Thursday, May 15, 2008

There's a thin line beyond which you really can't fake

 There's a sweet spot we strive for and it straddles the edge between tradition/history and the fresh and creative.  When we hit it, it opens up the pipeline to a rich and complex past, connecting us to the traditions of generations before us, while keeping us squarely in the here and now by expressing our unique perspectives.  

It sort of marries a Slow Food-like respect for tradition with a Grateful Dead-esque approach to inspired creativity.  We as a culture are enriched by the celebration of our food and drink traditions.  Those traditions bring us together, remind us of our shared culture, and help strengthen our sense of place and identity.  Meanwhile, the Dead, especially Garcia, exhibited an almost pathological curiosity about music that helped build an encyclopedic set of mental references for use in real-time creative expression.  That added emotional depth and cultural identity to in-the-moment improvisation.

Filtered through our little corner brewpub, this manifests in the beer when we reference and honor traditional brewing styles and methods while adding something modern and fresh to the conversation.  And it manifests in the food program when we tie what we're doing here today, using our bounty of California-produced ingredients, together with the great cooking traditions of the pubs and beer halls of old.  Too much of the past, though, and we become "Ye Olde Pub", too little and we miss out on our connection to the deep roots that add so much to the pub-going experience. 

This week, as we remodel, we're trying to make the same ideas manifest physically in the pub itself.  I love our building.  It wears its 105 years of history quite well.  There are a lot of period details (tile floor, woodwork, exterior tile) from the 1920's, when the space went from grocery store to pharmacy.  Much as I've loved our mural, it became clear that it was drawing the eye away from the architectural details already abundant in our space.  A team of brilliant and talented artisans is hard at work right now, gently reworking our room (and restrooms) to create a space that feels consistent with our other pub goals.  

Signs of this new comfort are emerging today, via the wainscotting of the booths, the new tile in the restrooms, layers of new specialty paint treatments, and little but important things like the new tap wall.  After a couple of days of tearing things apart, we've clearly turned a corner and are putting them back together.  


Craig said...

Please, please tell me you are not removing the mural. From my perspective that mural and your beer of course are the heart and soul of the Pub.

Dave McLean said...

Craig, while you'll get no argument from me that the beer is the heart and soul of Magnolia, I have to disagree about the mural. I had fun working on the original design for it but I decided it was time to do something different in that space. I think that the mural represented something much deeper and more lasting than those images themselves. The inspiration for that mural, and the emotional connection to the subject matter remain central to Magnolia (and me) but can be expressed in even more meaningful ways.

weatherall said...

I appreciate the note that you placed in your door's window to explain why Magnolia will be briefly closed. The sight of paper-covered windows was alarming enough to cause me to cross the street to find out what was happening.

My favorite of your beers so far had pumpkin in the name, and I had it sometime around November 2007. Could you tell me the name? When might it be available again?

smallerdemon said...

I will miss the mural, but I have many pictures of it. As much of a tradition as it may been at M's, I agree with Dave here that it wore well and can go gracefully into that good night if that is what he so desires. I hope, though, that some color is kept in the place beyond neutral tones that overlap so closely to each other that the place is little more than a bland curve of color.

Dave, if the framed drawings in the booths go, are you planning on selling those? I would love to have one of them as a grand reminder of my discovery of Magnolia.

Sean said...

Erasing that mural, and the other "quirky" characteristics of "old" Magnolia (circa 2007), moves it not just "forward" but away from the neighborhood within which it is rooted. It is a shame.

Magnolia had character and soul. It functioned well and welcomed new and old visitors with warmth. I want to give "new" Magnolia a chance -- I will give it a chance -- but walking by tonight and seeing the gold leaf instead of the psychadelic drawings sank my heart.

If you wanted to create another Alembic, I think you've done well. But I'm afraid while the Alembic is pretty, it has no chance of ever becoming the good old friend that "old" Magnolia was.

"Old" Magnolia was the mural, it was the oddly-shaped yet very comfortable bar, it was the staff, it the pictures of people wearing Magnolia tshirts all over the world, it was the "wet dog" smell over the open grate, it was the awesome calamari, and it was the beer. Now all that's left is the beer, and maybe the "wet dog".


Craig said...

You've destroyed a wonderful piece of art that really tied Magnolia to the community. For what? So you can make the pub somewhat more upscale? There are dozens of choices for upscale/hip/trendy in the city, but there was only one Magnolia and that mural was integral to the experience. Magnolia will no longer be high on my list of places to visit. As Sean said, an utter shame.

Dave McLean said...

Sean and Craig, I'm really touched that you guys feel so strongly about Magnolia and that things like the mural meant so much to you. Yes, it was wonderful art. I called Jon Weiss before I did this and made sure that he was ok with it. We agreed that it should be preserved and I hired a professional photographer to shoot it so we could make prints/posters of it. That was something Jon and I always talked about doing and I'm glad we finally (at the last possible minute) got it done.

But, again, the mural was not Magnolia. It was a very cool piece of artwork that I commissioned. But Magnolia's identity is so much more than that. It is the sum of many people, past and present, working their hearts out to make good beer, good food, and make everyone feel welcome, like a good pub should. These things will only continue to improve as we (hopefully) keep getting better at what we do.

It is the love for all of our various crafts that, to me, makes Magnolia special, not the art on the walls. Everyone here believes in our vision and in each others' abilities to execute that vision. Though some of the individual faces change over the years, it still feels like a family from this vantage point.

Also, this building has a ton of history...way more than just what happened here in the late 60's. I tried to remodel with an eye toward letting the beautiful, existing architectural details that we inherited go back to being the stars of the show. The new look really lets the early Deco wood trim and the original tile floor shine in the limelight. And it was a beautiful sight to see so many familiar faces--longtime, loyal regulars--enjoying the new communal bar table, inspired by the "stammtisch" of German beer halls, where regulars gather. The feedback from those folks was glowing. It felt like we took another great leap toward becoming a better pub.

Meanwhile, the GD references that I had Jon put in the mural now reside all over the menu, more prominently than ever (and in the beer names, and in the music we play, etc.). I look around at my great staff, all eager to keep showing the world what great things we can do in our little spot at Haight and Masonic, and I know that Magnolia keeps on truckin', the same as it ever was.

Anonymous said...

You "hired a professional photographer to shoot it so we could make prints/posters of it" when you could have had the real thing? And even that didn't clue you in that maybe, just maybe, you weren't thinking clearly?

Sure, artists can burn their own work, but you're really deluding yourself if you think that a few throwaway GD references on a menu is going to be a satisfying replacement for gorgeous art.

Dave McLean said...

Look, I commissioned the original art. I decided what GD songs I wanted referenced in it. I loved it and will always be amazed at how well the artist conveyed the things I was hoping for. And, yet, I was ready for change. No one told me that ideas I had when I was 26 were going to be shackled to me and my business forever. Everything I have learned in life says, move forward. Try new things. Good art reinforces that. I hired new artists to do different things with the space, also artistic in their own way. I love these new things, too. I am very sorry to those who really identified with the old artwork. I spent a lot of time, over many years, thinking and rethinking everything I have done here, and everything other people have helped me do. My actions were deliberate. I was thinking clearly and I definitely was not deluded. Once again, Magnolia is so so very much more than the mural. I think most of the feedback I have been getting so far confirms this, as enthusiasm is running high about all of the changes. If you really think Magnolia "was the mural" I would invite you to try to look at that from a different perspective.

Andrea said...

I appreciate the literate, beautiful way in which you have addressed the changes at Magnolia....

The loss of the murals is a really sad bit, though, and many may feel that you have become a baby Alembic in trying to "update" the classic home base brew pub Magnolia has become for most of the community. In the name of the "G" squad, Magnolia has become a tourist haven less so than a haven for those of us who live in the neighborhood and love its roots in all periods. You say you wanted to keep a bit of the past beyond just the 60's and the Grateful Dead....and while i appreciate the architecture, you have washed a bit of its past away from the walls, and argued that it's in the is only in the menus for now...we all know how this goes, and please don't waste any of our time denying that.

The history of this community is one that cannot be denied, and it's firmly rooted....what you are doing is destroying art that didn't fit your vision.

I just moved here a little over a year ago, and Magnolia was a place i was still discovering....the part i was discovering was each of those individual murals and each of the beers as they came along.

While i am willing to come see what's changed, i have a feeling that it will keep me away, as it draws more of the people who take their photo under the haight-ashbury sign and laugh and gawk at the people who created their tourist spot and the new generation who keep its spirit alive.

Please promise that you'll create something to take the place that embodies the spirit of the current vein running through the Haight that makes it so awesome.

Dave McLean said...

I respectfully disagree. It was more a tourist haven before than now. People from all over came in, cameras in tow, and photographed that mural. How much more tourist than that can it get? I am flattered that that particular part of Magnolia spoke to people in that way. And yet, this community, this neighborhood, the myriad inspirations for this pub, run so much deeper than one person's artistic vision of another person's moment-in-time GD-related imagery. Magnolia is indeed far more than that, and to hold it to a painting on the wall does not do justice to the many people who have poured their love into creating such a special brewery and pub.

This is my community, too. I moved here in a large part because of this community and decided to try to contribute to it by opening my dream brewpub in the neighborhood. I am not sure why you think I am wasting your time or denying some part of the history of this community. Look around the pub. Look at the beer names, listen to the music playing, look at the very personal expressions of my own GD history scattered throughout, including on the aforementioned new menus. It should be quite clear that if tourists find there way here and enjoy it, it is because they are getting a chance to experience a very real and personal part of Haight history. That's not so bad.

The irony here is that the art that the mural referenced, that is, the music of the Grateful Dead, was art that celebrated impermanence and moving forward along a path. From the way the Dead were constitutionally unable to play the same song the same way twice, to Garcia stating that once they played it, they were done with that music and we could do what we wanted with it, the major lesson was one of being true to an always evolving creative muse. That, in my humble opinion, was what it was all about. That was what made me and many others go back, show after show, barely able to wait to see what they were going to do next--how they had reinvented themselves and their music.

Much as I loved the mural, the way Magnolia tries to carry that great tradition of improvisation and invention forward is not in the art on the walls but in the way we continue experimenting with our beer, continue refining our ideas of good pub food, and continue discovering more ways to uphold our vision for a sustainable business.

Victor said...

My wife and I have been regular customers and avid fans of Magnolia beers and your restaurant since we moved to SF 6 years ago. Last night we visited the "New" Magnolia and easily had the worst experience ever at your once fabulous brewpub. It felt immediately as if a large corporation had bought the place and whitewashed the funk out. Not only that but also in your zeal to pack more customers in you managed to make it less family friendly. Apparently the studies show that pubs can make more money with singles. We used to sit our daughter on the ledge by the front window and she'd love it - you have now taken that ledge out. The high German beer hall table is anti-kid as well. You're not a German brewery - if we want an authentic German experience we can simply go down the street to Suppenkuche. And the booths? We absolutely abhor the black padded booths. They remind me of a seedy and terrible Italian restaurant that you wish you hadn't come to and can't wait to leave. And the poor wonderful murals! What a tragic and monumental mistake! So you were sick of the murals? Simply paint new murals, better murals. Your pub used to be a unique and friendly place. Now Magnolia is bland and cold and looks and feels like so many other unremarkable bars in SF. I'm incredibly sorry to say that your remodel was a total disaster. Without fail we used to look forward to coming to your pub and once there we would usually say "We need to come more often." Last night upon leaving the "New" Magnolia in a dark and saddened state I wondered if I'd ever return. I felt as if I'd lost an old friend. You broke our hearts Dave.

sully said...

Change is rough sometimes.

I must admit I was initially taken aback when I first walked into Magnolia, even after hearing about the changes. But, I sat there and took it in and I have to tell you, I think it's awesome. If anyone has had a conversation with Dave, knew him then and has seen him methodically study and craft his interest in the food, beer and distilled spirit world over the past years this is absolutely an extension of where he is now. The pub reflected that and sure it's different, but I invite everyone to take it in and follow his lead. The new menu is fantastic, the beers are better than ever and the pub has taken on a new look.

Change is different. Change is not bad. Take it in and enjoy the ride.

mk said...

Magnolia's character has grown from making their own beer, to a growing use of organic foods and now into sustainable ingredients. That is more what Magnolia is about to me than the decor. Allusions to the Haight of 40 years ago seem like a short-cut around the neighborhood.

The ideals of the revolution of the 60's grew into a lot of things. If you get to know the people who are now trying to the world to eat in a better way, they are a hugely positive legacy of the revolution. Dave has worked hard to follow that legacy of the 60's. What we eat and how it was raised/produced and gets to us is incredibly important, but often ignored.

If you want to immerse yourself in imagery of the past, maybe the team behind Santana's Maria Maria in Walnut Creek to find a place on Haight street to open a properly decorated spot and serve whatever comes out of the Sysco truck. Seriously, not to be harsh, but please think about it.

Sean said...

I've walked down the street to visit the pub a few times since you've re-opened and wanted to share my "hindsight" thoughts. No doubt, you're tired of hearing the criticism but I feel I'm grieving an old friend and would rather talk it out.

There are things I like at the new place. The food is fantastic. I miss some of the old things but your recent email suggests some of them might be coming back in one fashion or another. I love the house-made sausages and I love the idea of them. They go so well with the beers. The long communal table surprised me. It works really well (families with kids aside) and is a decent replacement for that great old bar. And the bathrooms are definitely an upgrade.

But there are a lot of things I outright hate. The black vinyl booths and the mirrored columns are pure yuck and don't go with anything. The new "logo" -- which screams pretentious yuppy-ville to me -- makes no sense to me. You had a cool, weird art nouveau thing going and now it's art deco?

The gold walls actually are kind of pretty on their own. Someone did well to make them look weathered and old.

But as a whole, the place is cold and lacks character. Someone stole its soul and replaced it with something that's mildly attractive, tasty, but not very inviting. What was once our "go to" place any night of the week, is now a "yeah, maybe we'll go there" every couple months kind of place. It's not the loss of the mural, it's what the mural represented. You may have commissioned it as art but it was our great, old, unique, one of a kind marker for this wonderful pub. It represented a community to us. Now it's just a restaurant.

And with that, I'm done. We'll see you in there on occasion. I hope whatever urge brought on this change is satiated and your goals on their way to being met. You made a whole lot of people unhappy and I wish you understood why.