When I stopped reviewing restaurants for this newspaper in early 2005, Atlanta was a different dining town. Atlantic Station was still a construction site. Decatur had as many dusty gift shops as cafes. The few restaurants operating in the Old Fourth Ward and West Midtown were called “outposts.” Two of the nation’s 14 restaurants that merited five stars from the Mobil Travel Guide Five Star — Seeger’s and the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead — stood 1.6 miles apart and routinely stole each other’s top talent. Both have closed.
Now that I’ve returned to the dining beat, I’m discovering a new spirit in town. Today’s Atlanta is a city of neighborhoods that have been cobbled together from buildings old, new and reclaimed. The city’s mood and ambition have changed: Atlanta is less concerned about being “cosmopolitan” and more eager to come off as “livable.” Nowhere do you see this change more than in the restaurant scene.
Restaurants are more oriented to their neighborhoods and pay closer attention to what diners want. Chefs listen to their guests more, and so they take better responsibility in sourcing good ingredients, charging fair prices and defining a regional style for today. So many glitzy, gorgeous, chilly restaurants used to open; now they are human-scaled, casual and warm. These are all signs of improvement.
But in other ways, it feels like the dining scene here has stalled. Few chefs seem to take chances these days, and their menus are predictable and risk-averse. The recession has restaurateurs running scared, and they’re peddling heavy-duty comfort dishes that indulge the palate and stick to the ribs, but don’t seem particularly playful, interesting or cognizant of the meaning of moderation. Now that the Dining Room and Seeger’s are closed, and Joel has downscaled, and Quinones at Bacchanalia is weekends-only, Atlanta is not the crucible for training chefs and waiters it once was. I worry that the standards of good culinary technique and precision are no longer what they once were.
In fact, I’d venture that few American cities have experienced such a total meltdown of their high-end dining options as we have. People with serious money to spend in restaurants are going to steak houses. No, this doesn’t mean we’ve reverted to being a “meat-and-potatoes town.” Places such as Kevin Rathbun Steak, BLT Steak and Pacci play both sides of this new reality by hanging intriguing and varied menus on the backbone of a familiar steak-house format. It’s a smart way to hedge bets.
Besides, the real excitement these days is in small, neighborhood joints. Cakes & Ale in Decatur has racked up a lot of national attention precisely because it has such a great sense of place. You couldn’t imagine finding this buzzy, sensible joint anywhere but Decatur. Chef Billy Allin tweaks his blackboard menu daily, and it’s as fine a barometer of the town’s food mood as anything.
Chef Kevin Gillespie, likewise, has a flawless sense of what it means to dine in Atlanta. A Henry County native and Atlanta Institute of Art culinary graduate, Gillespie assumed the helm at Woodfire Grill last year and quietly excised former chef/owner Michael Touhy’s California wine country menu and replaced it with a remarkable and refined vision of fine Georgian cooking. Gillespie (currently the front-runner on Bravo TV’s “Top Chef: Las Vegas”) has done the near impossible: He has given this iconic restaurant a successful heart transplant.
In the same spirit, Holeman & Finch Public House has glommed onto several national trends (cocktail culture, house charcuterie programs, the so-called “gastropub” movement) and woven them into something that breathes the flavor of Atlanta. It also does a canny job of telling the story of Southern food, both in terms of its agrarian roots and its British parentage.
Speaking of Southern food, is anyone getting a little sick of hearing the phrase “Southern farm-to-table”? This may be an admirable mission statement, but too many restaurants apply it like a decorating theme. Would that a few more take the need to express regional tastes and use local ingredients as a given rather than a conceit.
Still, I’d take today’s middlin’ Southern farm-to-table restaurants over last decade’s middlin’ Asian-fusion restaurants any day. And I am thrilled that the genre has facilitated such an amazing explosion of thoughtful midrange options. I barely know the Shed, Dogwood, Rosebud, Waterhaven, Relish and others that have come on board, but I can’t wait to begin my explorations.
Another major change is generational. It seems that a new culture of diners in their 20s and 30s are making their mark on the city’s tastes. This is great news, I think, because these people are breathing life and energy into every corner of the metro area. They get that unquantifiable thing called “vibe” in places like Top Flr, Leon’s Full Service and Social.
Today’s younger dining set may not always have a lot of money to spend, but they want to experience the same rapture from a $4 hamburger that they would from the tasting menu at Bacchanalia. They are all over the burgers at Flip, and then they are all over the burgers at Grindhouse. Burgers, pizza, fried chicken: it’s all worthy of food obsession. Perhaps this is the best kind of food obsession.
Atlanta is starting to get a little of the spirit of downtown New York, where chefs and restaurateurs open holes in the wall, make one thing really well and earn eternal fealty from the food crowd. This thrills me to no end. We are finally supporting our crackpot geniuses. I think of Kamal Grant, the doughnut maestro of Sublime Doughnuts, and Giovanni di Palma, who runs a daily pizza rave at Antico Pizza Napoletana. Jeff Varasano at Varasano’s Pizzeria is a whole other kind of pizza obsessive. I’m still waiting for the falafel freak to set up shop.
Folks who remember me from my restaurant reviewing days know that exploring world cuisines is my passion. In other words, it was kind of hard to get me off Buford Highway.
For this go-round, I have a feeling I’ll be spending a lot more time in Gwinnett County, where a huge influx of immigrants has made it into a chow-hound’s paradise. In particular, the Korean dining scene has gone through the roof, with such options as Honey Pig for barbecued pork belly and Bonjuk for perfect bowls of rice porridge. International dining remains our city’s great calling card.