Fork in the Road

Birdies: A New College-Town Tastemaker in Athens, Georgia

Stop in for a cortado, stock up for a tailgate, and soak in the scene at a community-focused market cafe

A woman in a cafe talks to guests


Kirsten Hindes, the owner of Birdies, chats with guests.

Morning rain streaks two plate-glass windows tucked into a redbrick facade. Three coffee drinkers, one with her nose in a book, perch on bentwood stools beneath a pressed tin ceiling, elbows on the white countertop. Stocked with cinnamon-dusted morning buns and ready-made sandwiches, a pastry case hugs the front door. Bags of artisanal masa and bottles of small-batch fish sauce line trim blue shelves. The vibe is Borough Market, London. The music, in this music-obsessed college town, is low and inconsequential. At Birdies, a new market café in Athens, Georgia, the soundtrack that matters is the hum of neighbors talking to neighbors.

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Once beloved for Saturday football and cheap beer, college towns like Athens have evolved into hives for creative entrepreneurs who want to live culturally rich and neighborhood-focused lives. Prince Avenue, running along the north side of downtown, threads Cobbham and Boulevard, two of the most walkable Athens neighborhoods. Open on Prince since late last year, Birdies is now the sun these enclaves orbit.

The owner, Kirsten Hindes, got her ten thousand hours in long before Athens. Now fifty-five, she has cooked in the brigade kitchen of a French restaurant, directed specialty sales for Whole Foods, sold European cheeses for an American distributor, and “gone deep on coffee nerdery in London.” Way before that, she worked a high school job at the Gourmet Shop, a market café in Columbia, South Carolina. In much the same way that a good sandwich is the sum of honest ingredients layered on sturdy bread, Birdies is the sum of her life.

A cappuccino, pastries, and a cortado at Birdies.

Hindes knew the time would come to stop traveling. She wanted to be part of a community. “I used to joke about being a little old lady with a little shopping cart, walking to a corner store,” she says. Now she runs a new sort of corner store, effectively home to five businesses: coffee shop, pastry and sandwich takeaway, meat-and-cheese purveyor, gourmet goods store, and lunch canteen.

A mortadella sandwich on focaccia with arugula pistachio pesto and burrata.

Around seven most mornings, she bursts through the front door, carrying boxes of pastries from the nearby Independent Baking Co., which stone grinds its own flours. Croissants, eaten at one of those window seats or a table in back, throw delicious shards of deep brown crust. Details matter here. The croissants and morning buns arrive on elegant melamine trays. Cortados, served elsewhere in cardboard, come in faceted glassware.

As for the market, Hindes is a skilled provisioner, stocking jars of mountain-harvested fennel pollen, tins of Fishwife smoked salmon, and bags of Rancho Gordo heirloom beans. She sells local toffee, made across town at Condor Chocolates, and sources global finds, too, arrayed in the meat and cheese coolers. Stacked in precise rows, mortadella from Bologna and haunches of prosciutto from Parma form a kind of rosy-hued mosaic. Enormous wheels of Gouda from the Dutch island of Zwanburgerpolder gleam with so much milk fat they appear to be lit from within.

Cheeses from Birdies’ case.

Angela Griffin serves as head chef. Her kitchen turns out remarkable soups, including a bright peanut one drizzled with silky olive oil. She’s good with greens too. Her chicory salad, tossed with grapefruit wedges and oil-cured black olives, highlights the good stuff that Woodland Gardens grows just east of town.

By eight each morning, caprese sandwiches, built on Independent’s ciabatta, fill that display case by the door. They model the structural integrity that great sandwiches share. Pesto soaks through the bread, almost to the crown. Lightly pickled tomatoes, placed atop creamy mozzarella, hold their shape, even when you buy a bag of sandwiches at breakfast and haul them to an afternoon tailgate.

If you go for a made-to-order sandwich, the tuna melt on butter-toasted rye, made with Spanish albacore, tastes like an after-school treat, airmailed from 1978. “I don’t want anything to be overwrought,” Hindes says, speaking of an Italian hoagie, also in heavy rotation. Her sales experience shows, too, which is a way of saying that she writes good menu copy. Who could refuse a “Sunday sandwich of smoked salmon, jammy egg, and caper cream cheese”?

Chefs began turning college towns into food towns around the turn of this century. John Currence of City Grocery in Oxford, Mississippi, was early to market, and so was Hugh Acheson of Five & Ten here in Athens. They did more than build destination restaurants for well-heeled alums. They shaped a clientele that expects quality food at breakfast and lunch, too. A new generation of entrepreneurs now follows their lead, opening everyday places designed to serve their neighbors.

Birdies rides the crest of that wave. Friends double back to buy a second cortado and renew a conversation. A young doctor from the hospital down the street picks out salami and cheese for his family’s make-your-own-pizza night. Tom Hiel, a composer for film and TV and a professor, comes after class to pick up a pastrami sandwich and a half pound of snacking mortadella. Sometimes he stays to drink a cup of coffee and read a script.

Bertis Downs, a public school advocate and longtime adviser to R.E.M., walks from his office for a morning pastry and coffee. Often, he returns for lunch and again for afternoon tea. “Everyone in Athens used to go to the post office and see people they knew and stop and talk,” he says. “Birdies is the new post office.”