Birdie’s is the restaurant everyone wants in their neighborhood. There’s a long list of reasons why the line wraps along the restaurant on East 12th Street in Austin before the doors open at 5 p.m. Many will say they line up for the restaurant’s famous beef tartare served with a dramatic score, or great music. The caper-heavy chicken piccata featured on the menu of their Italian pop-up, Aiello’s. Both are prime examples of Chef Tracy Malechek-Ezekiel’s dexterity with seasonal ingredients and his simple but masterful approach to food. It’s certainly worth braving the line for any pasta Tracy decides to feature on the menu that week, like Sardi’s crushable and perfectly bouncy gnocchi in tomato sauce with a sprinkle of pecorino and crunchy breadcrumbs. The same can be said about its vegetables. Tracy finds the best possible ones and infuses them with maximum flavor, like green beans tossed in a funky vinaigrette made with anchovies and garlic. Personally, I would show up every day for the ridiculously smooth, creamy vanilla treat alone, which arrived at the end of the meal luxuriously sprinkled with blood orange scent.
Then there’s the wine program, which manages to be very fun and friendly, and full of drinkable bottles. It’s the brainchild of Arjav Ezekiel, Tracy’s husband and restaurant partner, as well as Birdie’s beverage director and front-of-house dream weaver. He hops from table to table, dropping stories and charm and convincing diners to try bottles they might not have previously considered from the restaurant’s 250-bottle list (such as Christophe Mignon’s ADN de Meunier Brut Rosé, a delightful pink Champagne with a “buttery brioche nose with jam… Strawberries,” says Argav), or perhaps an after-dinner drink (or two) from Birdie’s impressive selection of ports, sherry, and vermouth.
Birdie’s Restaurant is best described as a “neighborhood dining destination.” It’s the place you go at least once a week if you live down the street, and at the same time, it’s the place worth taking the plane ride to Austin. Birdie’s is also the restaurant the industry needs. Two years later, Arjav and Tracy have proven that their restaurant model — which prioritizes boundaries and the health of both themselves and their employees — is not just a pipe dream but entirely doable.
The couple met in 2015, while working in New York City, and quickly discovered they had the same philosophies when it came to work. “I felt aligned with him on a professional level,” says Tracy of Argav. “I thought, ‘I think one day I would love to open a restaurant with you.’ And then, without missing a beat, he said, ‘I also think we should get married.’” As veterans of fine dining, they were determined to prioritize balance They juggle work and life as they plan their own place.
“It became clear after we got engaged that we didn’t want to do a 7/7, day-to-day lifestyle. We wanted to start a family,” Arjav says. “We knew financially that in order to open a restaurant in New York, we would have to (work around the clock) )’ They decided to focus their efforts on Austin, which ticked all the boxes: a dynamic, growing community and, for Tracy, a return to her home state of Texas.
They also became clear on their non-negotiables when it came to the restaurant and decided it was only worth moving forward if they could build a truly sustainable system for the life they wanted. Tracy wanted to be able to cook without having to cut corners or compromise on ingredients. Arjav wanted the same thing for the wine list. They both also wanted to make sure they had some time away from the restaurant each week, to be closed on Sunday and Monday, no matter how much money they might lose. And there was one question they kept pondering: “A lot of the toxicity in restaurants, in our view, was based on the fact that restaurant ownership was very difficult,” Arjav says. “How are you supposed to take care of your team if you can’t take care of yourself?”
Tracy and Arjav worked backwards to create Birdie’s, focusing on the outcome they wanted first and then figuring out the underlying mechanics needed to get there. The key was to think of the business not as a restaurant, but as a “soft startup.” Instead of having a full staff at reception and back, the couple decided to implement a counter-service model – a rarity for this level of establishment, where hospitality remains a huge priority. “We have 15 people on our team, five days a week every week, and we are able to cook for up to 200 people a night,” says Arjav. Fewer staff also means the restaurant is able to “hire really passionate people with almost no experience and then train them in a model that we really believe in,” says Arjav. They also hold bi-weekly one-hour wine classes before service for their employees to continue their education.
One of the biggest benefits of the counter-service model is a pool with completely flat ends, Tracy explains. Regardless of whether you’re a dishwasher, cook, or household employee, everyone gets paid the same amount, prorated according to the number of hours they work that week.
Perhaps the most impressive feature of Birdie’s is its vacation policy. The restaurant is closed for two weeks in August and two weeks during the winter holidays, and is organized as a paid holiday. “I think that’s really interesting, because the only time you could take a vacation at restaurants was when you left a job before you went to your next job,” Tracy says. The team’s mental health is also a top priority for the couple. In addition to providing subsidized mental health care through the Mike & Sherry Project (an Austin-based organization that provides counseling for hospitality workers) to their team members, Arjav and Tracy sometimes make the decision to close the restaurant and give everyone an extra chance. A day of rest if they need it.
Employees at Birdie’s also receive health insurance after working for 60 days. (Birdie’s covers 50% of premiums.) More recently, after giving birth to their son Remy last fall, the couple found a way to give their employees two months of paid family leave — a rarity in the industry and something the couple hopes more restaurants will implement.
When Arjav and Tracy talk about the future, they care about two main things: how to continue to help their employees grow and how to open new concepts while maintaining the healthy workplace they’ve built. “It’s hard for us to get away from counter service,” Arjav says. “It’s really about how do we make the experience better? How do we make it more detailed? How do we make it more interesting?”
The couple is now fielding calls from restaurants across the country interested in learning how to run similar operations: ones that don’t sacrifice hospitality for the health of employees, while still creating restaurant magic. “There are no shortcuts in this business,” Arjav says. “There’s just dedication and commitment. We pay tribute to all the things we’ve learned along the way, but we also break the rules so we can (work) the way we want.