“Is that Jane Fonda at the next table?”
We steal surreptitious glances at the neighboring group, examining the woman in the black hat pulled low over a pair of glasses. It wouldn’t be unusual to spot celebrities at Buckhead Diner — a place where the walls are lined with framed photos of visiting stars like Steve Martin, Henry Winkler and Kathy Bates.
This is not your typical greasy spoon. I learned this when my boyfriend (now husband) and I first ate at Buckhead Diner many years ago, with only wads of leftover gas money from our parents stuffed in our pockets. After seeing the non-diner prices, we quickly altered our plans and ordered an appetizer and a couple of drinks. We may have been fooled by the cool polished steel exterior, but the luxurious interior modeled after an Orient Express rail car clued us in.
The food, pricing and guest list set this diner apart from its counterparts, as does the level of service, which is customary for the Buckhead Life Restaurant Group. White-jacketed waiters anticipate needs without a trace of pretense. On one visit, our waiter, Michael, with his smooth Southern drawl, seems as if he could easily glide between fine dining and a country kitchen.
The diner carefully — and successfully — skirts the lines between casual and upscale, and classic and dated. Open since 1987, Buckhead Diner’s menu has been shaped by celebrated Atlanta chefs including Kevin Rathbun, Gerry Klaskala and Joey Riley. A handful of the original menu items such as the finger-licking-good warm Maytag blue cheese chips ($8.75) and the super sweet “James Beard award-winning white chocolate banana cream pie” ($7.50) remain on the menu, now the diner’s iconic dishes.
The menu has recently been updated under the direction of chef Charles Schwab. In true diner form, it features a range of entrees, burgers and sandwiches like the sliced herb roast beef ($15.50). This not-so-average sandwich contains layers of beef that meld with the flavors of the heady port balsamic glaze, sweet caramelized onions and triple cream blue cheese. What seals the deal is the kicky horseradish creme fraiche slathered on a crackly-crusted ciabatta bread — bread that is made across the street at the diner’s sister restaurant, Buckhead Bread Company.
Like the roast beef sandwich, the Niman Ranch pork chop typifies the high level of execution at the Buckhead Diner. The simple grilled pork chop stands on its own merit — perfectly seasoned and prepared with juices that ooze out of the tender chop with each cut. Those juices seep into the creamy parmesan risotto studded with sharp bursts of pickled red onion ($19.95).
Other new items, like the flaky chili-spiced mahi mahi ($19.50), represent a company-wide trend to offer gluten-free choices. An adobo rub on the mahi mahi delivers a delicate heat that complements the natural sweetness of the fish. This chili-spice blend was originally developed by Sidney’s Spices for Nava, another of Buckhead Life’s restaurants.
The white-truffle deviled eggs ($5.95), another of the many gluten-free options, should appear on everyone’s tab. These luxurious eggs with a yolk-and-shallot mayonnaise filling receive a hefty pour of white truffle oil to finish. Three fat eggs sit atop a Bibb salad dressed with a refreshingly tart lemon vinaigrette that balances the richness of the truffle filling.
I prefer the deviled eggs to the pimento cheese fritters ($7.95), substantial hush-puppy-like balls lolling in a puddle of sweet and spicy pimento pepper jelly. Because the fritters are so thick, a layer of raw batter surrounds the small gush of pimento cheese in the center. They do, however, suffice as a vehicle for the addictive spice of the pepper jelly.
Wrap it all up diner-style with one of the soda fountain treats. You could go for the carrot cake or peach bread pudding (both $6.95), but my advice is to stick with the milkshakes. Try the thick chocolate-hazelnut-caramel one ($5.50) with decadent slips of chocolate-hazelnut spread. Or, if you didn’t overdo it with the diner’s specialty cocktails, beer, or wine (all served by the glass or quartino), indulge in one of the “I.D.” cocktail shakes ($9).
After so many years, this iconic Atlanta diner retains its polish. That’s why celebrities zero in on Buckhead Diner, just like our table neighbor, Jane Fonda.BUCKHEAD DINER 3073 Piedmont Road, Atlanta. 404-262-3336 Food: Upscale diner serving American fare with Southern touches Service: Polished and professional Best dishes: Niman Ranch pork chop, Chili-spiced mahi mahi, white truffle deviled eggs Vegetarian selections: Grilled cheese, salads, appetizers and sides Credit cards: Visa, Mastercard, American Express, Discover Hours: 11 a.m. — midnight Mondays-Saturdays, 10 a.m — 10 p.m. Sundays Children: Yes Parking: A small row of self-park spots and valet, which costs $2 Reservations: Priority seating available Wheelchair access: Yes Smoking: No Noise level: Medium Patio: No Takeout: Yes