At $17 the Pub Burger is on the pricier side, even for San Francisco. Add cheese, bacon and an egg and your tab runs north of $20. Fortunately, the lettuce, tomato and red onion come standard. Although we normally bless our burgers with slice of American or cheddar, we had ours as it comes (medium rare, of course) and didn’t miss the cheese. The hand-formed, Prather Ranch patty may be the freshest I’ve tasted. It has a coarse grind and plenty of fat. Ours were generously proportioned and cooked to a perfect 130˚. The Acme bun performed well against an onslaught of juices, with just the right balance of softness and firmness. I thought it was a little too much bread to go through to get to my burger, but Nathan felt it was well-balanced. Magnolia makes its own mustard and aioli, both of which I recommend. A word of caution: the beer mustard has a strong flavor and pungent aroma; administer it judiciously or risk overpowering your burger.
Clearly this is a first rate burger. We’ve called it one of the best. We’ve described it as “perfect.” It’s been recommended to us by more than a dozen readers, not to mention friends, colleagues, and anyone who knows we’re on the hunt for a great burger experience. So why only four stars? What could possibly be done to make it better? Magnolia makes a really, really good burger. It’s just not a great burger. It’s not a burger you’ll bike across town for on a Sunday afternoon. It’s not a burger you’re going to insist your out-of-town relatives have to try when they come visiting. Why not?
That’s the question we found ourselves pondering over today’s lunch: What’s the difference between good and great? Individually, every element of Magnolia’s burger was excellent. Together, though, they never achieved that alchemy that makes something exceed the sum of its parts. Why this is is a bit of a mystery, but if you’ve ever been in love you know what I mean. Either the spark is there or it isn’t.
The atmosphere at Magnolia is a carefully crafted pastiche of British pub style. The dark wood, black-leather-upholstered booths draw you into the space and away from the funkiness of the neighborhood outside. The once regular pattern of floor tiles has long since deferred to seismic influences. Mirrored columns at the bar cast little reflection through their ancient patina. Great portions of ceiling paint peel and blister above us. Though authentic, one has the sense that these proudly historic elements have been preserved, curated and encouraged. And it’s a nagging sense. Similarly, the menus are designed to look reclaimed and reassembled. Though the typography on the cover of the menu is delightfully eclectic, inside I think it tries a bit too hard with its overuse of Regula—a transitional typeface whose pre-distressed ‘Old Face’ option feels more the domain of treasure maps than menus.
Above the famously grateful bar one wall is painted with a faux gold finish, obscuring (I would later learn) a mural of Jerry Garcia. And maybe that’s the clue. Magnolia is peculiarly at odds with its location—a brooding hipster surrounded by aging hippies, skaters, weekend runaways, and the tourists who come to see them. It eschews its funky surroundings for a darker kind of romance—an effort that does not go unnoticed. Here again, it’s the noticing that matters. Every designed experience relies on a degree of veneer, but there is an element of artifice to Magnolia that doesn’t let you fully devote yourself to it. It’s the nuanced difference between good and great; between loving and being in love.