Magpie Café, which has quickly established itself as one of the city's consistently great dining experiences, will celebrate three years in business this weekend.
Anyone familiar with the restaurant world knows that getting that far means overcoming all kinds of hurdles - several of which can doom a restaurant sooner than later. We're talking about concept, staffing, the physical space, the lease, the menu, the food costs, and all the intangibles that happen behind the scenes.
Then, if you're good, you start to build a clientele. Magpie has gone way beyond that. It is now one of those foundational restaurants in Sacramento. It has helped redefine the city's restaurant landscape, has taught its legions of fans about clean, honest flavors and excellent technique, and it continues to showcase great food morning, noon and night.
One sign of a great restaurant is how impactful its food is. I can sincerely remember nearly everything I have eaten at Magpie during my dozens of visits - precisely where I was seated the first time I smelled the gnocchi with duck, how I felt when I tasted the rib eye steak with pan sauce, the iconic chicken for two, the risotto with duck egg, the breakfast sandwich, the simple salad with chicken and beautiful watermelon radishes, the trout sandwich, the pork five ways (pictured), the carrot cake cookie, the seared ahi with runner bean ragout, the crab Louie, all the soups. On and on. This is just off the top of my head.
I still remember the early days, walking past Magpie and looking in the window at all the empty tables. We stopped in that first time feeling a little sorry for them. Part of me, as I sized up the space, wondered how long this would last. I settled on six months - until the food arrived!
To mark the three-year milestone, I contacted co-owner/chef Ed Roehr and asked him a few questions. He told me Magpie will be offering specials all next week, including 50 percent off bottles of wine.
On how the concept evolved: "When we got here, we thought we were going to be a catering company, and two-thirds of our business would be catering and one-third would be the café. We learned that people wanted to use the space differently than we thought."
On price v. value: "Eating is very competitive. Having a restaurant is a very competitive business. People are motivated by price and people are motivated by quality. You have these opposable forces that just sort of squeeze the margin. Over the years, we learned what people appreciate technique the most. Diners aren't motivated just by ingredients alone. I'm not saying ingredients aren't important, but people want to see something happen to their food that they can't do at home."
What? No trophy burger like many top restaurants: "Part of it is trying to be a good neighbor (they're on the same block as Burgers & Brew)."
What? Still no brunch: "There may be brunch in our future."
On having a quality staff: "Part of it is you have to try the best you can with your staff. The real X factor isn't the food cost -- it's the labor cost.
You keep the culture interesting. You try to keep them thinking that there's a reason why we're here. And we try to make people understand that we really like what we do and that we want them to be a part of it."
Roehr didn't want to get into the details (yet), but he hinted there may be expansion in Magpie's future.
More Magpie means more goodness - and greatness.
Blair Anthony Robertson is The Bee's restaurant critic. Follow him on Twitter, @blarob.