Originally from Folsom, CA, chef Mark Liberman has cooked in Paris, New York City, San Francisco and Las Vegas, among other cities. But Oakland is his home now, and it’s where he’s putting down roots with his new restaurant, Mago.

Liberman is best known for his seasonal-focused and highly acclaimed fine-dining restaurant AQ in San Francisco. He opened AQ in 2010 with co-owner Matt Semmelhack, but the partners closed the business in 2017, citing the rising costs of running a restaurant in San Francisco.

For Mago, which opens next Tuesday*, Liberman wants to try something new. The concept is based on Parisian neo-bistros, which to him, means a more relaxed, affordable and accessible dining experience than AQ, which will still feature fresh, quality ingredients. “I still want to do fine-dining food, but not all the pretense that goes into fine dining,” he said.

The menu will change weekly, with a few regular items that will remain as staples. Dishes will be approachable, but “innovative food at the same time,” Liberman said. Plates on the opening menu range in price from $12 to $14. The most expensive item is a lamb shoulder glazed with capers and husk cherries, garden lettuces and young onions. Priced at $55, the dish is meant to be shared between 2-4 people.

Hand salad with grilled shallot and pistachio. Photo: Momo Chang

Mago’s menu is driven by what is freshest at the farmers market, based on what Liberman calls Northern California’s very particular “52 micro-seasons.” Liberman will source from local farms in the East Bay up through Capay Valley.

Even the drink list will have a fresh focus. Bar director Adam Chapman is heading the beverage service, which offers six specialty cocktails made with botanical infusions concocted in-house. And instead of “mocktails,” Mago will serve juices and a couple of house-made sodas. On the opening menu, there is a juice made with strawberry, rhubarb and pepper; another mixes Douglas fir with sour apple. There is also a smoked cherry “kola” soda. The bar will also offer plenty of wines, local draft beers and other brews in cans and bottles.

The bar at Mago. Photo: Sarah Han

Liberman ran a successful Kickstarter to help with building out the restaurant. Prior to Mago, the space on Piedmont Avenue was home to Cybelle’s Pizza, which was at the location for 37 years. Liberman said Cybelle’s owner is the landlord of the building (and still has franchise locations in the Bay Area). Guests who recall the former pizza shop will be surprised by its transformation. The place was totally gutted, transformed into a bright, open sit-down restaurant.

On Sunday, I was invited to the restaurant’s opening event for media and Kickstarter contributors. Just days before opening to the public, the restaurant was still in the process of finalizing last details. A large white wall, where San Francisco artist Amanda Lynn will paint a mural in the next few days, was open for guests to cover with drawings and messages. That night, Liberman and cooks were busily preparing a sample menu in the open kitchen space on the right, while the bar on the left was buzzing with orders, with Chapman at the helm.

Liberman comes from an extensive fine-dining background. He’s a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and worked in several high-profile Northern California restaurants including Auberge du Soleil, La Folie and Charles Nob Hill. At AQ, one of his cooks called him “mago,” which means wizard or magician in Spanish. The nickname stuck.

Today, he says he’s excited to try an approachable neighborhood restaurant format in Oakland, where he now resides.

“I think the food scene is very dynamic here, even more so than SF at the moment. There’s more interesting food happening here, there’s more vibrancy, there’s more flavors going on.”

Chef Mark Liberman at Mago’s opening party. Photo: Isabel Baer
Chef Mark Liberman at Mago’s opening party. Photo: Isabel Baer

“SF is super competitive,” he said. “I don’t want to be competitive anymore. I don’t want to compete with anyone else. I just want to cook good food. For me, it was important to open in a space with good community vibes. I also want to be close to my house.”

Liberman has a young daughter, and having a child made him realize that working 12- to 14-hour days wasn’t healthy. “Having my daughter made me realize that I should spend more time with my family, so opening a restaurant in the vicinity was just as important because of that.”

Mago seats 45 people. Although it has a backyard patio, it will mostly be used for private events and for an on-site garden, where the restaurant will grow fresh herbs and flowers, to start, and fruits and vegetables in the future.

When it opens, Mago will only offer dinner service, but Liberman said it will eventually be open for lunch and perhaps even breakfast.

Mago is open 5-10 p.m., Monday through Saturday; closed Sunday. 

* The restaurant delayed its opening date to June 10 due to a construction issue.

Momo Chang is an award-winning freelance journalist, multimedia storyteller and digital expert based in Oakland, CA. She is a contributor to Nosh, has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, Shondaland,...