Edible Monterey Bay

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From a studio and gallery overlooking the
Dark Horse Pottery of Davenport
offers fine vessels for fine food

Pieces from Dark Horse Pottery at Ristorante Avanti

Photography by Michelle Magdalena

Ceramic artist Joel Magen says he’s not a wealthy man, but he’s rich in the things that matter.

At his Dark Horse Pottery studio and gallery in Davenport— where he welcomes the public on weekends—he shapes and fires pieces that are both useful and beautiful, taking inspiration from his ocean view while he works. Friends, family and surfing provide additional sources of happiness.

One of the things that means the most to him is seeing people serving and eating from his handmade tableware.

“It’s amazing,” he says of seeing his life’s work swoop by in the hands of wait staff at Ristorante Avanti, an Italian eatery on Santa Cruz’s West Side. “It’s very fulfilling, to see that silhouette I like, with pasta nestled inside and steam coming off of it.”

The idea that handcrafted food deserves to be offered on lovingly made dishes is one that’s taken off in the past few years, hand in hand with the farm-to-table movement. Slow food, meet slow tableware. (See our story on Annieglass, EMBWinter 2014.)

Magen’s ceramics have long been sought out by foodies as well as collectors because of the way they marry functionality with an Asian aesthetic. And although many fine dining establishments are just now discovering handcrafted tableware, it’s nothing new for Magen, who has been creating serving bowls, vases and other items for Monterey Bay restaurants for years.

He’s been making his living as a potter for three decades, and has been in Davenport almost as long. He began making pieces for Ristorante Avanti almost 20 years ago, and continues to make specialty pieces such as a serving dish for gnocchi, which Magen describes as “a flat green pasta bowl,” a shape that has evolved over the years to make it the ideal showcase: “When it goes by, you think, ‘What’s in that bowl?’”

Restaurants are moving away from using traditional white porcelain for a number of reasons—not only do the textures and colors of handmade ceramics set off the food better, restaurants can also get exactly what they want by working closely with ceramic artists. Bowls and platters can be shaped just so to accommodate signature menu items, and by choosing handcrafted serving ware, it sends a signal to diners that great care is taken with every aspect of their restaurant experience.

Joel Mangen at studio in Davenport.

Magen says he’s made all manner of items for area restaurants over the years, including espresso cups for Carmel’s Mundaka. But anyone can get in on the look, not just eating establishments—his items are available for sale from his Davenport studio and other locations, like Santa Cruz Pottery on Mission Street and The Phoenix at Nepenthe in Big Sur. And savvy shoppers and adventurers know to plan a day trip to Davenport around his annual Mid-Summer’s Eve sale, which this year is slated for Aug. 1–2. For the sale, Magen will bring out a wide variety of specially priced pieces that range from teapots to sake sets to garlic keepers, along with platters, pitchers and serving bowls.

Still, Magen’s pottery is worth the trip any weekend: A combination of wood and gas firing gives Magen’s work a unique warm patina, with a minimal amount of glaze applied as lining and for exterior design. The whims of the wood ash give each piece a one-of-a-kind appearance.

It’s a kind of alchemy that is hard to come by in an age of massproduction. Kathryn McKenzie writes about sustainable living, home design and horticulture for numerous publications and websites and, when not at the computer, attempts to grow tomatoes at her home in foggy northern Monterey County.

Corner of Cement Plant Road and Third Avenue, Davenport

EXPLORE: Dark Horse will hold its 2015 Mid-Summer’s Eve Sale on Aug. 1–2. It is also open most other weekends and by appointment. And for other food-related adventures on the “Slow Coast” north of Santa Cruz while you’re in the area, see our guide under the “LOCAL FOOD GUIDES” tab at www.ediblemontereybay.com.

About the author

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Kathryn McKenzie, who grew up in Santa Cruz and now lives on a Christmas tree farm in north Monterey County, writes about the environment, sustainable living and health for numerous publications and websites. She is the co-author of “Humbled: How California’s Monterey Bay Escaped Industrial Ruin.”