Myth: Chain restaurants offer a better value.
This is but one of the ten myths Grace 17.20, a contemporary American restaurant located in Norcross, works tirelessly to dispel. Named after a bible verse (“… Nothing will be impossible for you”), this spot opened in 2004, one of the first upscale independent restaurants in the area. Despite opening to a fanfare of positive press, the restaurant still faces the pressure of operating in an area where chains dominate, hence the glossy brochures entitled “Top 10 Myths about Grace” enclosed with each bill.
Apparently, the “myths” list was created to entice foot traffic from stores at the Forum, the open-air shopping mall where Grace 17.20 is located. While not the lone independent eatery in the complex, the restaurant competes with chains like Ted’s Montana Grill, California Pizza Kitchen and J. Alexander’s.
Myth: Only for special occasions.
Myth: Must be really expensive.
Chef/co-owner Barbara DiJames says folks often mistake Grace 17.20 for a special occasion destination. It’s easy to see why. The creamy-neutral color palette juxtaposed with dark-wood beams and soaring french doors exudes elegance and polish. A handsome patio follows suit with a gurgling fountain and a fire blazing in a stacked-stone fireplace.
The price point may also reinforce or refute these myths, depending on your budget. DiJames tells me that neighboring chain J. Alexander’s sells a fish dish for $10 higher than hers. That said, for many, a restaurant where dinner entrees range from $17-32 would qualify as a special occasion spot.
These myths may also be reinforced by some aspects of service. Waiters trained in table-side service stand before you to fill a bowl containing a melange of thinly sliced portobello, shiitake and white button mushrooms with a full-bodied shallot-and-cream-based mushroom soup ($5 cup). Additionally, waiters carefully heat coffee cups before pouring the wonderfully rich and smooth J. Martinez & Co. coffee.
On the flip side, a consistently grumpy hostess, waiters with little knowledge of the wine list and extended wait times to settle the bill undermine this level of service. Likewise, other details betray a more casual approach like daily get-you-in-the-door specials and the seemingly out-of-place gold-foil wrapped butter pats that don’t do justice to the crusty loaf from Buckhead Bread Co. or housemade spiced pumpkin bread.
Myth: A burger is not a good option.
Myth: You can get a better steak at a steak house.
In an attempt to widen its appeal, much like a chain restaurant, Grace 17.20 promotes its steaks and burgers. At lunch, the meat-and-potatoes set can choose from a simple Prime Angus burger with a briny caper and sweet pickle tartar sauce ($12) or a finely ground lamb burger, a little mealy in texture, with fresh herbed yogurt ($14).
Yet, I’d challenge diners here to take advantage of the originality that can be found in independent restaurants with chefs like DiJames, who attended the Culinary Institute of America. On a mostly safe menu (by design), seek out the dishes with a little playfulness, ones like the “Cluck,” a three-way chicken sandwich ($16). This two-fisted, diet-busting double-decker sandwich contains layers of sweet, mayonnaisy chicken salad, salty fried chicken and buttery fried egg, which find harmony in their combination.
Try the spicy chopped chicken and sweet slaw spring rolls ($10) with a jalapeno honey sauce. The sauce could sport a bit more kick, but it balances the flavors of the salty chopped chicken, pumpkin seeds and crunchy sweet slaw oozing with melted jack cheese. This one will get you excited about the meal ahead.
Look for dishes with flair and creativity like the citrus-crusted market fish ($26). You’ll marvel at the crackly citrus crust on the striped bass and puzzle over the vanilla in the citrus beurre blanc. And although smoked salmon chunks in the mashed potatoes blight the voluptuous lingering of the beurre blanc on your palate, it will linger in your memory.
And whatever you do, don’t miss Grace’s cheesecake ($8), with its creamy, pillowy-soft texture and sticky caramel sauce. Savor the sea salt crystals that provide a satisfying crunch and a little zing.
Burgers and steaks may get folks in the door, but it’s the dishes with a unique signature that will bring them back. After eight years in business, it’s no myth that Grace 17.20 is achieving its aspirations to be a “nice neighborhood restaurant for nice neighborhoods.”GRACE 17.20