How many well-schooled restaurateurs does it take to boil a kettle full of peanuts? In the case of Magpie Meat & Three, the answer is four.
A more relevant number might be the dozens of diners — a strong mix of college kids, tourists, and locals of all ages — filling the six-month-old eatery on a recent Tuesday night, requiring a short wait to be seated. Magpie is a smartly fashioned addition to Brevard’s hip Lumberyard District, expanding upward and outward inside a cavernous building. The space feels newly lighthearted, thanks to eggshell-hued paint, skylights, and a large, lovely wall display of botanical prints framed under vintage window glass. A few Bunyan-y logs placed outside honor the space’s origins, along with exposed steel pipes inside and other remnants of a hard-toil legacy.
“Meat and Three” is the standard concept of Southern homestyle diners: three side items, veggie or starch, surrounding the entrée. But this interpretation is engineered by a quartet of industry experts, a team that wanted to honor its collective roots while also showing off well-earned culinary chops.
Nic Guzman (from Pendleton, SC) is a Johnson & Wales University grad who’s cooked across the country, everywhere from upscale clubs to food trucks. His wife Leslie (a mountain local born in Sylva, NC) is another alumnus of Johnson & Wales, and a registered nutritionist. Barbecue chef Lee Marchbanks grew up in upstate South Carolina. And his wife Keavy McAbee, another SC native and Magpie’s beverage manager, is a craft-beer connoisseur who’s working toward accreditation as a cicerone (a beer sommelier).
Magpie’s menu is refreshingly straightforward, uncluttered with needless description. “Southern food is [traditionally] humble food,” Nic points out. “It’s food made from what was available according to the region and season.” Appetizers include boiled peanuts, deviled eggs, and a pickle sampler, listed just so. The six main-dish meats are also allowed to stand for themselves — house chicken, fried catfish, smoked sausage, ribs, meatloaf, and pulled pork. On the list of ten-or-so sides, items shuffle according to availability, but all are impeccably Southern: mac & cheese, collards, grits, red rice, fried okra, etc.
Menus burdened with a lot of frilly explanation often serve to disguise underwhelming food. The opposite is true here: these simply presented dishes are blue-ribbon savory. Marchbanks notes that some people associate Southern dishes with heavy ingredients such as cheese and mayo; old-school meat-and-three diners were sometimes guilty of serving vegetables out of a can. “This is something we were adamant about avoiding with Magpie,” he says. The chef/owners here emphasize whole ingredients.
“It’s about doing things the right way from start to finish,” says Marchbanks.
The house chicken is brined, roasted, and flash-fried to order. “That adds a ton of flavor to the meat and keeps the skin crispy,” says Leslie. On a recent visit, Bold Life chose the catfish, and it was superb. Elsewhere, this dish can arrive too spiny, too limp and fishy, too altogether dispirited. But Magpie’s filets are plump and happy, marinated in what Leslie calls “a buttermilk and mustard bath” before being fried in cornmeal. The ribs are done St. Louis style, coated with a dry rub and smoked for six hours.
The restaurant’s red rice, a Charleston mainstay, is delectably spiced. Magpie’s mac & cheese is a nice baked version, and the okra under a punchy fried crust tastes ultrafresh. Ingredients are sourced from many regional farms and breweries, and amusingly, the menu of beer and hard cider is twice as long as the food menu. (Cheerwine and lemonade are the soft beverages of note.)
“It’s a dream of mine to get to share my love of craft beer with others, and talk about beer all day,” says McAbee.
It was also a dream to see buttermilk pie — a classic that’s curiously absent from the nouveau-Southern-cooking lexicon in similar restaurants — among the dessert offerings, and even dreamier to enjoy a rich slice. The expected homemade banana pudding was elevated with a serious caramel sauce, lending a dab of fusion Bananas Fosters style. Peanut-butter pie and blackberry cobbler were other sweet mainstays on the board that night.
Stylish interior details abound, including flour-sack cloth napkins and servers dressed in madras shirts. In the bathroom, a droll touch waits for smiles: corrugated-metal doors on the stalls have actual hammers for handles.
All the crafty-chic décor is gravy. But the true-blue menu will stay unembellished.
“That simplicity,” says Leslie, “is definitely intentional. It can be overwhelming to choose from a menu that goes on for pages, and it can be difficult for a restaurant to have a ton of menu items and do them all really well. Our menu is on the small side, but diners can choose endless combinations to create a new meal every time.”
Magpie Meat & Three is located at 170 King St., Unit C, in the Brevard Lumberyard District. Hours are Tuesday to Thursday 11am-9pm and Friday and Saturday 11am-10pm. 828-877-3773. See magpiemeatandthree.com for more information.