Ladybird Grove & Mess Hall in Atlanta wasn’t our choice as a holiday shoot location for its aesthetic alone; the creative inspiration behind the restaurant’s campfire theme found in everything from its décor to food specialties left us curious about the creative process that inspired the unique idea. We sat down with the owner Michael Lennox who took a long-winded route leading him to college in Virginia and law school in North Carolina before returning back to his roots in Atlanta and opening up Ladybird along the BeltLine.
Why this restaurant? Tell us about the path that brought you here.
My way of keeping up with what was happening in town was through restaurants and new projects happening in town, so I had been following the BeltLine for a long time and was really pumped up about it. I didn’t know what or when or how, but I thought it would be really cool to do something with the BeltLine in the future. When I got out of law school, I ended up practicing with a small firm that focuses on tech startups and venture capital investor deals and got plugged into the tech startup world here in town. I was spending a lot of time learning about people who were starting their own businesses, seeing how it fits together and how people get their business going. All the while, since I was 18, I had been really into cooking and food. If I wasn’t working or doing anything else, I was probably cooking or going out to eat. So, between having that sort of kernel thought around restaurants and the BeltLine and being around a lot of startup types, the wheels really started to stead in terms of doing something restaurant-focused. Fast forward to the end of 2012, the BeltLine had just opened on the eastside trail. My wife and I lived in Decatur and used to ride our bikes along the trail a lot. It was the first time I had seen the backs of a lot of these buildings, and it just blew my mind. There are so many cool buildings. I’ve lived in this city my entire life, and I didn’t know this existed. Atlanta gets a lot of flack for losing its history and not having old buildings. It was just a no-brainer to try to do something like this.
How did you come up with the concept, from the name down to the logo and menus?
I definitely wanted it to be outdoor-focused but wasn’t sure what direction I wanted to take it. I went out and visited my brother in Jackson, Wyoming and had the chance to go hiking and camping in Yellowstone. The light bulb went off that if we modeled this in the spirit of a national park rest stop, it would tie everything together and really bridge the gap between the inside and the outside. So I took that pearl of an idea. I later ended up going to Austin, Texas to do “research” and there’s a lake literally in the center of town, Ladybird Lake, and I thought that was kind of interesting. This big natural park space in an urban setting, I thought there were some parallels to what we were doing here. So I looked into Ladybird Johnson, and she was big in to preserving the natural park system and planting wild flowers along the highways. I wanted to do an homage, a nod, to her, if you will. The logo, in a lot of ways, is a gateway into this broader idea about going out and exploring. That’s the whole idea- we’re trying to get people to have nostalgic feelings about fun times that they’ve had like hiking with friends or camping with their family. I just took that general national park idea and ran with it. That ran that into the menus to turn them into a pocket guide that you imagine having in your back pocket, folding out, trying to figure out where you’re going. But, I wanted to do it in a way that was tasteful and cool.
Do you have a design background?
I don’t have any design background, my handwriting is horrific and I can’t really draw to save my life, but this is my outlet. I worked with a graphic designer to create the menus. I worked with a couple of different people to do parts of the interior. This local guy, David Kawaski, did the map wall and some of the frames. I got a muralist to do the outdoor mural. I found or had built all the furniture, found all of the lighting and sourced all of the reclaimed wood and little knick-knacks that I just picked up along the way. It was super fun.
What’s your favorite spot or object in the restaurant – something that really speaks to you?
The flag is probably my favorite piece in here, it’s a 20-foot, 48 star flag. It was pretty damaged when I got it. Rather than repair the cloth, we worked with this lady who ended up sewing white strips over the stripes with a blue thread. If you look close up, it almost looks kind of like a quilt, which I thought was cool. The mural is kind of a cool story, too. There was a big, crazy thing on the outside of the building when we took over the space. It was a huge bird with a TV set for a head on some imaginary planet. That had been here for about a decade. I thought it was really cool, but it didn’t fit with what we were doing. We ended up covering it up and putting a window in, but I had been thinking about doing a mural inside. I thought it would be really cool to track that guy down and see if he would be interested in doing a mural inside, so his work could live on in the space. I got in touch the artist, Sam Harper, and told him about the concept of a dark horse inn with a grizzly bear and an owl. It’s definitely a statement piece, walking in and seeing a huge grizzly bear. There are a lot of fun stories that happened over the course of putting this together.
What’s your favorite dish that you serve here?
A signature dish and it’s still a favorite of mine, it’s family style so it’s hard to go after it, is the spatchcock chicken. That was something I wanted to do from day one. We take a big plank of wood, take a whole chicken and do this quasi-spice rub on it. We cut the breastbone open, lay it flat on the grill, and you get a really crispy, skin that’s still juicy at the same time. We put that up on a big board with grilled vegetables, peppers, salsas and tortillas. The idea is that you can turn it in to tacos if you want. That’s the style of food that I love personally. That dish is a good synopsis of the concept in a lot of ways where I’m trying to think of how can we get a camping idea without it being ultra Cracker Barrel traditional and update it to where it’s a little bit more contemporary. If I’m hanging out with my friends, I’m going to be grilling something and probably turning it into tacos. Hopefully, people can relate to that in some ways. That’s the whole idea, take the general idea of camping and do a little bit of a reboot on it.
Where to next?
I’m definitely still very much enjoying this, and this is always going to be my baby and certainly my number one focus as it sits. The overall feel and sweet spot that I was hoping to capture here is blurring the lines between a bar and a restaurant so that people can come and sort of build their own experience. If they just want to come and have a snack and beer, they can do it. If they want to have a really good beer, we’ve got a ton of it. The idea is to have a really wide range of good options and then give our guests the option to go in whichever direction they choose. We’re looking at doing a bunch of stuff in this outdoor area that’s sort of in development. The idea out there is to take our outdoor space, which was part of the original concept, and set up different seating arrangements with retro patio furniture, fire pits, games, coals, s’more pits. If they let me, I’m trying to get a vintage camper trailer and turn it into a bar and have an outdoor bar. Fingers crossed, that’s the next step.
Michael is photographed wearing our Expedition Yarn Dye Flannel Shirt. Shop similar shirts here.
WRITTEN BY NURAIN ALICHARAN
PHOTOS BY TIMBER COLLECTIVE