Thursday, May 29, 2008

Welcome Back

Whew!  What a whirlwind.  As our good friends down south at The Linkery said recently, dying is is hard.  But we did it, we are back, and we couldn't be happier to see all of you.  Even as old traditions end, new ones have already begun.  Every time I walk through the front door I see more and more longtime regulars congregating around the new communal table.  Some of you are discovering new favorite seats.  Many of you are finding new favorite dishes while others are eating their way around the menu, trying everything.  The sausage program is a hit (early favorite: boudin blanc, followed by the "pastrami") as are the new sandwiches.  Me?  I like the roll mops.

All of us keep looking up at the phantom beer board when trying to order...that one's gonna take some getting used to.  Never fear, as our friend Oliver DiCicco is constructing the new one as we speak, to fly proudly over the center booths.  For now, we're busy admiring his light fixtures.  The Mirror Guys (John and Doug) have a few tricks up their sleeves still to come, and yes, the hooks under the bar will be back tomorrow (thanks, Mike), hopefully before we make the no-hooks-bar hall of shame (there is one).

Speaking of Mike Olinger, how many contractors get to say they built the same bar/pub/restaurant twice?  I'd like to say it was a pleasure seeing all of these folks plying their craft in some sort of harmonious symphony, except that's not at all how it went down.  We were all in each others way, we tried to do way too much in 9 days (it turned into 10, but could have easily been 20), and it was a chaotic, hair-raising adventure putting everything back together last Thursday.  Nonetheless, I'll be eternally grateful for the long hours and dedication last week of Kevin, Devin, Mike, Ray, Lisa, Chris, Oliver, Howie, Jeff, Eduardo, Arturro, Greg, Cornelius, Martin and family, Neil, Ben, Dean, and a handful of others who got it done.

Meanwhile, Brandon, Justin, Ron and their crew in the kitchen braved the construction chaos and managed to put together the best Magnolia menu yet.  This is what we were talking about: carefully sourced, seasonal, sustainable, and delicious.  It's the real deal after many a long year working toward this kind of food vision.  I now feel about the food like I always have about the beer and, like the beer, I can't wait to get to know this menu better.  

Lastly, Dean and Neil rallied the front of house troops and seized the opportune downtime to spend several days training and working out better systems to help you all have a better time here.  From the retooled wait list system (sign up on the chalkboard by the door) to new table assignments and other service improvements, they were pretty much ready to rock at 4:59 last Thursday afternoon.  Turns out it's pretty hard to work on that stuff when you're open 363 days a year for ten years straight.  This was time well spent.

I know some of you are sad and miss some or all of the "old" Magnolia.  I understand and I miss it, too.  Right now, it's all a little strange, honestly, after ten years.  And I've had over a year of planning to sit with these changes in my head before I made them.  It comes as a surprise to some of you.  Change is hard, but believe me when I say this change will yield amazing results for your little neighborhood brewpub.  It feels a little like it did ten years ago...a little too new...not lived in enough.  But that's just on the surface.  The soul of Magnolia lives on, same as ever, and with your help we'll have it feeling alive and vibrant again within months.  As always, it's a work in progress.

And if you're not quite sure, if your first impression didn't take, I humbly invite you to come back, relax, have a beer, and put down some new roots.  This place is the sum of all of our energy.  We couldn't do it without you.  And if you're still not happy, and you need to vent, lay it on me.  I'm not going to argue with you.  It IS dramatic.  But I really will try to get you to join me on the next chapter of this nutty adventure, even if I have to use beer to do it.  Cheers!

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.  

Friday, May 9, 2008

Once in awhile you get shown the light...

One of the most elusive prizes in the world of beer is that perfect pint of living, breathing, cask-conditioned bitter.  Despite the care and skill applied to its production and dispense, it is, by definition, fragile and dynamic.  This quixotic quest for perfection leads the seeker to a variety of pubs, bars, and breweries, often to find oneself enjoyably close but falling just a tad short.  No matter, as close is still pretty delicious, and some combination of good food, relaxing atmosphere, and conviviality usually surrounds a committed cask beer program.

Almost equally elusive is the magic that happens in a great pub, when all of those individual components come together in a whole far greater than the sum of their parts.  The pub, as an institution, can trace its roots all the way back to the tavernas of ancient Greece, and is cousin to many similar institutions: beer halls, brasseries, bars, inns, roadhouses, restaurants, and izakayas.  They all serve and strengthen their communities, bringing people together around food and drink.  But the pub may be unique among them in the special way it bestows a sense of ownership on the community around it.

I am both humbled and inspired by the many great pubs in which I have hoisted a pint, but at the same time, I know a pub can achieve even more.  Few pubs are actually attached to a brewery, and ours is the heart and soul of Magnolia, where we serve a muse that demands creativity, careful sourcing, and attention to every detail.  Brewing in small batches, experimenting with ingredients and techniques, managing an elaborate cask program...these are luxuries afforded to the small pub brewers like us.  This is the "brewpub" part of Magnolia, and it defines who we are.  It connects us to the pub-brewing of the middle ages, when a branch or wand was hung outside a home to signal a new batch of beer was ready for the neighbors to come by and enjoy.

Just as important to me, however, is the way the kitchen mirrors that identity, for that same family brewing the beer would have offered home-cooked meals as well.  That's the "gastropub" part of Magnolia, and it's about reviving a lost art of pub cookery that pre-dates the modern era of fried and simplified bar food made with mass produced ingredients.  It's about re-imagining what pubs might have been like at one time, by diving deeper into traditional butchery, charcuterie and sausage making, and other elements of nose-to-tail and farm-to-table food production.  

Brewing, at one time, would have shared the stage with such culinary endeavors, because in our agrarian past, that was all we would have known to do.  While I have little interest in an historical recreation of the past, I find the story of artisan brewing strengthened by this connection and I love the notion of bringing some of these connections into the here and now.  

Combined with honest and heartfelt hospitality, I think this is the path to a better pub, one that nourishes and sustains its loyal locals in a variety of ways.  And I hope that, far more often than not, we get everything "just exactly perfect" in this quest to be a good pub.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Can't go back and can't stand still...

...but I can wax nostalgic for a moment or three while pondering the future.  It has truly been an honor to watch the Magnolia community form around these four walls at the corner of Haight and Masonic.  Now more than a decade into this little adventure, Magnolia is a public house in the truest sense of the words.  You and our hardworking staff make it so.  The proof is in the sense of ownership you take in the place.  I have no doubt that for many of you this pub does indeed feel a little bit like home.  

That has never been more evident than now, as I try to shepherd Magnolia into its second decade with pragmatic enthusiasm for the future AND glorious reverence for the past.  I'm a little bit floored by the outpouring of comments and feelings about the recently manifesting changes.  The ongoing dialogue I have been having with the extended Magnolia family has ben enlightening and energizing, as I develop a deeper understanding of just how important Magnolia is to you.  Many of you are as excited as I am but some are understandably worried that they could be losing their "local".  Nothing could be further from the truth.

Here's the deal: Change has always been the norm around here and Magnolia has always felt a little bit like a grand experiment, even as it slipped comfortably into its role as a reliable corner brewpub.  It's probably no secret (see: pub name, murals, beer names, music selection) that the Good Old Grateful Dead provided a healthy dose of inspiration for this quirky place.  

More on that another time.  For now, that inspiration can be distilled down to a handful of thoughts: the DIY/chart-your-own-course/think-different approach to one's art/craft/career, the power and importance of community, the surprising creative energy of the groupmind, the responsibility to be kind to each other and the earth, and, most importantly, the mantra of endless, limitless curiosity that weaves its way through all of the above.  Somewhere along the way, this stuff got fused into my DNA and thus it is part of Magnolia's DNA.

The beer drives this bus, but it has equal co-conspirators in the food, the room, and the hospitality.  Within a year of falling in love with brewing I knew I'd express that love via a brewpub.  I made pilgrimages to England and Germany and soaked up the role of local beer and local pubs in strengthening a sense of place and community.  Equally important, I appreciated the opportunity to control the beer from grain to glass, and to further shape the beer experience via the food and atmosphere surrounding it.  

While the gastropub movement was just taking off in England at that time, the bar for food was lower at the average American brewpub.  But if the strong message from the brewery was to source everything with care and make everything with passion and respect, how could that philosophy be turned on and off like a switch between brewery and kitchen?  With that in mind, Magnolia was set on a course, in 1997, with Tim McCutcheon minding the stoves, to remake American brewpub food expectations.  We have both succeeded and failed at times at staying true to this vision but Magnolia is at its best when the food is approached with the same creativity and passion that we pour into the brewery.

Fueled by that mission, it was inevitable that Magnolia and the Slow Food Movement would find each other.  And with that came the tools, information, and enlightenment about our larger role in sustainability as well as our responsibility to offer our guests food and drink that is "good, clean, and fair", as they like to say in the Slow Food world.

What I hope this illustrates is that this is a path we have chosen.  There is no turning back.  When we put our sustainability, our food choices, our brewing techniques, or our vision for community and hospitality under the microscope, this path requires us to continually find ways to be better at everything.  It presents challenges, like the fact that the ingredients we are talking about are not cheap, that our space and systems sometimes hold us back, that these lofty ideals can only be achieved by 100% commitment by our entire family, etc.

But I think we are onto something here.  We're a brewery and pub on a mission, and I'm thrilled by how many of you are along for the ride.  I feel a great responsibility to keep Magnolia fresh and vibrant, so that it can pursue and refine this mission for decades to come.  The renovations, the menu, the new logo and design elements will all, I promise, enable us to rally around this philosophy and do a much better job of being your favorite, neighborhood brewpub.