The Mockingbird Café
The 'Bird turned ten this year and in just a decade, has become an indepensible part of the community fabric - for lots of different reasons.
- story and photos by Ellis Anderson, food photos courtesy Mockingbird
Tourists see the Mockingbird as Bay St. Louis central, a don’t-miss destination that encapsulates the spirit of the town. Foodies cite the creative spin on comfort food that delights all palates. Burger fans will tell you that the Mockingburger has been named one of the best burgers in the state (and is in the running again!).
Art aficionados will rave about the constantly revolving shows of art there. Music lovers name it as the place to enjoy top-drawer performers with no cover charge. Ask a kid and they’re likely to tell you about the blackboard fence where they can draw murals, or the way they can dance right in front of the stage.
But what’s probably the main reason for the Mockingbird’s popularity isn’t as obvious. While it’s constantly growing and evolving, its original warm character stays the same.
“It’s about making our community the best place it can be,” says owner Alicein Wonderland Schwabacher.
And sometimes that means trying new approaches. For instance, the Mockingbird’s unique (and we don’t use the word lightly) project, Taking Care of Biscuits, has been quietly rolling along for more than a year now. Every Friday, the café’s staff gifts one local business with a large plate of warm biscuits and a selection of homemade jams.
“The name came about because as kids, my sister and I sang the song “Taking Care of Business” incorrectly,” says Alicein laughing. “But it’s been a great way to promote other local businesses and to thank them for being part of Bay St. Louis. It’s very well received.”
Well, who wouldn’t be thrilled with a plate of the fresh, out-of-the-oven, melt-in-your-mouth type of biscuits your grandmother used to make, except maybe even better? The Bird’s biscuits even caught the eye of Paula Deen and will be featured in an upcoming issue of her magazine.
But Grandma was never this creative: Each month, the Mockingbird features a new flavor of biscuit, like sweet potato casserole or Satsuma vanilla bean. There’s always a new muffin of the month too, with homerun favorites like caramelized apple and brie and dark chocolate peppermint.
Chef Julie Ragusa, a New Orleans native, has been the wizard behind the curtain in the Mockingbird kitchen since 2013. A graduate of the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York, she apprenticed in both New York City and Belgium and has extensive experience working in Europe as a chocolatier and with vegan and organic foods. She moved to the Bay to be closer to her family in 2013. The Mockingbird had just begun serving breakfast, and Julie stepped up to the plate.
“I’m so lucky,” Julie says. “This is the job of my dreams. They are very supportive of any idea I bring to the table. So we’re going crazy and everyone’s loving it.”
“Crazy” includes ramping up the bakery end of things full-tilt-boogie since Julie now presides over two other bakers at the Bird. So customers coming in for a latte are likely to find mouthwatering cobblers made with fresh vanilla beans, or triple-layer buttermilk cakes with homemade jam and berries between each layer. Custom cakes can now be special ordered, including wedding cakes. They’re also baking for special events across the coast.
The café’s menu will also be growing this spring. Waffles will be making a reappearance at breakfast, and you can look for creative small plates in the evening.
“Right now we serve dinner on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, and the menu is the same as our lunch one,” Julie says. “Lunch is going to be expanded and in the evenings, we’ll offer something a little different. It’s very exciting.”
But although big changes are in store, true to form the Mockingbird will still be sticking to the foods that made it popular to begin with. “Home-cooked comfort food, with our own flair,” says Julie. “And everything will still be made in-house, from scratch.”
The community market is another facet of the Bird that is evolving. Held in the parking lot of the café on the last Friday evening of each month, Mr. Atticus’s Night Market began two years ago. Local artisans set up tables, offering everything from fresh flowers to jewelry to fresh fruit. There’s always live music too, and a show opening at Smith & Lens Gallery next door.
“We always have a grab bag of artisans,” says Alicein. “The one constant is that the market keeps on growing. Now, we’re fortunate to have teamed up with the Arts, Hancock [the local arts organization]. That helps us promote new and young artists who haven’t had much opportunity to show their work.”
The Mockingbird has also become a hot spot for regional — and even international — performers. An Italian bluegrass band performed twice last year and will be returning this spring to perform for Second Saturday. Even though none of the members are fluent in English, the happy vibe of the Mockingbird needs no translation, and the band feels right at home.
The fact that the café is kid-friendly fosters that “town living room” feeling, and the Bird is one of the only music venues on the coast that caters to families. Live performances are always lively. Serious music aficionados laugh as children dart through the crowd or hula-hoop to songs. Performances are usually from 6–9 p.m., so everyone from toddlers to the seniors can attend. But at the end of the evening, nobody wants to go home.
She says that she and partner Rebekah Wilke, along with Martin Chambers, have been committed to fostering community and creating a welcoming space for families since the doors first opened.
“Evenings out like that as a family help instill a love of music and art, and it’s our job as parents to facilitate that,” says Alicein.
As an informal welcome center for Bay St. Louis, the Bird’s staff — several who have worked there from the beginning — have a bird’s eye view of current trends in the city.
“We’ve seen the town growing by leaps and bounds and have more new faces who return every weekend,” says Alicein. “People fall in love with the Bay and eventually want to move here.”
“We have a great team here; we’re like a family really. And we’re going to continue trying to make Bay St. Louis the best place possible.”