If you tried to open a restaurant that covered as many of the trends and conversations that dominate contemporary dining as possible, you might end up with something like Byrd & Barrel — though your restaurant would probably be several times larger than this 3-month-old south city spot. Chef and owner Bob Brazell has packed so many flavorful dishes, interesting ideas and pop-culture references into such a tiny space that, as you finish your meal and float outside in a fried-chicken reverie, you might wonder if Byrd & Barrel is, like Doctor Who’s TARDIS, bigger on the inside.
No, it really is that small, and when it’s busy, diners sit shoulder-to-shoulder at the bar and the counter along the L where two walls meet. Five or six diners can fit themselves around each of the three dining tables.
This, too, feels very of the moment.
Byrd & Barrel joins the spate of high-profile fried-chicken restaurants that have opened in St. Louis over the past two years: Ben Poremba’s Old Standard Fried Chicken, Rick Lewis’ Southern and, most recently, a local franchise of the Memphis institution Gus’s World-Famous Fried Chicken. Though this is Brazell’s first restaurant, he has cooked at Monarch and Niche, and he was the executive chef at Athlete Eats (now known as Revel Kitchen). Overseeing day-to-day kitchen operations is Ryan McDonald, who was the chef de cuisine at Juniper and also worked at Truffles Butchery.
Byrd & Barrel differs from most fried-chicken joints both new and old in one significant respect: You can’t order chicken by the piece. Instead, there is half of a bird ($12) — breast, wing, thigh and leg — and its availability is limited. You should plan an early lunch or dinner to score it. Brazell brines the chicken in buttermilk, dredges it in spiced flour and cooks it in a pressure fryer. The result is a thick, crunchy exterior and very juicy meat. The spice blend is mildly peppery and distinctly sweet from a dash of brown sugar. It sates your basic fried-chicken craving while giving a twist to the familiar flavor.
If you find the sweetness too prominent, slug the chicken with one of three hot sauces: a medium Sriracha-style sauce; a thin, hot jalapeño malt vinegar (my favorite); or, for the daring, a sauce made from ghost chiles.
Should you miss out on the half of a bird, you can still order Nugz, fried pieces of boneless white or dark meat. (Prices begin at $4 for five dark-meat Nugz, $5 for white meat.) These are an obvious riff on Chicken McNuggets, but more than any variations in seasoning or frying method, these point to what sets Byrd & Barrel apart from the fried-chicken brood.
This is essentially a fast-food or, if you prefer, fast-casual restaurant. It’s in the bones: The space used to be a Popeyes, and you can order from a drive-thru window. And while there are ironic touches — you can see the quotes around Nugz from the banks of the Mississippi — Brazell is sincere in his mission. “Our main goal is to try to change the fast-food game,” he told me in the fall.
The restaurant sources chicken and many other products from local farms. Dipping sauces both conventional (ranch, mustard, barbecue) and not (two excellent aiolis among them, one sesame, the other peppadew-pepper) are made from scratch. The tots ($3) nail the ratio of crisp fried exterior to tender potato interior that even real-deal Tater Tots™ rarely reach.
You might call this the Chipotle model if Chipotle wasn’t more concerned right now with crisis management than with carnitas. Rather than some generic fast-casual template, however, Byrd & Barrel is following the trend best embodied locally by Guerrilla Street Food: investing the convenience and affordability of fast-casual dining with a chef’s thoughtfulness and creativity.
There are playful touches. The mac and cheese ($4) features a Provel bechamel and is topped with crumbled Red Hot Riplets, and the love-it-or-hate-it cheese blend turns out to be the ideal pick for a wonderfully goopy, lightly tangy sauce spiced up by the chips.
Though served atop wax paper on metal trays, a few dishes transcend the fast-casual moniker. The aforementioned peppadew aioli and a prickly salsa verde spike the mellow sweetness of the roasted cauliflower appetizer ($6). The Byrd Red Curry ($16) serves hunks of fried chicken over a barley risotto, with cauliflower, scallions and carrots, all of it boldly seasoned with a hot, cumin-forward curry blend and a hint of cooling coconut.
Most striking is the Yard Bird ($20): the breast and thigh meat of a game hen connected with Activa (aka “meat glue”), rolled up in caul fat, cooked in a sous-vide bath and then finished to order in a cast-iron skillet. Served with charred onion and candied carrots over popcorn grits creamy with white cheddar, the dish smartly straddles both modernist technique and down-home cookin’.
A few dishes miss the mark. My serving of the Mother Clucker ($8) fried-chicken sandwich with Provel, Red Hot Riplets and a hot-pepper jelly was bogged down in a goopy, overly sweet tangle of caramelized onions. Savory beignets ($4) studded with chives and slicked with garlic butter were too doughy.
The beverage program features a well-curated selection of canned craft beer as well as a few macrobrews. If you’re a fan of Vess sodas, you’re in luck: A dozen varieties are available. If you want a glass of iced tea, you’re not.
A pop-culture expert will find as much a material to mine here as this restaurant critic did. Rows of metal lunchboxes are illustrated with designs from MTV, Peanuts, video games — more references than I could track. A flat-screen TV flashes screenshots from Super Mario Bros. Some employees wear T-shirts with Byrd & Barrel written inside the Wu-Tang Clan’s logo, and the ghost-chile sauce’s label riffs on one of the hip-hop collective’s most famous boasts. It is, indeed, nothin’ to cluck with.
Did those acts of appropriation, in a hip restaurant in a gentrifying neighborhood, make me stop and think? It did. And that’s OK, I think. Like any worthwhile addition to a dining scene, Byrd & Barrel doesn’t just serve delicious food, it lets us consider how food braids together so many issues — class, race and culture, both historical and popular. This tiny restaurant is, in fact, much bigger on the inside.
Where Byrd & Barrel, 3422 South Jefferson Avenue • 2½ stars out of four • More info 314-875-9998; byrdandbarrel.com • Menu Fast-casual fried chicken with a chef’s creative touch • Hours Lunch and dinner daily
★ Fair ★★ Good ★★★ Excellent ★★★★ Extraordinary