Architectstasy.

Put a Little Song(bird) In My Heart

You know that feeling of pleasant surprise when someone who does something you love, does it well a second time?  When you see a movie sequel expecting shallow reproductions of the same jokes, and are instead presented with fresh new material that makes you laugh all over again; or a singer whose standout first album is followed up by a second with as much heart and originality; or an author whose first book is so strong you can’t imagine another one…until the next one comes out and you discover with shock that it’s just as un-put-downable as the first book?

A young patron places an order for something yummy.

A young patron places an order for something yummy.

Ann Arbor, you’re in for a treat.

The Songbird Cafe, for the last three years the invigorating anchor of an increasingly vibrant Plymouth Road strip mall, has just opened a second West Side location on Jackson Road.  Owner Jenny Song and her family did something unexpected in their first location; they transformed a space previously occupied by Greek greasy spoon Flim Flam into a charming, lively, beautiful cafe.  When you think “strip mall”, you rarely think “inviting,” “comfortable,” or “unusually delicious;” yet that is what they managed to pull off.  It’s worked, too; what had previously felt like just another soulless shopping center is now home to a Pakistani grocery store, lively yoga studio, Indian street food, and many more active and growing businesses.  It’s situated right on multiple transit lines and is safe for walking and biking, so there is healthy bustle around the shopping center all day long.  The long windows to the cafe are uncluttered by blinds or curtains, so you can see deep into the restaurant, and what you see is pleasing to the eye: a tempting bakery counter, outsized handwritten chalk menu, friendly seating for moms and babies, families, study groups, individuals, first dates.  Bare lightbulbs contrast with plush easy chairs and give the place a modern gemütlichkeit that should be a dynamic tension and instead feels gracefully effortless.  It’s a place and look that totally shouldn’t work, and yet it totally does.

So one can be forgiven for not expecting much of the second Songbird.

When owner Jenny Song mentioned earlier this spring that she was opening a second location, I felt a  little dread; when she shared the location, I felt a lot.  I knew it, you see; it’s a cheerless, characterless little building on a cheerless, characterless little stretch of bloated parkway leading out of Ann Arbor.

A mix of materials keep the cafe feeling both familiar and fresh.

A mix of materials keep the cafe feeling both familiar and fresh.

The former location of a Grand Traverse Coffee Company franchise, the previous business had been undone by wretched weather and months of nearly impassable road construction.  For a retail shop counting on incidental customers, the combination was deadly; it was forced to close.  Song took the opportunity, snapped up the location, and she and her family had been preparing for months.  Shortly after the 4th of July weekend this year, she opened.

The magic is not only not gone, she’s pulled a new magic trick: creating a location that is faithful in feel to the original without duplicating every detail.

Owner Jenny Song:  “My mom and I enjoy the ‘updated vintage’ vibe because we like to create something that feels familiar yet fresh and interesting”; not, she notes, unlike their approach to the menu.  One of the elements that makes the original location work so well is how many different kinds of seating types and arrangements there are: counter, tables and benches, individual spots, easy chairs.  They wanted to recreate the same lively and inviting interior, but the new location, although it’s a freestanding building, posed a challenge: they only had one third the square footage to work with.

Congratulations, Song family; you did it.  Although the variety is a little smaller at Songbird West, the tables a little closer, yours still feels like the neighborhood cafe it truly is.  And even though it’s on one of the largest and busiest thoroughfares in Ann Arbor, the number of runners, walkers, cyclists, and stroller-joggers that came in gave the impression that  it’s nestled right in the middle of a cozy neighborhood.

Song again:  “Even though the new space is smaller, we hope that it will become a space where

Vignettes like this flooring detail keep an apparently straightforward space surprising, dynamic, and inviting.

Vignettes like this flooring detail keep an apparently straightforward space surprising, dynamic, and inviting.

friends, co-workers, and family enjoy meeting, gathering, and feel a sense of community just as Plymouth Road has provided that type of community.”  Speaking from personal experience, in just a few short weeks, she’s already accomplished that.  In my first visit, during the space of one latte, I ran into two former coworkers and a friend and had the chance to catch up with folks I haven’t seen in a while.

If you haven’t checked out the Songbird on Plymouth, I encourage you to do so.  What should by rights be a cheerless strip mall anchor location is in fact a cheerful, modern, delectable space that welcomes and serves its community in an unusually successful way.

And if you haven’t checked out the new Songbird on Jackson, I encourage you once again.  Whether you’re headed downtown for some serious people-watching or out of town to run errands, the location (right across from the 94 on-ramp) is perfect for a quick drop-in…but leave a little extra time, in case you decide to stay a while.

A mix of materials from floor to ceiling gives the eye plenty to do.

A mix of materials from floor to ceiling gives the eye plenty to do.

Upon entry, one is greeted by a striking counter, and you know right away you've come someplace special.

Upon entry, one is greeted by a striking counter, and you know right away you’ve come someplace special.

Jenny Song is the only person I know who can make bare bulbs feel cozy.

Jenny Song is the only person I know who can make bare bulbs feel cozy.

songbird cafe-menu

The outsized handwritten menu takes quiet, effective advantage of an otherwise awkward wall, and invites leisurely perusal.

Subtle transitions distinguish different areas in the dining room.

Subtle transitions distinguish different areas in the dining room.

songbird cafe-treats

And if this weren’t an architecture criticism blog, I’d tell you all about how delicious the menu is, too, including the coffee syrups she makes in-house (like vanilla bean and rosemary sea salt caramel).

1 Comment

  1. Cindy Griffith
    September 5, 2015 - Reply

    Well, now I want to go there. 🙂

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