Austin

All photos by John Davidson, courtesy of Birdie’s

InterviewsAustin

How the Couple at Birdie’s Built a Restaurant That’s Seriously Casual

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Last summer, husband and wife Arjav Ezekiel and Tracy Malechek-Ezekiel did something bold: They opened a restaurant — in the middle of a pandemic. The risk paid off: Walk by Birdie’s on any given Tuesday through Saturday, and you’ll find a line of guests sipping cold glasses of wine, ready to feast on a menu of local produce, handmade pasta, and really (really) nice olive oil.

When the couple moved to Texas — Tracy’s home state — in 2018, they had plans to open a fine-dining Italian restaurant with a wood-burning oven. But after arriving in Austin, those plans changed. “One of the wonderful things about Austin is that there’s a lot of high-level food, but people interact with that food in a really casual way,” explains Arjav. “That was really exciting and different for us, so we spent some time thinking about what we wanted to do.” The result was Birdie’s, a counter-service restaurant that’s already gained national recognition in the single year it’s been open.

We sat down for a conversation with Ezekiel and Malechek-Ezekiel about the future of the restaurant business model, the process behind seasonal cooking, and the wine you should definitely order this summer.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Resy: Why did you choose to go with a counter-service model?

Tracy Malechek-Ezekiel: The Birdie’s set-up is the result of a lot of different ideas coming together — it’s like a Venn diagram of everything that was important to us. We knew we wanted to use expensive olive oils, local produce and meat, and the best seafood we could get; we had to have the right wine; we wanted to build the best team we could find and pay them well; and we wanted to give ourselves two days off per week.

A full-service model just wasn’t adding up, so we started thinking about counter service. We’d spent some time in L.A. and really liked what places like Sqirl and Destroyer were doing: great food in fun environments you want to hang out in, but without the traditional restaurant model. So we thought, “What if we try that as a dinner restaurant with wine?” Counter service seemed to be the missing link to achieve everything we wanted and still be profitable.

Arjav Ezekiel: We asked ourselves, “What does a restaurant need to look like in 20 years to be successful financially and culturally?” I think oftentimes, restaurants and businesses focus on just one of those two elements, and it was really important to us to have both. The only way we could do that was by building a model with better margins, where we wouldn’t be worrying about how we were going to pay our bills by the end of the period.

Birdie’s opened its doors in July of 2021. Did the pandemic change your plans for the restaurant?

Ezekiel: We signed our lease in February of 2020 — two weeks before COVID shut the entire restaurant industry down. We were so excited for those two weeks, and then it all came to a grinding halt. Raising money for a restaurant during COVID was the hardest thing we’ve ever done, but the pandemic was a good time for Tracy and me to reassess what we wanted to really do with the restaurant.

One thing the pandemic taught us was that we all value our space, and we wanted to be really cognizant of that. We were like, “What if there’s another pandemic?” So we built a to-go window, and there’s a reason 80% of our dining room is outside. There’s been all this innovation around food and wine service and technology solutions within restaurants, but there haven’t been as many conversations around changing this business model for the better. Ultimately, we became futurists. We tried to build a flexible business model that will allow us to pivot if anything happens again.

Right now, your restaurant is closed on Sundays and Mondays and only does dinner. Any plans to expand your hours?

Ezekiel: Hell no — at least, not until we have to. We want to live in a world where the restaurant works for us, not just the other way around. We always said we’d open Sundays and Mondays if we needed to, but we didn’t want to start there, because once you see that revenue come in, it’s really hard to run backwards. We knew that the long-term success of the restaurant would be dependent on our mental health and our team’s mental health.

Malechek-Ezekiel: We’ve both worked at several restaurants, some of which had things we loved and others had things we wanted to leave behind. I was with Danny Meyers’s group for five years, between Gramercy Tavern and Untitled, and I loved their philosophy and culture. We’ve taken a lot of those elements and made them work in our neighborhood spot with our small team. Often, working in restaurants, you don’t really get the time off that you need to feel healthy and whole. We’re fortunate enough to be pretty busy, so we can afford to do paid time off two or three times a year and make sure everyone’s recharging their batteries.

On your website, you share the history of the building your restaurant occupies and the people who own it. Why was it important for you to include this history as part of the Birdie’s story?

Ezekiel: For me, there’s something about feeling connected to a space and a neighborhood. That history page on our website is also an acknowledgement that we’re in a neighborhood that is historically Black, and the building has these incredible owners who have done so much for the community in that space over the last three decades. They are trusting us to be protective of their space.

It was important for us to tell their story because we knew that if we were even remotely successful, we could use it as an opportunity to acknowledge the fact that there were people who were here long before us, doing things that were far more important than what we’re doing. Our job, at the end of the day, is to continue that legacy in a really small way. Restaurants are places where a community can hang out and get a chance to meet and understand each other, and we hoped that Birdie’s could be that place for the neighborhood.

What’s it like running a restaurant as a married couple?

Malechek-Ezekiel: We work together best by dividing and conquering, but when we get stuck in our areas, we’ll ask the other person for help, which is a great opportunity to collaborate. I’ll be like, “Hey, give this a taste,” or Arjav will ask for my opinion on something related to service. We both respect each other’s entire restaurant perspective — it’s not like my eyes are only on the food and his are only on the dining room. I think our collaboration is what makes Birdie’s what it is.

In the beginning, though, it took us a while to find our working relationship. Before we opened, he was freaking out, because I didn’t have a menu, not even close. I like to cook from the farmers, and I cook better when I’ve got everything right in front of me. I’m not someone who likes to plan and test for days before putting something on the menu.

Ezekiel: One of the things I’ve come to really appreciate about her is the fact that she has her own process. I may not understand the process, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. That was a huge realization for me, because my whole life, my parents were like, “Have you done your homework? Have you done this?” I’m an Indian boy, so I was always prepared for everything. And watching Tracy operate gave me anxiety, because I felt like she wasn’t following the same path I was. But then I realized, “Oh, she’s actually the creative type, and this is how her process works.” It’s my job to understand that; it’s not her job to be more like me.

Malechek-Ezekiel: Once we took a deep breath and stepped back, we realized that we really respect each other’s opinions, and we’re better because of it.

To be honest, it’s nice to come home on the weekends and be like, “Oh, I’m your wife again, and that’s it.” We can go out with friends and be normal and not talk about work. It’s obviously time- and thought-consuming to open a restaurant, but now, we’ve settled into a good rhythm and have a fantastic team that we’re empowering to help out with management, so it’s not fully consuming for us.

Ezekiel: We never talk about work on the weekends. That feels like a superpower we’ve developed.

Your menu changes daily and always features local ingredients. How does a dish make it onto the menu?

Malechek-Ezekiel: For the most part, everything is produce- and weather-inspired, which means that the menu is very different in December than it is in August. The core philosophy is about what we want to eat and drink in the current season — especially since we have a lot of outdoor seating. In the summer, for example, hardly any of the pastas have much dairy, and we like to keep things light and fresh. I don’t love when I go to a restaurant in the summer and everything feels super-heavy. You’re like, “I guess I’ll get a salad, even though I want something more substantial.”

I’ve also developed a lot of great relationships with our farmers. Cooking based on what’s available each day makes things harder and more stressful, but I feel like it’s the only way to cook. There are some restaurants where the food tastes very well thought-out, like it’s been perfected and tested a million times. And my thing is that I want food to taste alive. There are some nights when we put a dish on the menu, and I haven’t made it until that first one’s fired, and we tweak it throughout the night. I think it’s fun and lively, and that’s my style. For me, it’s not always about being perfect — it’s about being fresh and alive and in that moment.

Birdie’s is also known for having an incredible selection of wines. What’s the philosophy behind the wine list?

Ezekiel: We wanted to build a really high-level wine list that also felt affordable. There’s a reason we don’t call it a natural wine list, although there are several natural wine principles that exist within that list. But for us, it was about farming — about making sure that the grapes are farmed correctly, with intention, and that the wines are made by real human beings rather than large, industrial wine-making facilities.

I’m also a dessert wine nut — riesling is my favorite grape, secretly — and the after-dinner drink list is a passion project of mine. I think that’s one of the things that wine nerds enjoy about Birdie’s. The wine list changes just as frequently as the menu, because we tend not to buy a lot of any one bottle. We like the idea of things being available for a certain period of time, then disappearing. It’s just more fun that way.

Any wines you’re especially excited about from this summer’s list?

Ezekiel: I’m a big Champagne head, and I particularly love Champagnes made with red grapes — pinot meunier, especially. We have a rosé Champagne by Christophe Mignon that comes and goes, but it smells like strawberry toast in the best way possible. It’s so delicious and just makes you feel alive.

Our wine-by-the-glass list is something we take a lot of pride in. We actively seek out the best producers in the world, and we negotiate prices on bottles so that we’re able to pour them by the glass. For example, we have a Julian Haart bottle that you wouldn’t traditionally see by the glass, but we’re going to do it, because it’s really exciting to drink a bone-dry riesling in the summer.

Birdie’s, at the end of the day, should be a place where, if you’re a nerd, you can nerd out, but if you’re not, you can still experience it with the same joy as anybody else. It’s accessible to anybody, but if you really give a sh-t, you could also dive deep into whatever we’re doing. Being able to walk the line between those two things — that’s important to us.

 

No reservations; seating is first-come, first-served. Find more info here.

 

Madeleine Kim is a food and restaurant writer based in Austin. She’s also the Senior Brand Manager at M.M.LaFleur, where she runs The M Dash. Follow her work here and here. Follow Resy, too.