Dining out at the start of a work week was rarely something I considered, but I made an exception when a reservation became available at Santa Monica’s latest buzzed-about opening from James Beard Award-nominated chef Jeremy Fox: Birdie G’s. Little did I know it would be my last meal out before March 2020’s frantic shutdown.
A relish tray of fresh, pickled, cured and marinated seasonal vegetables with a five onion dip kicked off a series of dishes. Next up was an homage to Texas toast topped with egg salad and black truffles. My favorite dish of the night, the corned beef tongue, provided tender, brined slices that I saved a little of to enjoy again the next morning with eggs. Then, the grand finale that had made its way to nearly every table: a gelatinous, floral slice of the aptly named “world famous” rose petal pie, packed with raspberries, strawberries, rose, and hibiscus in a pretzel crust.
This 5,000-square-foot industrial space-turned-restaurant created communion over shared plates, with diners seated close enough to overhear each other’s conversations. It’s a snapshot stuck in time that ignites waves of nostalgia and gratitude, because it would soon become the last time that year that I dined out, fully immersed in the moments and flavors that make restaurants an indispensable channel for creating good memories.
Tapping into the nostalgia this last year needed
A yearning for what once was is a central part of the Birdie G’s ethos. The restaurant, named after Fox’s daughter Birdie and grandmother Gladys, draws on the nostalgia of enjoying a good meal with loved ones. “As a kid growing up with not a lot of money, the rare times we ate in restaurants were always due to special occasions like birthdays, good grades, and family being in town,” Fox says. “So I associate some of the happiest moments of my childhood with restaurants, even though they were mostly national chains instead of chef-driven spots.”
The heart of Birdie G’s menu emphasizes craveable foods meant to satiate hunger and longings for early food memories, like the ones Fox has of his grandmother making traditional Eastern European Jewish foods in her Pennsylvania kitchen in the summertime. “I think nostalgia, and translating that in a lively and fun way, was the biggest inspiration behind Birdie G’s. It’s evolved a lot, more than I had anticipated, and continues to do so, even after almost two years,” he says.
That’s why the dishes at Birdie G’s are love letters to humble recipes with surprising twists in flavor and technique. There’s a matzah ball soup with carrot miso for extra depth, and a “hangtown brei” that remixes the traditional California hangtown fry and matzo brei by combining eggs, matzah, wood-grilled beef bacon, fried oysters, and a spiced hollandaise sauce. It’s a dish that clearly shows Fox’s ethos for the food: “While the menu pulls from the Midwest and Southern regions in the U.S. and Eastern Europe as well, at its core, Birdie G’s is a Los Angeles restaurant, in that we really limit the radius of products we let in the door,” he says.
He and his team make weekly visits to the nearby Santa Monica Farmers Market, which features farmers from Southern California and the Central Coast. Personal relationships with many of these food purveyors grants early access to the fresh products on Birdie G’s menu, like Roscoe Zuckerman’s legendary asparagus, persimmons from JJ’s Lone Daughter for the housemade hoshigaki, Nantes carrots from Milliken Family Farms, and more.
Pivoting to provide comfort through takeout
When the pandemic caused California’s safety protocols to include shuttering doors on in-person dining, Fox shifted his focus to recreating familiar dishes in a space where many of his customer’s fondest food memories first began: the comfort of their own homes. Through 2020, Birdie G’s offered themed takeout menus that celebrated tradition, with a focus on packaging its classic dishes alongside new meal offerings more aptly suited for takeout.
“My goal is always to cook nice food with the best ingredients, while also planning and anticipating any operational challenges that may arise, so designing food that’s meant to travel and sit before enjoying was the equivalent of designing a menu that we can execute at the highest level even during busy services,” Fox says.
That meant making adjustments to dishes specifically for takeout. That “world famous” rose petal pie didn’t travel well in individual slices, so Birdie G’s instead offered it in small and large full-size pies, and the matzah ball soup required double the amount of chicken broth for takeout as the matzah ball absorbed the broth during travel. A rising star during the time was the gluten free fried chicken, which turned into a takeout bestseller, and Birdie G’s introduced new “heat & serve meals” particularly well suited to takeout. A new “grocery & larder” menu also gave diners the option to stock up on Birdie G’s favorites at home, such as flour, yeast, pasta and stocks — a saving grace when many grocery shelves were running low on items.
During this time, Birdie G’s announced new menu items and coursed meals on Instagram each week, with hashtags like #callyourmother. It quickly became clear which resonated, with kid-friendly takeout meals like potato-crusted chicken fingers and a “healthy yucky” green salad becoming popular for many parents at home juggling both work and virtual schooling.
The impromptu nature of the offerings also allowed room for experimentation, like when chef de cuisine Matthew Schaler had leftover latke mix from the Hanukkah menu and turned it into gluten-free “Goldbars” — potato-stuffed latkes in four different flavors (four cheese with truffle Manischewitz; duck ham and Emmental cordon bleu; buffalo chicken and mushroom; and Hungarian chiles and mozzarella). This elevated version of hot pockets traveled well and delivered the feeling of comfort in each handheld bite.
Birdie G’s recently reopened for both indoor and outdoor dining, but the restaurant still offers a number of takeout options that were once its lifeforce for survival in the wake of the pandemic. Memories were unboxed and reheated in homes across Los Angeles at a time when so many needed that solace the most, like the to-go relish tray and boxed slices of corned beef that transported me back to that special Monday night pre-pandemic, but this time, in the middle of my living room.
For Fox, it’s all been a lesson in resilience. “More than ever,” he says, “I learned to be even more adaptable than I already thought I might be, and to not let up on that even for a day.”
Kristin Braswell is a journalist and founder of CrushGlobal Travel, a company that customizes travel guides and authentic experiences around the world.