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Before sitting down to talk shop with Magpie co-owner, Ed Roehr, we catch up as he tells me about the episode of Fresh Air he was listening to on the way over. Terry Gross had been interviewing author Jay McInerney about his new book and they got to talking about an E.L. Doctorow idea that spoke to him: “writing a novel is like driving cross-country at night. You can only see as far as the headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
Roehr perked up when he heard the quote because it captures the evolution of Magpie Cafe over the years with wife Janel — they started as a catering company on Del Paso Blvd., moved to R St., and now have Nido and Yellowbill under their belts with the new Magpie location on 16th — all without an end-game or point B in mind. They just kept working on the next idea — the goal in their “headlights.” Part of their newest project, the new Magpie space, is a full bar program. Armed with a full liquor license (versus beer + wine at the old Magpie space, now Nido) they’re slinging cocktails and bites during what they’re calling Happy Time, and who needs Happy Hour when you can have Happy Time?While you may not be writing a novel or opening a restaurant, sometimes just getting through the week can feel like driving metaphorically “cross-country,” but the sights in your “headlights”? That’s Happy Time, and it’ll get you through today. Tomorrow? That’s a worry for another time. For now, the pork belly, fries, and wings ought to get you through. And because we’re at Magpie, these are not the pork belly, fries, and wings you’re going to find at some chain establishment. This is thoughtful stuff.
While money can’t buy happiness, shelling out less money can lead to more happiness. That’s why, with $2 off cocktails and $1 off well drinks, draft beers and by-the-glass wines, you can be guaranteed to leave a bit happier.
We recently stopped by to sample the wares, among state workers, industry folks, and those whose lunches had bled into the late afternoon, and our bellies had a very happy time.The cocktail program at Magpie is every bit what you’d expect from such an ingredient-driven kitchen. Case in point, taking inspiration from any abundance in the kitchen, they offer a rotating weekly $5 drink with some farm-to-glass element. Glasses of fresh herbs — sage, mint, fennel, and opal basil — line the bar. Ed’s brother, Charles Roehr, who heads up the bar program and concocted many of the offerings, also encourages bartenders to invent cocktails. He might provide some parameters — say, a stone-fruit-focused bourbon drink — and tell them to turn on the creative jets.
The liquors themselves are well-edited with only 4-6 options within a given category, such as scotches, Japanese whiskeys, and cognacs, so as to keep things simple. Charles says,
“Everyone does happy hour, but we want to push people out of their comfort zones a bit.”
Instead of Grey Goose or Kettle One Vodkas, they offer Tito’s and Hangar One. And as an homage to Chef Ed Roehr’s time cooking in Italy, they’ve got Italian spirits along with American-made (especially Californian) spirits which they couple with seasonal elements reflective of the Sacramento region.We enjoyed the Port of Rye, a play on words that shakes up Rye, Tawny Port, fennel pollen, lemon, and Angostura bitters — a drink so well-received when they introduced it that they decided to keep it on the menu permanently.The Sacramento Summer is a must for those in search of some refreshing respite to while away the hot valley days. A house shandy made with Magpie honey lemonade, a bit more honey, and whatever local Pilsner they happen to have on tap (in this case, Hobo Pilsner from Turlock’s Dust Bowl Brewing), this low-alcohol quencher is sure to hit the spot. This bad boy is also cleverly available over brunch so as to make day-drinking a bit more mellow.The Sage Lemonade muddles fresh sage with a simple syrup, lemon juice, and St. George’s Terroir Gin which adds in notes of California bay leaves and Douglas Fir needles for an herbal note to round out the acidity.The Grapefruit Basil Martini is spot on with opal basil muddled into simple syrup as the foundation for lemon and grapefruit juices and citrusy New Amsterdam gin from Modesto to make for a beautifully balanced late-afternoon sipper.The Elderflower Spritz mixes together elderflower liqueur, brut Champagne, and a splash of club soda for a zingy antidote to any case of the Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, or Thursdays (a case of the Fridays isn’t a thing, right?).On the food front, you can choose from lighter fare such as shrimp and scallop ceviche with housemade tortilla chips, smaller appetizers like lightly fried squash blossoms with tomato coulis, or more indulgent options like a mini version of the beloved Magpie dinner star, the crispy pork belly. Either way, you can’t lose.Chef is headed to Venice, Italy later this month as a delegate of Slow Food International. This commitment to responsible cooking shines in what might be a token offering elsewhere: the cheeseburger and fries. Seemingly simple on the surface, this staple of the American diet evidences Magpie’s approach. The brioche bun is made at the bakery at Nido, the burger is made from Niman Ranch beef, the pickles are house-made (and lights out!), and the white cheddar comes from nearby Sierra Nevada Cheese Company. Likewise, the fries are fried in non-GMO, non-hydrogenated rice bran oil from the Central Valley. Could they be fried in day-old bulk oil like at most places? Sure, but that extra care? “That’s what Janel and I do,” says Ed. They even have two separate fryers, one for vegetables and one for meat, so vegans, or people for whom that separation is important, can always rest assured that their preferences are being respected too. Happy time for all.
The next time you need a little help from your “headlights” to get you through the week, Magpie will do you one better and be your “brights” in the pursuit of Happiness.
Happy Time = 2:30-6:00, Monday – Friday
Indoor and non-smoking outdoor seating available (with umbrellas!)
The Happy Time menu also lists some limited lunch offerings that they serve until 4:45.
Photos | Nicole Wallace
Stay connected with all things Sacramento and beyond.