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Chef Leilani Baugh calls the cuisine at her new West Oakland restaurant Magnolia Street Wine Lounge and Kitchen “Casian-Creole,” or Cajun southern comfort food with an Asian spin. It’s a style of food she’s perfected over the past nine years, first as a home cook selling fish plates out of her truck, then as a professional chef with her own catering business called Roux and Vine. Baugh is known for dishes like short rib lumpia, peach cobbler lumpia, crab garlic noodles and her signature dish, shrimp and grits with braised oxtail.
While her food is influenced by regions outside the Bay Area, Baugh’s new restaurant pays homage to the West Oakland of her childhood. The restaurant gets its name from the street where she grew up — located four blocks from the wine lounge — where she learned to cook from her maternal Chinese grandmother and paternal Black grandmother. For Baugh, naming the restaurant after her childhood neighborhood grounds her and gives the wine lounge its roots in Oakland. “As a child growing up here, I’ve seen so many iterations of San Pablo.” Baugh said. “I wanted to plant roots there again.”
Baugh opened Magnolia Street Wine Lounge and Kitchen in August, but so far hours have been limited, with outdoor service mostly on Wednesdays and weekends. Its inaugural brunch took place on Aug. 8, when diners enjoyed dishes like oxtail hash, shrimp and grits with braised oxtail, and peach cobbler waffles with fried chicken covered in honey from Solano County Black-owned bee farm, Brutha’s Honey. But starting this Friday, Oct. 30, Magnolia Street plans to welcome diners inside at limited capacity. The opening night event, called “Friday Night Live,” invites both indoor and outdoor diners to enjoy Magnolia Street’s full menu, along with live music, DJs, and in the event of cold weather, heat lamps for guests seated outside.
While its intimate dining room has pre-COVID seating for up to 46 diners, Magnolia Street will be able to seat a maximum of 10 diners inside in compliance with recent county health orders capping capacity at 25%.
Coming back to the neighborhood
Magnolia Street is housed on the ground floor of the California Hotel on San Pablo Avenue. Built in 1929, the hotel was a jazz and blues destination during its heyday during the ‘40s through the ‘60s, where African-American musicians like James Brown and Billie Holiday performed, but by 1971 it was closed and abandoned. In 2012, the East Bay Asian Development Corporation (EBALDC) took over the hotel, now a historic landmark building, where it provides low-income housing, leases commercial space and works to preserve the hotel’s rich cultural heritage.
EBALDC approached Baugh about opening a restaurant at the hotel last year. Part of what convinced the chef to do it was a desire to be part of the process of revitalizing the area, now known as the San Pablo Corridor.
“I wanted to create an experience where it’s not so much this stigma of ‘Oh, you’re on San Pablo.’ The corridor is changing and it’s changing gradually. I wanted to make sure that we are preserving our culture and our community,” said Baugh, who plans to feature live music as well as art shows on a monthly basis. On Oct. 10, Magnolia Street hosted the opening of “Dent De Lion,” the current show by artist Derrick Bell, who sold out of his paintings in four days, Baugh proudly said. His art will be up at Magnolia Street through Nov. 28.
As part of her leasing agreement with the California Hotel, Baugh and her staff serve food to the hotel’s residents once a month.
“When we moved in here, we didn’t know there were children living upstairs,” she said. “We really want to be able to not have our neighbors be forgotten.”
Connecting with other chefs is a priority
Baugh was in the middle of final inspections for Magnolia Street in March, when shelter-in-place orders first came down and put a halt to the process. While the restaurant was on hold, Baugh’s Oakland spirit and hustle was invigorated.
“I used to sling plates out of the back of my truck at the Rite-Aid in San Leandro. That’s how I started and so for me it was not a difficult transition” she said.
With those years of experience selling and marketing her own food, she easily transitioned back into pop-up mode, offering family and individual meals for curbside pickup that she advertised on Magnolia Street’s Instagram page.
While she grappled with challenges to get her business off the ground, Baugh made giving back to the community a priority. She worked with World Central Kitchen and creating meals for Eat Learn Play, Steph and Ayesha Curry’s foundation committed to fighting childhood hunger. While giving to food-insecure people felt good, Baugh said that she still felt something was missing — a cohesiveness between chefs to help each other survive.
“As a food industry in the Bay Area, we are only as great as we can be together. So if our purpose is to feed the communities at large, to make sure that they’re not struggling as much during a pandemic, we can do it better if we do it together,” said Baugh, who keeps in contact with fellow chefs by regularly checking in, connecting over kitchen time and sharing resources. Baugh aso launched “Chef and the Vine,” an interactive, virtual food and wine series where she and guests prepare food, taste wines and engage in conversation, while viewers can follow along at home by purchasing tickets, a recipe kit and wines.
Giving back to the community
On Nov. 25, Baugh plans to host a Thanksgiving box giveaway with some of these culinary peers, including Tammy Blankenship who works with Baugh at Magnolia Street, Christopher Evans from Chris Evans Events, Brownie Sims from The Final Sauce, and Nicole Felix from Pound Bizness. The group will set up tents at the SPARC-It Place lot adjacent to Magnolia Street Wine Lounge, and starting at 2 p.m., they’ll give out individual and family meals to those who would otherwise not receive a holiday meal.
“We want to give back. There’s so many people here who are hungry. There’s so many people here who don’t have families to celebrate Thanksgiving with,” Baugh said. “What’s better than a nice little box of comfort food that you can have on Thanksgiving day?”
For those who can afford it, Magnolia Street will feature an experience called Chef’s Table, an exclusive five-course meal, paired with wines and champagne. The experience includes a chef and concierge server dedicated to each table of up to four diners. The menu will change weekly to showcase new wines as they come in. Baugh says that while the prices will be accessible to many — from $15- $30 — it will also be memorable.
“The experience and how our customers are treated is what keeps our doors open and nobody wants to spend their good hard-earned money on crappy service,” Baugh said.
A place for a diversity of wines
While Magnolia Street’s food is one of its main draws, Baugh will also be focusing heavily on wine, as the restaurant’s name suggests. Baugh, who has participated in past Black Food and Wine Experience events, says that she hopes to introduce her guests, particularly from the Black community, to food and wine pairings that will challenge their palates. She’s expecting her customers to be pleasantly surprised.
“I think part of the reason why ‘wine lounge’ comes first before the ‘kitchen’ [in the name] is that I wanted to educate us on wine,” she said. Baugh said that she herself gravitated to drinking sweeter wines until she learned more about wine. It’s her mission, she said, to “get her people off the Moscato.”
At Magnolia Street, diners will find many varieties of wine to choose from, and many from vintners of color, including the Black Girl Magic collection by the McBride Sisters and Flo by Marcus Johnson, the latter of which Baugh uses in her short ribs recipe. Baugh said she’s also found several wines from Asian winemakers, too.
“My whole purpose is to make sure that at least 40-50% percent of our wine list are vintners of color right now.”
Magnolia Street Wine Lounge and Kitchen (3443 San Pablo Ave.) will be open with its full menu and for indoor and outdoor dining starting Friday, Oct. 30, from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Its regular hours are 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sunday, but Magnolia Street will expand its hours to Wednesday through Sunday in the next few weeks.