Magnum & Steins was a great restaurant long before this city’s recent Great Restaurant Revolution. As of 2014, they’re also home to the city’s only legitimate wine bar.
The story of Magnum & Steins is ultimately a love story with a happy ending. Co-owners Bernie and Denise Fowler have been equal partners in Magnum & Steins since they opened in December of 2001. “But,” Bernie jokes, “at the end of the day, she’s the boss.” The two met in the industry, and it’s an industry Bernie has been in his whole professional career.
“My first year in university, I got a phonecall from a friend, telling me that his dishwasher had quit, and he asked if I could help him out by coming down for one shift. I worked at that restaurant for fourteen years.” The restaurant was The Stonehouse. Within six months, Bernie went from dishwasher to bartender, and soon after that, he was serving tables, and by year two, he was managing the place.
This experience got him more than a well-rounded background in the biz, it got him his wife and business partner, Denise Fowler. When they first met, Denise was engaged to be married. Upon their introduction, Denise said, “Oh, you’ll have to cater my wedding.”
He one upped her on the invite, “when you get married,” he said, “I’ll be standing at the alter beside you.” A bold statement that came true. Not only are they married, but they’ve married their professional lives too, and their passion for great food.
The word “Magnum” in their restaurant title speaks to their stellar wine list. Magnum & Steins now offers more than twenty wines by the 1oz glass, 3oz glass, 5oz glass, or bottle. The purpose of a wine bar, especially Magnum and Steins, is to shed the association of wine and fine dining with formal, stuffy evenings out. They seek to embrace the intellectual stimulation of a good night out with friends, while providing an alternative to the loud bar scene of St. John’s.
Their inspiration was simple. “Whenever we travel,” Denise says, “we always go to different restaurants and try different foods, and we order many appetizers to share. With all the new restaurants popping up in town, we decided to try and do something new as well, something we enjoy.”
What they settled on was the idea of a small plate menu; dishes that can be shared. What makes Magnum & Steins unique is that there is now three faces to their restaurant: a formal dining room, a wine bar space, and a cocktail lounge downstairs.
You can order off this truly delectable small plate menu from either of these locations, but the wine bar is the best way to really take in what Magnum & Steins can offer you. By offering wines by the glass, in one, three, or five ounce pours, alongside small plate food options, you can enjoy a different wine with each plate or course.
And their food – let’s not forget about their food in all this talk of wine, because it really is up to par with any restaurant in the city. The menu changes often, the staples stay, and the evening specials will make your mouth water and your brain scramble to pick just one. So, good thing they encourage sharing here.
“We’ve been at this for a long time. And we just wanted to do something different. With our menus now, we have suggested wines with all the menu items, and serving these wines in different sizes lets you try many wines in one sitting, or pair a different wine with your app, your main, your dessert, or even different wines within the one course. You’re also not committed to the one bottle for your entire meal.”
For wine enthusiasts on a budget, the option of one ounce pours will let you try a bottle normally out of your price range, or just an ounce of a wine you’ve never had, to be sure you want more than a sip of the stuff. As Denise points out, drinking wine and drinking with food changes what you might like in wine, so their wine bar allows people to experiment and grow their palettes.
The dining public in St. John’s have more of a taste for wine now then ever, and Magnums is catering to it. In fact, Bernie is completing his level two sommelier studies right now.
The origins of their small bar menu began when they moved locations. “We always had a bar at the other place, but it didn’t have a unique bar menu. So when we came down here we decided to do something a little funky. We put in place our duck nachos, which are not actually nachos, they’re made from wontons and duck confit. We found that a lot of people simply want to sit in a nice bar and enjoy these kinds of small plate foods. So now, all our menus are available, no matter what seat – upstairs or down.”
Their downstairs cocktail lounge offers high-end food in the comfort of a classy pub setting. And it’s their duck nachos, as well as a newer item – the fish tacos – that many regular patrons come back for.
“Since we added those to the menu, we can’t keep up with the demand. We were doing some featured taco nights, and sold over a hundred of our fish tacos, and thought, wow, we should put these on the menu. So we did, and they’re now outselling the duck nachos.”
But the duck nachos remain one of few itmes that stay as their menu changes throughout the year. Same with their fish soup. “We’ve been serving that since 2001, and we have people that phone up and ask if we’re serving that tonight. If I say no, they say they’ll call back when we do.”
They have also, like most great restaurants, introduced charcuterie plates to their menu. “We do different terrines. A duck terrine, a rabbit terrine. Numerous sausages that are all made here. The boys also make their own pancetta and homemade bacon.”
As mentioned, Magnum & Steins has been one of the finest restaurants in St. John’s for more than a decade, and they were here before our recent influx of great new restaurants like Mallard Cottage and Chinched Bistro, and their food still stands up to these places.
When asked if this recent spike in food culture in St. John’s is getting more people out to their restaurants, or just creating more competition among local restaurants, they say the answer to both questions is yes. A little of both.
“We have to adapt and re-invent ourselves every so often, to stay up with the new restaurants that are opening. We’ve already done the renovations, we’ve already implemented a menu, but it’s a good restaurant community, it’s not like it’s cut throat. We support the restaurants down in the downtown area, they support us. We call on each other for favours.“
Like many of these new restaurants, Magnum & Steins is situated in a heritage building. Built in 1892, it was a doctor’s house, and that doctor owned a horse. “In the back, where our walk-in cooler is, it used to be a stable for
horses. During renovation we found a horse’s jaw. And one of the lawyers before us gave us other horse paraphernalia.”
That’s a fact that lights up the face of their horse-riding daughter, Rebecca, who has grown up in the restaurant business and it shows. She’s not even out of high school and can talk food as well as anyone. Her favourite item off Magnum’s menu” The Beef Tartare.
In addition to the three faces of their restaurant – wine bar, cocktail lounge, and fine dining – some people are surprised to hear the upper upstairs is also a nice, classy, boutique hotel. One that’s “always busy”
according to Denise. “Especially with longer terms stays in the winter, or with people who are moving here and need a place in the meantime.”
Magnum & Steins also offers private dining for large-group seatings. Their chef will make a special menu for these events.