When you step into the basement where Little Bird Coffee Bar is nested just off the Avenue in Hampden, the charm rises up to greet you.
It comes from the vintage-looking tables with covers patterned like blue china. From the exposed brick walls decorated with plates and old photos. And from the curved, intimate bar, where coffee and cocktails are served. Above all, from the vibrant food. (The prices are awfully charming, too.)
Looking like a place you’d find tucked in the corner of some adorable Italian village (I envisioned the Abruzzo region), this breakfast-and-lunch cafe is a recent offshoot of the chic Bluebird Cocktail Bar upstairs. Cocktails, liqueurs, beer and wine are available in Little Bird, too, but the main draw here is the menu, which has a pronounced Italian accent, with some French, too.
If you’re looking only for a traditional Continental breakfast (the type lamented by ravenous American tourists in Europe), Little Bird obliges with an excellent baguette with first-rate butter and, on our visit, an apple-buttery kind of house-made jam.
We weren’t as impressed with the sweet pastry available the day we stopped by — a rather dry, personality-less version of a sticky bun — but that disappointment was quickly forgotten as we left Continental restraint behind and advanced to egg dishes.
A sandwich of scrambled egg, Parmigiano-Reggiano, tomato and truffle aioli on white toast oozed flavor and freshness, without tasting overly rich.
The star of the breakfast, though, was the soft boiled egg, served in a proper egg cup and cooked perfectly — the yolk silky and creamy; the whites done, but not too firm. The crowning touch came from thin strips of toast wrapped with pieces of exquisitely crisp prosciutto.
Barely resisting the temptation to order several more of those eggs, we moved on to lunch sandwiches, each accompanied by a welcome side of perky pickled peppers.
A tuna sandwich may seem routine, but the treatment here sprang to life with the help of hard boiled eggs, olives and a lemon aioli, served on another of those great baguettes.
The tomato sandwich also found favor. It was sort of like a caprese salad on a baguette, with first-rate mozzarella partnering the fine tomatoes with support from basil, olive oil and aged balsamic vinegar.
The sight of the “French hot dog” — a grass-fed beef hot dog in a crunchy casing, partially emerging from a mustard-dressed baguette — generated way too many off-color jokes at the table. But it had such a hearty taste that I would have welcomed an even bigger, um, size.
For dessert, we turned back to the breakfast list and chose the fruit bowl, which offered beautiful layers of thin-sliced pear, apple and watermelon in a subtle dressing of olive oil and salt. (Little Bird has a pronounced appreciation for salt, which popped out in several of the things we tried.)
We also sampled granita, an icy Italian treat that, on this occasion, was vividly flavored with orange.
As for libations, I can’t vouch for the coffee, not being a partaker of that particular beverage, or the cocktails (it was too early in the day even for me). But the full-bodied tea, both iced and hot, commanded respect.
Supple and attentive service, as well as very appetizing, Mediterranean-flavored music on the sound system, made the experience of dining at Little Bird all the more refreshing.
Little Bird Coffee Bar
3600 Hickory Ave., Hampden
Cuisine: Breakfast and lunch, mostly with Italian touches.
Prices: Breakfast $2 to $11; lunch $6 to $12.
Ambience: The quaintly decorated room evokes an Italian village cafe.
Service: Charming and responsive.
Parking: Metered and free street parking.
Special diets: They can be accommodated.
Wheelchair accessible: No, but there are outdoor tables on the sidewalk in front.