11 a.m. Thursday and Friday and 8 a.m. Saturday. Closing times vary on those three days.