Nestled between Starkville’s quaint downtown and Mississippi State University is a beautiful collection of classical architecture in understated blues, reds and yellows, conjuring images of New Orleans, France and even Greece and Rome. This neighborhood, known as the Cotton District, is slowly becoming the beating heart of the growing college town.
Dan Camp began renewing the neighborhood in 1969, and over the past 47 years has become credited with starting and leading the new-urbanism movement — preceding and inspiring communities like Seaside and Celebration in Florida.
While The Cotton District literally connects Downtown Starkville and Mississippi State University along University Drive, it also serves as a symbolic connection — bringing students and permanent residents together through its living spaces, restaurants, bars, shops and communal outdoor spaces.
The neighborhood is characterized by its small, intentionally designed spaces priced in a way to encourage young entrepreneurs and restaurateurs to act on their ideas. Above each business and all throughout the neighborhood are similarly designed living spaces that attract students and established residents alike to live in the very community where they go to school, work, eat and gather with friends.
Camp said the residential growth has a lot to do with the success of the businesses and vice versa.
“This growth is something I planned, and it’s two-fold,” said Camp. “You have to have places for people to live — we do that in a way that they can walk to these destinations, and any given night there could be thousands of people out at night in front of these places — these restaurants.”
Intentional community may be the most obvious trait of the Cotton District, with narrow streets surrounded on either side by sidewalks and patios. Most sunny days find hundreds of people enjoying lunch, happy hour, dinner and late night conversations on these patios, sipping drinks and enjoying the late-night menus from the various neighborhood restaurants.
“There is a true sense of community among the residents, and we are certainly honored to be their neighborhood watering hole,” said Brian Kelley, who co-owns Bin 612 with Chef Ty Thames — longtime staple of The Cotton District. “The Cotton District is its own community within Starkville. It is the most walkable area in the city, and its connection to the beautiful Mississippi State campus makes for an easily walkable commute for a lot of the residents.”
Bin 612 has served as a rallying point for The Cotton District since it opened just over 10 years ago. Its large outdoor seating area directly across the street from the large fountain that marks the center of the neighborhood is rarely empty and its late-night cheese fries menu has become legendary. The restaurant and bar offers a classic bar atmosphere with a quality, upscale menu that isn’t out of place in the pub atmosphere — from salmon and pork chops to burgers and pizza.
“We have certainly seen a lot of positive changes in Starkville and the Cotton District over the past decade,” Kelley said. “…It has been fun to watch the neighborhood grow in every direction around us. We have some great new restaurants and businesses in the area along with an ever increasing population that will help the Cotton District continue to flourish.”
From Bin 612’s patio, visitors can see plenty of other watering hole options, from the Fountain Bar’s classic college bar atmosphere to Gringo’s taco shop and south-of-the-border-themed drinks.
Across the street is one of Camp’s more recent developments, the Rue Du Grand Fromage — a brick street with beautiful yellow- and salmon-colored three-story living spaces with first-floor restaurants.
“You won’t find any new street in the country built like the Rue Du Grand Fromage,” Camp said proudly.
Along the Rue Du Grand Fromage, a nearby brick-lined street wide enough for one car to pass comfortably, visitors can find a range of culinary offerings at one of the ally’s two restaurants, each operating out of fewer than 1,000 square feet of combined kitchen, bar and dining space.
“We have small spaces that are affordable,” said Camp. “If you’re in college, you might want to try a business that does this or that but can’t afford most spaces that rent for $5,000 a month — all your capital would go to your space.”
Camp said the small spaces generate more potential than larger developments would.
Commodore Bob’s Yacht Club, a gastropub, offers high-concept dishes and cocktails.
“Starkville needed something like this,” said Brady Hindman, who runs the restaurant with Chef Caleb Nabors. “I was tired of going out to eat and then thinking I could cook it better. I wanted to make food that I can’t cook at my house.”
The young restaurateurs opened Commodore Bob’s in 2013 and have since been turning heads with what Hindman calls an eccentric amalgamation of worldly cuisine and seasonally refreshed drink menu.
“We have a Croque-monsieur — local ham from West Point and beer soaked cheddar and Swiss cheese — all the way up to our shrimp po’boy, double bone-in boudin stuffed pork chop, fresh fish and weekly soup,” Hindman said. “The combination of the small atmosphere — it’s an 870-square foot building where we’re only serving nine tables at a time — with the food we’re putting out makes for a great experience.”
Hindman expertly crafts the drinks and mans the front-of-house responsibilities while Nabors works diligently in the open kitchen in a way that makes diners feel like they’re eating at a friend’s house — if that friend were an award winning chef.
Across the street, Two Brothers Smoked Meats boasts an eclectic collection of smoked chicken, pork, beef and duck dishes and bills itself as the best place to catch a beer, hearty bite to eat and football game. From a classic burger to pork street tacos and duck sliders, Two Brothers Smoked Meats offers quality and stays true to its name.
For visitors looking for an exciting take on tried and true dishes, the newly opened Bulldog Burger offers a large menu of chef-inspired burgers.
Robin Fant, Bulldog Burger partner, first brought a restaurant to the Cotton District in 1987 with Bulldog Deli. As the neighborhood grew and evolved, he saw the need to adapt his restaurant to meet the needs of the clientele. He and his partners renovated the restaurant in an effort to better match the hip nature of the neighborhood and enlisted chefs Matt Bronski and Joe Bullock to develop a burger menu using interesting and fresh ingredients.
“We knew that if we wanted to fit into the Cotton District market — it’s a night destination area — we had to change the concept,” Fant said. “We toured Nashville, Atlanta and Dallas to see what other chefs were doing and the reception in the neighborhood and town could not have been better.”
The Cotton District will play host to thousands of visitors April 16 with the annual Cotton District Arts Festival and Super Bulldog Weekend. The Cotton District Arts Festival will feature more than 125 artisans as well as the Taste of Starkville restaurant competition, songwriters competition and art competitions. Less than a mile down the road Super Bulldog Weekend will kick off the 2016 college football season with the annual Maroon and White spring football game at Davis Wade Stadium.
Photos by Lauren Wood // Story by JB Clark