Brews Through: Songbird Cafe
Past the deer and occasional wild turkey on North Campus, beyond the research complexes and Environmental Protection Agency field office, lies a stretch of strip malls with grocery stores and gyms with vacant parking lots. Along Plymouth Road, among stores with yellowing signs and mounds of snow taking up parking spaces, there’s a place that is always full — the Songbird Cafe.
The first time I came here was a little less than a year ago. I came with my roommates to escape the back-to-school campus craze on a Sunday morning. We sat among families on their way back from church, graduate students and other groups of friends like ourselves.
Today, I’m here to enjoy the atmosphere and let the coffee meddle with my thoughts. I start with a spicy ginger tea and order a dirty chai latte. The Songbird Cafe is one of the cafes that has realized good coffee needs good food with it. My green tea muffin with candied ginger and walnuts makes my latte taste even better.
The American eatery serves brunch, lunch and baked goods with a full coffee bar. The Songbird Cafe is creative, without trying too hard — it feels like home, and less like an Instagram showroom. Chestnut brown tables and chairs are lined along the window, comfy couches and stools filling the inside. The pale wallpaper balances the darkness of the wood. The lamps are splattered in a rusty silver that lights the artwork and dry flowers on the back wall. Natural light floods the other half. As it gets darker outside, the lamps feel brighter.
Artisan sandwiches and lattes are written on a chalkboard up front that makes you want to read the entire menu because the cursive handwriting is fun to follow with your eyes. They have omelets with Gouda, bacon, mushrooms and caramelized onions. The grilled cheese comes with apple butter on Italian bread. The tangerine-lavender hot chocolate always catches my eye. Fresh muffins, cookies and bundt cakes are lined by the cashier. I want to try everything on the menu.
The Songbird Cafe turns off Wi-Fi on weekends during brunch and lunch hours. I like that the cafe isn’t all clatter from keyboards and sound leaking from headphones, but conversation. When conversation stops, there’s music instead. They are the only cafe I know of that does this in Ann Arbor, and it works. People fill the space, the way the smell of coffee and baked goods do — they come to enjoy each other’s company.
There are families and couples, people that come alone with a good book. It feels like a cafe, the way it’s always buzzing, but mellow at the same time. The workers are friendly and I always ask what their favorite pastry is before I order. I don’t know if it’s a uniform, but I like that they dress in earth tone sweaters and lots of grays. They seem happy here, unlike the baristas I’ve encountered at some other coffee shops.
The cafe makes you warm from the inside, like it’s Christmas year-round. Coming here, sitting in the corner and watching families talk, couples play thumb games with Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” playing in the back, takes me home with my family.
It’s nostalgic. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe it’s because my grandma’s mountain house is different shades of brown with dried lavender stems in white ceramic vases. Maybe it’s because my mom used to wash, cut and fry potatoes from scratch like Songbird does. Maybe it’s because I come from a family that never allowed electronics at the dinner table. Maybe it’s because my brother is in the hospital on the other side of the planet and I can’t do anything but sit here and write and drink my latte. Seeing siblings trade bites of their sandwich, old married couples share coffee, people on the phone laughing at jokes I can’t hear, makes me miss home. But maybe that’s OK too.
Songbird Cafe is a people place. It’s special in the way it values its customers and gives them space to breathe — it’s hard to find places like this. For students and faculty on campus, it’s a getaway. It’s further from the noise and competition, but sure worth the hike. It’s a nook in a strip mall I’m happy I found.
There are medical students talking about their first rotation, old friends reuniting, people talking about the future, others journaling. It makes me appreciate the company I’m with, the communities I’m a part of. It’s calming, the way cafes are in movies and books, the way I picture them in my head.