Perfectly Rustic

Enjoy local seasonal cuisine in casual setting

By Greg Sabin
January 2024

“Old heads” are basketball fans who go way back. They’re eager to reminisce about Michael Jordan and Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Not mere nostalgists, they’re up on the current scene as well. Magpie Café is old head central for the farm-to-fork crowd in Midtown.

Owners Janel Inouye and Ed Roehr bring history with them. Roehr worked in Midtown eateries before Midtown was cool. Inouye has been in the restaurant business for decades.

Their passion for fresh, local ingredients and seasonal cuisine predates the slow food peak. Their farm-to-fork credentials go back before the city slapped the logo on the Pocket water tower.

In 2005, the crew at Magpie understood the joy of being in the heart of a bountiful agricultural region. Pairing quality ingredients with an experienced chef produces good results.

In 2010, Inouye and Roehr went from running a catering business to operating a small café on the R Street corridor. Magpie quickly became one of the buzziest spots in a buzzy neighborhood.

“We were only set up to be a catering kitchen,” Inouye tells me. “We had no fryer, no flat top. We were OK being a small café, but our customers wanted us to be a restaurant.”

Nine years ago, the pair opened at 16th and P streets. The vibe is industrial artist loft meets new American chic. “I think of it as rustic,” Inouye says.

The space allows Inouye and Roehr to focus on the menu. Service is evening only, six nights a week.

“We are a one-menu restaurant,” Inouye says. “We’re expanding our small plates and shareable plates so diners can grab a snack and a drink before a show or meet some friends and spend some time without filling up on a three-course dinner.”

Like the atmosphere, the food is rustic. Handmade pastas, crispy fried pork belly, fried delicata squash rings, mussels and fries, all arrive without pretension.

This version of rustic is modern, with sharp corners and bold flavors. But a focus on simple ingredients and preparation underlies every choice.

“There is no reason you shouldn’t be able to have great food in a casual atmosphere,” Inouye says. “This is not just local seasonal cooking. This is Sacramento local seasonal cooking.”

Inouye’s passion comes through when she speaks. It’s undeniable in the food. A fall and winter special of thick strozzapreti pasta with duck and squash might be my favorite dish of the season. Rich with a brown butter that coats the duck and roasted squash, it’s a plate that warrants devouring.

A casually conceived small special, grilled toast with quince jelly and crispy duck skin, creates a thoroughly intense and, yes, rustic bite.

It reminds me of duck liver mousse on toast points eaten off white china atop a white tablecloth, but it’s humble and beautiful and served on a metal-topped bar while a friendly bartender pours me a glass of Perch Wine’s barbera.

Sitting at the bar, soaking up the food and scene, I catch the eye of more than one diner I’ve known for years as part of Midtown’s food scene. We’re old heads. The room draws us in.

I mention this to Inouye. “Well, we want to be in the comfort zone for lots of demographics. Young or old, we want to share this slice of Sacramento with everyone. It’s authentically who we are.”

Magpie Café is at 1601 16th Street;; (916) 452-7594.

Greg Sabin can be reached at Follow us on Facebook and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

Stay up-to-date with our always 100% local newsletter!

* indicates required
Type of Newsletter
Share via
Copy link