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City & State or ZIP Tonight, this weekend, May 5th...
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Sunday Column: The Atlanta Dining Scene, Then and Now

LeftSidelayout_home_03When 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.

25 comments Add your comment

KS

November 22nd, 2009
2:56 pm

I fail to get the appeal of Cakes and Ale. $15.00 for a medium size mediocre burger and just OK side dishes. I will never go back.

jimmy

November 22nd, 2009
4:30 pm

Nice writeup JK. If you are exploring Gwinnett, I hope you have Chloe on speed dial!

FoodieBuddha

November 22nd, 2009
4:50 pm

Per Jimmy, even the most casual of diners should be required to run their BuHi/Gwinnett dining itinerary by ChowDownAtlanta.com.

FayetteFoodie

November 22nd, 2009
9:35 pm

Hey John –
Love the Blog and the 30 in 30 idea but how about visiting some of the fantastic places in Fayette County? Looking for fancy, go to Maxwells on 54 or Frank’s at Old Mill Pond. Is southern food your fancy? Try the Jasmine Tea Room. Need some great BBQ – Cafe Pig is the place to be. Hankerin’ for homemade Italian – especially thin crust Pizza? Mangerelli’s is #1. Honestly, give us a try down here. I promise you won’t be dissappointed.

CeasarsDad

November 22nd, 2009
9:39 pm

Cakes and Ale is our favorite. So KS can suck it. Buford Hiwaaaaay is certainly a great adventure at any one time.

Chief Wiggum

November 22nd, 2009
9:49 pm

I guess I’m not cultured enough, or rich enough, to get into the “foodie” scene. Are responses only allowed for those who bow to the food critics? (aimed at those who will tell me to shut up)

In this economy, it’s pretty hard to justify spending more than $10 on dinner, at least it is for me. I think people have the right to blow their money however they want, it’s just that spending a fortune on food has always been a head-scratcher to me.

M

November 22nd, 2009
10:07 pm

This is a little bit of a stretch, not involving restaurants, but since you mentioned the influx of immigrants and the Korean dining scene: how about the Korean supermarket scene! Super H has just opened a new place off of Peachtree Industrial inside 285, and I understand it was absolutely packed. I think you would be doing a service to the Atlanta community by educating us to the wonders of these markets, in particular the variety of the produce and the seafood sections. How about some monkfish tonight? (you won’t get that choice from Publix) One question: you can buy beef tenderloin there for $5.99 per lb.- sometimes $4.99 per lb. How is that different from the beef tenderloin costing far more in our supermarkets? I have a lot of questions like that, and really would like to know how to know what I’m doing when buying seafood. Do others have the same interest? Can we get Kessler to educate us?

alan

November 22nd, 2009
11:20 pm

Where can I get a good falafel, shwarma or a mezza here?

Jeff

November 22nd, 2009
11:27 pm

Ugggh… enough of you Kessler! you obviously hate Southern food, Southern people and Southern traditions. You also seem to have a real disdain for those of us normal, middle-class, Georgian-born people who know what we like and know how we like it made! You rave about these so-called culinary “geniuses” who take a Southern comfort food and “make it their own”… (translation, they try to mess up a good thing.) And you are SO pretentious!!! your writing just drips of you looking down your nose and those of us who are “steak and potato” people who happen to like simple, tasty, well-made traditional food without a lot of extra crap or high-end pricing.

The sentence that sums it up best for me is this one: “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.” What the F??????? I don’t WANT restaurants and chefs to “take chances” or have “playful, interesting” dishes… I want you to make a few dishes REALLY good and REALLY good prices with QUALITY service… that’s it! My god, it’s a meal that your colon will dispose of within 12 hours… can we drop the pretentious nature of the food industry — critics, chefs, restaurant owners, etc? Please? Now? It’s JUST FOOD!!! I want a dish that I know will be good, ESPECIALLY when i’m hungry and ESPECIALLY if you’re going to charge me $20 or $30 or $40 a plate for it! I don’t want a chef taking RISKS when it might cost my wife and I almost $100 to get out of his stuffy, stuck up dining room and both of us are still HUNGRY and want to go to Steak ‘n Shake to get full!!!

I have a suggestion for all you food critics and “trendy” restaurant people: go somewhere else. I don’t want your metro-sexual, NY-inspired, cutting-edge crap… I want good people making good food with good service serving it at good prices. Don’t try to woo me with fancy or exquisite or bold or playful or any of these other terms you use to describe a DINNER. Just make quality food and quality prices and you will have loyal fans for life. You might run off a few hoity-toity snots like Kessler, but for God’s sake you will earn the patronage of a HUGE number of us “real” people that are the backbone of the restaurant industry.

Happy eating, everyone… I say go find what you like and to heck with Kessler… don’t let this blowhard give you any direction for restaurants. Go find a place you enjoy and stick with it and forget him!

David C

November 22nd, 2009
11:28 pm

Are you asking the Koreans where they get THEIR meat? HUH?

lal

November 23rd, 2009
2:10 am

@ Jeff. Wow, so much anger. No one is making you eat at the more adventurous places. Stick to the chain and big box restaurants and I think you’ll be just fine. They’re perfect for people like you.

John K., you are awesome. Keep up the good work.

And Cake and Ale is awesome. Mmmm… Arancini with fennel pollen…..

Fred

November 23rd, 2009
2:33 am

Alan: I asked Bernard Moussa (co -owner of The Woodfire Grill mentioned in this article) if a place near my house, called co-incidentally, Mezza was any good as I am not familiar with Lebanese cuisine. He said it was probably the most authentic you can get in Atlanta. I tried it and I liked it. It is on Oak Grove and LaVista in the Oak Grove shopping center. Google Mezza Atlanta. Which kind of brings me in a round about way to the comment i originally started to make:

JK: I’m glad you mentioned Woodfire in your “notables list.” My wife and I stumbled in there one night because I had read or seen it was a farm to table place and I thought that was a neat concept. Ok, so i eat at places more than I read about them and the farm to table was new to me lol. We luckily got there almost the instant they opened the doors so we were able to get seated without a reservation. While we sat at the bar for (literally) a minute we talked a little to this really nice guy, who turned out to be Bernard, one of the co owners. It was refreshing to talk to an owner who was such a nice guy to 2 people (inappropriately dressed for that place lol) who stumbled in his door right off the street. We had the 5 course chef’s tasting thing and i must say it was the best meal I can remember eating. Of course MGF of MFG, what ever order her hyphenated name is in barely gave it 3 stars I read later, but then I haven’t been as impressed with her reviews as one would hope, perhaps we look for different things in a place to eat………

In short, given your praise on this place which I found to be great (gonna try to sneak in again again close to 5 without a reservation on Wednesday :D ), and your less than enthusiastic review of Mary Macs, (which I whole heartedly agree with), I think I’ll try more of the places you review that i haven’t tried before. Heck, i may even go to that Mexican place with the greasy food you like so well lol.

Fred

November 23rd, 2009
2:43 am

Jeff, there is a Golden Corral close to you. Enjoy it. Some of us LIKE to try new things. Personally, I’m sick of going to places that all have the same damn menu. Why is an Italian place serving blacked ANYTHING? Blackened stuff is CAJUN. Oh,because it’s a fad, and god forbid someone come in to an Italian joint and can’t get a blackened piece of fish………… If every place is going to serve the same crap, why not just make one big restaurant that has 5 menu items? oh wait, that is what YOU want so that means EVERYONE should be limited to that. Given your lack of desire to try anything, what the hell are you reading a food column for anyways? Bet you are a baptist………..

Fred

November 23rd, 2009
2:53 am

Oh and one last thing Jeff, all the korean places I have eaten tried have tasted like crap compared to what my Korean M-I-L makes, but I can tell you the places she likes……………. although none of the ones we have been to with her have as good bulgogi, bi bim bop, kimchi, or anything else as what she makes…………. Give me some gochujang and i can rule the world.

John Kessler

November 23rd, 2009
8:29 am

Jeff – I love Southern food and Southern traditions, and I’m glad I live here. Could you name 5 restaurants that you’d like to see discussed on this blog?
Fred – What are your MIL’s favorite places? I’d love to hear.

uberVU - social comments

November 23rd, 2009
8:42 am

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ESA

November 23rd, 2009
9:02 am

Two sentiments reflected here really amaze me. The first is “it’s pretty hard to justify spending more than $10 on dinner” and the second is “it’s a meal that your colon will dispose of within 12 hours”. Americans spend less on food than pretty much any industrialized country and we are among the least healthy. This attitude is the reason why. Personally, I derive great joy from good food and respect the people that produce it.

High end food is a bit like a formula one race car. You may find it unattainable and a waste of money but there is no question that high end restaurants in an area set the tone for the entire food industry just as formula one race cars set the technology for the car you drive (where do you think turbochargers and 6+ speed paddle shift transmissions came from).

Remember that UK food was terrible until high end british chefs started dragging the culture into the modern age and suddenly the food improved accross the board. Even if you never eat in a high end Atlanta restaurant, the restaurants you do eat in are better because the high end restaurants exist.

What I find particularly stunning is the short-sightedness of the vitriolic poster who wrote this: “I want a dish that I know will be good, ESPECIALLY when i’m hungry and ESPECIALLY if you’re going to charge me $20 or $30 or $40 a plate for it! I don’t want a chef taking RISKS when it might cost my wife and I almost $100″. Wouldn’t it be great if you had someone who would scout out restaurants and tell you where to take that $100 gamble so you didn’t have to eat the same dish in the same restaurant over and over and over?

Fortunately, we have such people and they are called food critics. Yes they appear pompous when discussing food but there is a reason; unlike most people (myself included) they actually understand it. They eat substantial meals at restaurants every day, speak with the owners and chefs and the owners and chefs of competitors. The good ones are also discerning. By definition they understand what poor food is and they rightly pan it. What good would a food critic be if couldn’t identify the differences between Golden Corral, Stoney River and Chops and wasn’t willing to call a spade a spade?

It also appears people are still bent out of shape because Kessler asked where McDonald’s meat came from. Thank God someone asks where our food comes from. In particular, don’t forget that Upton Sinclair asking and answering that question revolutionized food production in America. If you aren’t asking that question on a regular basis, don’t be surprised when you inadvertantly hear the answer and don’t like what you hear.

John Kessler

November 23rd, 2009
1:41 pm

Thanks for the recs, Fayette Foodie. I’ll add them to the ever-lengthening list!

Mister Mister

November 23rd, 2009
2:35 pm

CaesarsDad – you must be on Cakes and Ale’s payroll. I agree with KS – Cakes and Ale is overpriced, underwhelming hype. There are half a dozen better places within walking distance. I don’t mind paying for an excellent meal, I just want an excellent meal, not 4 deviled egg halfs for $8.

Fred

November 23rd, 2009
2:54 pm

Will do Jeff, as soon as she returns my call. Remember, these aren’t MY recommendations lol, but hers. I lack the knowledge of Korean food to suggest anything other than her kitchen.

Chicken lover

November 23rd, 2009
3:37 pm

John, I’m with you about waiting for the Falafel Freak. So far the best has been the sandwich at Star Provisions, but that is still not what I had on the streets of Paris. Would you mind recommending some of your favorite falafel places?

Darin

November 23rd, 2009
4:17 pm

Chicken lover: thanks for the tip on a Star Provisions falafel. I’d like to try that. I can recommend Mediterranean Bakery in Tucker and Mezza on Lavista Rd for good falafel.

JK: I’m liking the “crackpot genius” theory of the ATL resto scene. I think David at Dynamic Dish could fit in that group. Best Soups Ever.

Looking forward to reading about Korean places in Gwinnett. Please have mercy, though, and try not to make them look too irresistible. Not unless you know of a plan to move Gwinnett closer to Midtown. I love me some Bibimbap and my fave place for it on BuHi closed this year.

FM Fats

November 24th, 2009
8:36 am

Slider Night at the Shed in Glenwood Park has been a favorite in our family for a while now. We had a very nice “gastropub” experience at the Glenwood in East Atlanta Village last week, too.

John Kessler

November 24th, 2009
4:41 pm

Darin: Dave had some kind of lentil soup a month ago that blew me away…I wholeheartedly agree. Should’ve mentioned him.

[...] Sunday Column: The Atlanta Dining Scene, Then and Now | Food and … November 22nd, 2009 | Author: admin 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. … Read the original post:  Sunday Column: The Atlanta Dining Scene, Then and Now | Food and … [...]