Walking inside past the smattering of tables, most of the main floor of Byrd's Market and Cafe is dedicated to the market side of things. Stainless steel shelves hold your basic sundry items—peanut butter, pasta, detergent—and display cases offer wheels of asiago cheese and prosciutto. "Before we were here, people who lived downtown had to get in their cars and drive to Randall's if they ran out of milk," says owner Rusty Powers, whose enthusiasm for the hybrid store-market is palpable.
It's as much a throwback as a vision of the future of downtown Houston. Before everything was a supercenter, people could actually run to the corner store or general store and grab a soda or a sandwich. And now that Whole Foods, Central Market and even Spec's have brought lunching back to the market, it makes sense that someone could take the concept even further. But Byrd's isn't a small market that happens to serve some hot food. Byrd's is a phenomenal bistro that also happens to offer coffee (that's fair trade coffee blended and roasted to Powers's specs by Lola Savannah coffee and delivered still warm from the roaster, to be exact) and pastries for morning commuters and some essential groceries for downtown dwellers.
The best seat in the house is in the upstairs alcove, in the corner next to the bay window with a near-panoramic view of Main and Prairie Streets. It's a simple but homey vibe that matches the cuisine, which Powers calls classic American comfort food with a healthy, California twist.
We started with an appetizer of crispy sweet potato fries that comes with a quartet of dipping sauces: an addictive white cheddar cheese ("I put it on everything," confesses Powers), a North Carolina-style barbecue sauce, a sweet plum balsamic and a delicious apple molasses aioli. The meatloaf bites, (made with prime ground chuck) were addictive, and the tuna bites were a pleasant surprise, with a sprinkling of BBQ sauce on top complementing the smoked flavor.
As for the entrees, the flatiron steak was cooked perfectly and soaked up the flavor of the spicy creole honey mustard dressing covering mixed greens and pico de gallo. But the plate stand-out was the handful of onion rings, not at all greasy, lightly battered and with a zest from chili powder. They aren't on the menu by themselves, but Powers says if anyone asks they can be whipped up.
But the lunch crowd at Byrd's is partial to the burgers, and it's easy to see why. Powers is a self-described burger geek, and every offering on his burger menu is nothing short of gourmet, with the patties made of 100% brisket. My eyes literally teared up as I took a bite of the Back to Cali burger with smashed avocado, sprouts, bacon, pico de gallo, cheddar cheese and caramelized onion. I'm not usually one to add that healthy riff-raff to a burger, but this is a new level of good.
For dessert, we decided it was too chilly for the Trentino gelato and tried the Elvis P&B, mini peanut butter and banana sandwiches with toffee sauce drizzled on top. It's the first dish in the meal I found meh—it's not bad, but too bready. The next dessert, the pecan pie brownie, was just the opposite. It's essentially a delicious oversize mess of oozy pecan filling and rich chocolate brownie, mashed up and served in a large mixing bowl with some housemade vanilla ice cream on top. It was so sweet I could only consume a fraction of the goodness, but that's probably for the best before I have to set my belt a notch looser.
Byrd's fits a lot of niches that downtown desperately needs—not just market-wise, but also as an affordable but quality dining experience, and as a place that's open straight through from breakfast to dinner. Powers may lament Houston's auto-centered culture, but this place, I think, is good enough to drive in for.