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Magnolia Gastropub and Brewery

Less hippie, more hip

After months of renovations, Magnolia, the 10-year old pub and brewery in the Upper Haight, re-opened in summer 2008 with a dramatic facelift and brand-new menu. The new Magnolia is vintage hip, with antique-looking fixtures, a communal table, a reclaimed wood bar, and even faux water stains.

Chef Brandon Jew, previously with Pizzetta 211, Zuni, and Quince, has introduced a seasonal, sustainable -- and more expensive – menu. His culinary creativity is particularly on display Mondays, when he offers a three-course dinner ($30) featuring seasonal ingredients.

The revamp has prompted howls of protest from some old Magnolia faithful, who lament the yuppification of the neighborhood in general, and this institution in particular. The iconic photo of Jerry Garcia has been consigned to a nook, and the colorful hippie mural above the bar has been (preserved but) covered with weathered-looking gold leaf.

But owner Dave McLean seems to have struck the right balance between keeping the best of the old, while looking forward. After all, this 100+ year old Victorian has seen many iterations: as a grocery store in the 1920s, as The Drugstore/Drogstore Café in the 60s, to its days of delivering lewd ice cream desserts in the 70s under the creative direction of Magnolia Thunderpussy (and a stint in the 90s as a greasy spoon called the Dish). Today, Magnolia joins a small but growing cadre of SF gastropubs, including Salt House (SoMa), The Monk’s Kettle (Mission) and Urban Tavern (Union Square), emphasizing fine beers and gourmet food.

Magnolia’s new menu offers upscale takes on British pub fare. Although the fish and chips ($15) are solid and straightforward (albeit too salty the night we went), other pub grub has definitely been fancified. Those opposed to the idea of braised oxtail shepherd's pie ($22) with horseradish potatoes and marrow butter (prepped in a ring mold at that) had better go to Kezar’s down the way.

But the food is adeptly prepared and undoubtedly comforting, with items such as lightly battered haricots verts ($6) and fried chicken ($18), which was brought back by popular demand (Thursdays). Magnolia's sausages ($6 à la carte, $12 as a dinner), in appealing contrast to mass-produced varieties, have a rustic and handcrafted texture, and are served alongside a housemade mustard with an almost caviar-like consistency.

The menu also has a fresher side, with items such as polenta with summer ratatouille ($14); and a lovely melon salad ($11) with honeyed figs and fried goat cheese, little balls of sharp-creamy-crispy goodness. Rounding out the selections is a tempting choice of snacks and desserts. With Magnolia's memorable porter chocolate cake and dulce de leche ice cream ($7), no longer do diners have to vacillate between the usual dichotomy of great beers v. good desserts.

But ultimately, the pub's colorful history, wall décor, and food (whether it be the old so-so menu, or the new, more interesting, and coherent one) have never been the big attraction here -- it's the beer.

And attract it does. Magnolia's amazing handcrafted ales (about $6, or $10 for a tasting of six) keep neighbors coming back and draw beer-lovers from all around the Bay Area. At periodic "Meet the Brewers" events, brewmasters Dave McLean and Ben Spencer mingle with patrons who are eager to geek out on the finer points of brewing. On the down side, the pub's sheer popularity, along with its no-reservations policy, contribute to long lines and hit-or-miss service.

Some may bemoan the demotion of Jerry's photo, bridle at the appearance of carpaccio on a neighborhood pub menu, or grumble over the lengthy waits for a table. But they should just contemplate the gorgeous coppery hues of a Prescription Pale Ale, marvel at the selection of cask-conditioned ales, and come armed with a growler. In the end, it's all about the beer, and that, thankfully, has stayed the same.


Reservations Essential? Not accepted.