Modern Bird, Fully Fledged | Food

A farm-market lark takes a wing in Traverse City
By Lynda Wheatley | July 2, 2022

Some women, when they’re pregnant, crave pizza. Plums. Pickles and ice cream. Maybe some Taco Bell.

Emily Stewart, former head pastry chef at Bang Bang Pie in Chicago, craved golden loaves of buttery brioche and whole wheat sandwich bread; Pop-Tarts oozing with tart cherries; malt cinnamon rolls dripping with creamy white icing; cookies; and preserves—garden-fresh, home-kitchen-made strawberry, heirloom tomato, some peach, bourbon, and cherry.

But Emily Stewart didn’t necessarily want to eat that delicious fare. She wanted to join forces with her husband, Andy Elliott—a savory-loving chef—to make, bake, and sell it at one of her favorite places on earth, the Traverse City’s Sara Hardy Farmers Market.

No matter that Andy was already working as a sous chef at Blu in Glen Arbor, or that they already had one substantially more labor-intensive bun in the proverbial oven. The couple had been talking about launching their own culinary something since they’d met and fallen in love a decade before while working under Chef Tentori at Boka Chicago.

So on May 11, 2019, Andy and Emily brought their first child, Daniel, into the world. And just five sleepless weeks later, on June 22, 2019, with newborn Daniel in a BabyBjörn strapped to Emily’s chest, the couple unfolded a tent and table at the Traverse City’s Sara Hardy Farmers Market and brought into the world their next labor of love: Modern Bird.

A New Nest
This month brings the latest incarnation of the family’s ever-growing Modern Bird enterprise: a brick-and-mortar bar and restaurant in Traverse City’s West End.

Perched on the corner of Maple and West Front streets, the 50-seat eatery occupies a charming two-story building whose storefront—near floor-to-ceiling windows on the sidewalk level and a foursome of tall arched windows on the second—has remained untouched since the structure’s last brick was laid in 1890.

Inside, most traces of the last occupant, a kitchen cabinet showroom, have vanished. What remains is a flood of natural light that highlights the original tin ceiling and brick interior of its first tenant, a neighborhood pharmacy.

“We love the character of these buildings,” Emily says. “We wanted to maintain that character and quality and hopefully make sure it’s around for another 120+ years. We wanted to do what we could to focus on the simplicity and beauty of what’s here.”

To that end, they capitalized on the space’s windows and existing tin and brick, then complemented those features with a palette of color and texture inspired by nature: a lot of wood and neutral tones with splashes of cool green and their Modern signature Bird blue.

Though demolition was kept to a minimum, the installation of a bar—where craft cocktails and natural and local wines will lead the libations—was a must. (Here though, it seems the ghosts of the building’s past sent a blessing. Shortly after they added the bar, Emily’s mom uncovered a 1910 photo of the old pharmacy at a Traverse City antique shop; turns out, Modern Bird had laid out their bar in the same way the pharmacist had positioned his counter.)

Emily says the décor and vibe is meant to be classy but comfy, something she describes as “a celebration spot but also an everyday spot, where you could bring your family for a birthday celebration but also come by yourself on a Wednesday evening and grab a drink at the bar while you’re working on something on your laptop.”

The Food
From the start, Modern Bird has been a family business, and Emily and Andy’s experience in restaurants and as parents plays a role not only in the eatery’s vibe but also its menu—a niche that’s sometimes hard to find in the area.

“You can go fancy, you can go casual here [in Traverse City], but we’re looking to have a spot where you can get nice food but still bring your kid and wear jeans and come on a Tuesday night,” she says. “We’re calling it fine-casual, which is a very silly terminology, but it’s kind of that line where we want it to be very comfortable but elevated food.”

Emily describes the menu as American classics with a focus on local produce, seasonality, and simplicity.

“Instead of having 20 ingredients in one dish, we’re going to try to really focus on the quality of the ingredients, so maybe there’s just six ingredients in one dish,” she says. “Our menu also is going to be kept very small, about 15 items, so that ingredients can be interchangeable and move with the seasons.”

On the opening menu, guests will see Modern Bird’s take on fried chicken, tartare (served on their ever-popular buttery Brioche), a savory galette (think of it as an open-faced pot pie) stuffed with mushrooms and other in-season veggies and made with their all-butter pastry dough, a cucumber-shishito pepper dish, and several other creative takes on fresh vegetables.

In addition to a full bar stocked with local and craft beer, wine, and spirits, Modern Bird spotlights natural wines—a trend just gaining ground in Chicago when Emily and Andy moved to Traverse City in 2018.

“Traditionally, we tend to think that older wine is better, but the concept with natural, organic wines is to drink [the young wine shortly after it’s bottled], to capture the essence of the now. It’s more about what’s happening with the [vine]-growing culture,” says Emily. “It’s a little lighter to drink, and it also pairs lovely with food. A lot of really cool young winemakers are into it.”

Like the couple’s approach to Modern Bird’s decor, food, and natural wines, they’ll keep the schedule simple. Initially, they’ll open for dinner only—5pm to 9pm, Tuesday through Saturday, then offer brunch, then move to stage three: lunch.

“We’ve got a tight core group, and we want to start strong and not overextend ourselves,” she says. “The eventual plan is 9 to 9. But for now, dinner only. And once we do open for brunch—hopefully soonish—then all of those fan-favorites, like our Pop-Tarts, all that kind of stuff will come back… plus donuts.”

That’s all great news for the hundreds of devoted fans of Modern Bird’s farm market stall, which Andy and Emily opted not to have this summer so they could focus on the restaurant.

Still, Emily says, she hopes one day to be back there, too. “I love the farm market. It’s one of my passions,” she says. “Honestly, the way that you get to meet the community is just incredible. One of my favorite things in the world was being down there early, setting up the tent, and listening to all the farmers talk. They’re always talking about the weather, which I absolutely loved. And, I don’t know, there’s just a really special energy being part of Sara Hardy. And I’m very grateful for it.”

Find Modern Bird at 541 W. Front St., Traverse City.; (231) 421-5046

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