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Matt and Michelle Crawford are the type of creative, innovative hard working folks that give me hope that the American free market is still alive and, God willing, will continue to thrive in Athens, Alabama. Matt was born and raised in upstate New York, and worked for many years in several capacities at various eateries in Charlotte, North Carolina. Michelle was raised in Elkmont, worked for Wells Fargo in Community Relations there in Charlotte, and had a wedding catering business on the side. Both of them know the risks as well as the rewards of owning a business in the hospitality industry, and, essentially, against all odds, opened up Picasso’s Grill on Hwy 72 in Athens near Starbuck’s this past November. Their family helped with everything from building the bar to the furniture, Michelle upholstered the painted church pews as well as painted and designed the wall décor, and the result is a comfortable, trendy pub.
They chose the name Picasso’s, they told me, “Not so much because Picasso is our favorite artist, it was that we wanted to show our support for local artists.” And one of their plans is to display the works of regional artists on the walls of their charming bistro. I suppose if one were going to split hairs, Picasso’s lands somewhere between being a bistro and a brasserie, and, in my view, is just what Athens needs.
Their vision was to give residents of Northern Alabama the opportunity to “tiptoe out and try new foods that are different from traditional southern fare,” and to be able to do so in a friendly atmosphere. I have personally watched Matt greet customers with his one year old son on his hip during the Friday night rush, and I also know that he is no slouch as a restaurateur, the French word for restaurant owner. Michelle also mentioned that one of their reasons for opening Picasso’s was that they “wanted to work together.” Their kids are small, and so, like Americans of many generations, they are juggling being entrepreneurs and parents.
Matt worked for a good while in Charlotte with Chef Jabari Mayes, who has signed on as the Executive Chef at Picasso’s. Between Chef Jabari’s culinary talents and Matt and Michelle’s progressive vision, they have developed a menu that is a savory blend of southern fare, haute cuisine and pub style offerings that I can say from experience work well.
For example, their signature piece is entitled Southern Chicken, is priced at $16, and is brilliant. It is described as follows: “Grilled chicken topped with homemade pimento cheese, shallots, mushrooms and bacon, drizzled with a red wine reduction sauce, served on mashed potatoes.” Indeed, it is the best of all worlds. The night I ate at Picasso’s, I was with friends, and we decided to go with a trio of appetizers rather than a full entrée, only because we weren’t starving. I chose the Classic Hummus, and my friends chose the Asian Pork Wraps and the Wings with Jabari sauce. Sweet, spicy, and tender were the wings. Everything else was scrumptious, and the wines were just right. The soups are made from scratch, and there are chef’s specials on a daily basis. Our server innocently tried to interest us in a dessert of deep fried Oreos, but the appetizers were generous enough in size to make that choice unnecessary.
It is important to know that another one of the commitments Picasso’s makes to their clients is that “everything is fresh, and, as much as possible, is local, and nothing is ever frozen.” There is no way to describe what a difference this makes to the level of satisfaction one can expect with their menu. They make their own dressings, their own desserts, and most importantly, their desire is for all of Athens to “taste the love that goes into the food.”
Speaking of love, Valentine’s Day is coming soon, and the menu is being firmed up for what is traditionally one of the biggest days of the year for restaurants, both large and small. Both Matt and Jabari would only “tease” what was going to be on the special menu for the 14th of February, but there will certainly be a serious chocolate presence as a way to finish up the celebration. “There will be a flourless chocolate cake, as well as triple chocolate crepes,” they told me. Picasso’s is now taking reservations for February 14th, and expects to be very busy. Make your reservations soon by calling 256-262-9064, and give you and your special someone the chance to sample special fare on a special day.
1260 US Hwy 72 E Athens, AL 35611
Open for lunch and dinner Monday thru Saturday, and for lunch on Sunday
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner