The 2023 Food & Wine Restaurant of the Year Marries Destination-Worthy Dining With a Sustainable, Supportive Workplace

Birdie’s in Austin marries a destination-worthy dining experience with the rarest of all restaurant offerings — a sustainable, supportive workplace for its staff.

Left: Tracy Malechek-Ezekiel and Arjav Ezekiel, partners in life and business, outside their Austin restaurant, Birdie’s, our 2023 Restaurant of the Year; Right: A spread of summer squash, green beans and cherry tomatoes, polenta fries, okra, Castelvetrano olives, and deviled eggs
Left: Tracy Malechek-Ezekiel and Arjav Ezekiel, partners in life and business, outside their Austin restaurant, Birdie’s, our 2023 Restaurant of the Year; Right: A spread of summer squash, green beans and cherry tomatoes, polenta fries, okra, Castelvetrano olives, and deviled eggs. Photo:

Eva Kolenko

Birdie’s is the restaurant that everyone wants in their neighborhood. There’s a long list of reasons why a line wraps down the restaurant’s stretch of East 12th Street in Austin before the doors open at 5 p.m. Many will say they line up for the restaurant’s famed beef tartare served with a dramatic carta di musica, or the wonderfully caper-heavy chicken piccata that appeared on the menu for their Italian popup, Aiello’s. Both are prime examples of chef Tracy Malechek-Ezekiel’s deftness with seasonal ingredients and unfussy but finessed approach to food. It’s definitely worth braving the line for whatever pasta Tracy decides to showcase on the menu that week, like her crushable, perfectly bouncy gnocchi sardi in a tomato sauce with a shower of pecorino and crunchy breadcrumbs. The same can be said for her vegetables. Tracy finds the best ones possible and dresses them with maximum flavor, like the green beans tossed in a funky anchovy-garlic vinaigrette. I personally would show up daily for the absurdly creamy vanilla soft serve alone, which arrives at the end of the meal luxuriously drizzled with blood orange agramato.

Then there’s the wine program, which manages to be both deeply interesting and approachable, brimming with highly drinkable bottles. It’s the brainchild of Arjav Ezekiel, Tracy’s husband and partner in the restaurant, as well as Birdie’s beverage director and front-of-house dream weaver. He bounces from table to table, dropping stories and charm and convincing diners to try bottles they may have never considered from the restaurant’s 250-bottle-deep list (like a bottle of Christophe Mignon ADN de Meunier Brut Rosé, a delightfully pink Champagne with a “nose of buttered brioche with strawberry jam,” according to Arjav), or perhaps an after-dinner drink (or two) from Birdie’s impressive selection of ports, sherries, and vermouths.

Tracy Malechek-Ezekiel plating the gnocchi sardi with sous chef Heejae Galluccio
Tracy Malechek-Ezekiel plating the gnocchi sardi with sous chef Heejae Galluccio.

Eva Kolenko

Birdie’s is best described as “destination neighborhood dining.” It’s the place you go to at least once a week if you live down the street, and at the same time, it’s the place worth getting on a plane to Austin for. Birdie’s is also the restaurant that the industry needs. Two years in, Arjav and Tracy have proved that their restaurant model — one that prioritizes boundaries and the wellness of both themselves and their staff — is not just a pipe dream but fully implementable.

The couple met in 2015, while working in New York City, and quickly learned that they had the same philosophies when it came to work. “I just felt really professionally aligned with him,” says Tracy of Arjav. “I was like, ‘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 fine-dining veterans, they were determined to prioritize work-life balance as they plotted their own spot.

Olive oil cake with whipped cream
Olive oil cake with whipped cream.

Eva Kolenko

“It became clear after we got engaged that we did not want to do the seven day a week, grind it out every single day lifestyle. We wanted a family,” says Arjav. “We knew financially to open a restaurant in New York, we would have to [work around the clock].” They decided to concentrate their efforts on Austin, which checked all the boxes: a dynamic, growing community and, for Tracy, a return to her home state of Texas.

They also both got clear on their nonnegotiables when it came to the restaurant and decided it was only worth going forward if they could build a system that was truly sustainable 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 for the wine list. They both also wanted to make sure they took time away from the restaurant every week, to be closed on Sunday and Monday, regardless of how much money they might forfeit. And there was the one question they kept thinking about: “So much of the toxicity in restaurants, in our opinion, was based on the fact that restaurant ownership was so difficult,” says Arjav. “How are you supposed to take care of your team if you can’t take care of yourself?”

Chef Tracy Malechek-Ezekiel and her son, Remy
Chef Tracy Malechek-Ezekiel and her son, Remy.

Eva Kolenko

Tracy and Arjav worked backward to create Birdie’s, focusing on the result they wanted first and then figuring out the essential mechanisms needed to get there. The key was to think of the business less as a restaurant and more as a “lean startup.” Instead of having a full front- and back-of-house staff, the couple decided to implement a counter-service model — rare for this caliber 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 upward of 200 people a night,” says Arjav. A lighter staff also means the restaurant is able to “hire really enthusiastic people who have almost no experience and then train them in the model that we really believe in,” says Arjav. They also hold wine classes every other week for an hour before service for their staff, to continue to further their education.

One of the biggest benefits of the counter-service model, explains Tracy, is the completely flat tip pool. Regardless if you are a dishwasher or a cook or a front-of-house person, everyone is tipped out the same amount, prorated according to the number of hours they worked that week.

The dining room at Birdie’s
The dining room at Birdie’s.

Eva Kolenko

Perhaps the most impressive perk at Birdie’s is the vacation policy. The restaurant closes for two weeks in August and two weeks over the winter holidays, and it is structured as paid time off. “I think that’s a really fun one because coming up in restaurants, the only time you could take a vacation really was whenever you left a job before you went to your next job,” says Tracy. The mental health of the team is also a top priority for the couple. In addition to offering subsidized mental health care through the Mike & Sherry Project (an Austin-based organization that provides counseling for hospitality workers) for their team members, Arjav and Tracy will sometimes make the decision to just close the restaurant and give everyone an extra day of rest if they need it.

Steak with flageolet beans
Steak with flageolet beans.

Eva Kolenko

Staff members at Birdie’s also receive health insurance after working for 60 days. (Birdie’s covers 50% of their premium.) Most recently, after having their son, Remy, last fall, the couple found a way to institute paid family leave of two months for their employees — a rarity in the industry and something the couple hopes more restaurants will implement.

The team at Birdie’s
The team at Birdie’s.

Eva Kolenko

When Arjav and Tracy talk about the future, they are concerned with two main things: how to continue to help their staff grow and how to open new concepts while maintaining the healthy workplace that they have built. “It’s hard for us to move away from counter service,” says Arjav. “It’s really about, how do we make the experience even better? How do we make it more bespoke? How do we make it more interesting?”

The couple is now fielding calls from restaurants across the country that are interested in figuring out how to run similar operations: ones that don’t sacrifice hospitality for the health of the staff, while still creating restaurant magic. “There’s no shortcuts in this business,” says Arjav. “There’s just dedication and commitment. We pay homage to all the things that we’ve learned along the way, but we also break the rules to be able to [operate] the way we want to.”

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