When someone brings up “The South,” it’s a safe bet they won’t mention Miami’s South Beach neighborhood. While it’s true that geographically speaking, Florida is the most Southern state in the Continental U.S. and Miami the most Southern metropolitan city, South Beach is more likely to conjure up cultural associations with places like NYC or LA. Yet, this is where you will find one of the country’s most successful new restaurants that has taken Southern cuisine to task. Yardbird. Yardbird Southern Table and Bar deems their approach as “from-scratch divinity” with a farm-fresh flair and the best of Southern hospitality.
Here, the Southern tradition of sharing a meal is not only about the food, but comradery and laughter, holding firm to the belief that, “ain’t no kinda problem that a little home cookin’ can’t fix.” Chef Jeff McInnis, who grew up in a small shrimping village on the Florida panhandle, realized this absence within the South Beach culinary scene. He tells the New York Times, “What was missing was the sort of soul-nurturing food I grew up on.” This yearning led him to partner with restauranteurs Chris Romero and John Kunkel to start Yardbird.
Yardbird views being born and bred in the South as more than just a place you refer back to as home, but rather, “a set of ideals passed down through generations. Sure, it’s about sweet tea and swimmin’ holes, front porches and fried chicken, magnolias and Moon Pies. But more importantly, it’s about being devoted to your roots; having a sense of place, of tradition, of family, hard work and each other.”
Small touches give the restaurant its bucolic feel. The space itself was first an old neighborhood grocery store, which seems fitting, as it’s intended purpose is still to be a community gathering place. Hardwood floors, an open kitchen and a Ball-jar chandelier give Yardbird a warm, inviting aura.
It’s no question that they give favor to the Bourbon-inclined, with a cocktail list made entirely of bourbon mixes and the bar touting an impressive 75 different types of bourbon. As for the edible menu, leave behind all notions of fitting into that bikini or speedo for your beach debut, because honestly here you will find anything but food that fits into any trendy fad diets. Just good ole’ fashioned comfort food, with a Yardbird twist.
The fried chicken – often a self-proclaimed “real” Southerners test of what constitutes a quality restaurant — came from Kunkel’s grandmother Llewellyn, who would brine the chicken for 27 hours before covering it in a cayenne peppered flour and frying it up. Yardbird gives this recipe its own interpretation with adjoining cheddar waffles and hot sauce infused Tupelo honey. Their homemade buttermilk biscuits were recently featured in Southern Living, to whom McInnis says he doesn’t recollect a day of his childhood without eating biscuits. That’s probably why Yardbird biscuits come hot out of the oven every 30 minutes, with honey butter and local seasonal jams in what I can’t help but describe as adorable miniature jars.
Local is the operative word in McInnis’s sourcing approach. Much of the organic produce, fish, pork, free range eggs, poultry, rabbit, and yes, even alligator – stem from Florida. They also support community and urban farms such as the Miami Green Railroad Organic Workshop (GROW) Project and Little Haiti Community Garden.
McInnis’s efforts haven’t gone unnoticed, as he snagged a James Beard Award this year for Best Chef of the South and a place amidst Bon Appetit’s prestigious list of top 50 Best New Restaurants of 2012. McInnis is proof in the pudding that a chef can bring back old flavors to an otherwise unassuming setting, with just a sprinkle of imagination and a dash of memories from back home. South Beach may not hold dear the Southern archetypes that Yardbird hopes to espouse, but perhaps this is what provides the refreshingly stark contrast when one rounds the corner and stumbles upon this farmhouse-esque gem.
1600 Lenox Ave.
Miami Beach, FL 33139