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Atlanta Classic: Hal’s on Old Ivy, Buckhead

Note: The members of the dining team at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution are always chasing down new and unheralded restaurants to bring you the best and most comprehensive dining coverage in the metro area. But sometimes we worry we give short shrift to those restaurants that are more old friends than new acquaintances. So this week we’re debuting the first of two new dining features. Jon Watson will periodically write “Atlanta Classic” – a descriptive but not star-rated look at a beloved institution – the kind of place where the story behind the restaurant is as interesting as the food. Jenny Turknett will occasionally write “Atlanta Revisited,” a starred review designed to update our listings with the most current information and a fresh opinion. We hope you enjoy both of these features.

— Thanks for reading, John Kessler

Review by Jon Watson

Feature by Jon Watson

To run a great steakhouse, the list of requirements is relatively short: A solid wine selection, a few exceptional sides, and most importantly, excellent beef. In Atlanta, you can go to any one of the four or five great steakhouses and get a plate of beef that is just as good as at any of the others. But when friends ask me where I’d go for a steak, my answer is Hal’s On Old Ivy every time.

Over 20 years ago, New Orleans native Hal Nowak moved to Atlanta and saw a big gap in the dining scene that needed filling. “At the time, there were either the very high-priced restaurants or chains,” says Nowak, “I didn’t see quality neighborhood restaurants that I’d experienced in New Orleans, or traveling to other cities over the years.”

Everything about Hal’s screams “old school.” The drinks are stiff, the smoke hovering over the bar is dense, the waiters cleanly pressed, and the steaks are thick. There is nothing trendy about it. The food isn’t locally sourced, there isn’t a craft cocktail program, and you won’t find the words “foam” or “deconstructed” anywhere on the menu. It is old school in all of the right ways.

What sets Hal’s apart, aside from the surprisingly impressive seafood selection and injections of creole flavors on the menu, is the energy. The crowd of regulars that Hal’s draws is second to none in Atlanta, and makes for some seriously good people watching. Wealthy businessmen regularly saunter into the bar with whiplash-inducing trophy twentysomethings on their arms. Tables of cougars clinking wine glasses eyeball the young professional set jockeying to be the next batch of well-to-do regulars, and local celebrities and politicians routinely make appearances.

Photo by Becky Stein

Photo by Becky Stein

Being a neighborhood steakhouse in the middle of Buckhead, it comes as no surprise that the average W2 at the bar would make most of us choke on our martini, but Hal’s manages to anchor their customer base in blue-bloods without fostering an air of snobbery. There is a comfortable friendliness to Hal’s, the sense that we are all here for the same reason.

While everyone is welcome here, I can’t say that it will be everyone’s cup of tea. Anti-smokers and teetotalers may find some respite from the lively and always-packed bar by requesting a seat on the relatively new second floor dining room, but you should make that request in advance. And if you are looking for a quiet, romantic evening whispering sweet-nothings to your sweetie, think again. Crowds like this one bring a lot of energy to the room, and it can get loud.

When it comes to steaks, I hold fast to a very particular set of principles. There are certain standards and rules that must be adhered to. In matters of taste, it is said that there is no such thing as right or wrong, and I don’t judge others if their preferences aren’t in line with mine. That is, except for steaks. If I ruled the world, cooking any steak past medium would be considered a crime and no steakhouse could serve filet.

So, make no mistake: The look in my eye as you order a medium-well filet mignon is contempt, with a splash of pity.

Compared to other cuts of beef, tenderloin packs the least amount of flavor while carrying the highest price tag. Filet lovers presumably return to leaner cut for its famed tenderness, but I maintain that any cut of beef prepared by experienced hands can arrive just as tender. I’ve had bone-in ribeyes that seem to dissolve on the tongue into a mouthful of fatty ambrosia.

However, Hal’s is the only filet that I will order in the city, and I order it almost every time.

A few years back, a friend of mine was working there as a server, and during my first visit with him on staff he clued me in on how to order a filet at Hal’s: Center-cut filet mignon ($38.95), blackened, with extra butter sauce, served medium-rare. This isn’t the same as the Blackened Filet ($36.95) entrée that, which comes as medallions topped with onion rings. This is a single, flavorful and tender thick-cut filet crusted with Cajun spices and drenched in clarified butter sauce. It is simply a thing of beauty.

Sure, there are other fantastic steakhouses in Atlanta, and there are other places where you can get a good drink and a great steak. But none of them have the same odd cocktail of ambiance, flavor, and service that Nowak has concocted over the last 20 years, and if Hal’s sounds like your kind of party, it will probably make a regular out of you, too.

Hal’s On Old Ivy
30 Old Ivy Road, Buckhead, 404-261-0025
Food: Cajun spiced steakhouse
Service: Old school, professional and attentive
Best dishes: Filet mignon blackened with butter sauce, bone-in ribeye, white truffle mac and cheese
Vegetarian selections: A few salads and sides, but it is a steakhouse
Price range: $$$-$$$$
Credit cards: Visa, Mastercard, American Express and Discover
Hours: 4 p.m.-11 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays
Children: Not advised
Parking: Complimentary valet
Reservations: yes
Wheelchair access: yes
Smoking: yes
Noise level: loud
Patio: yes, upstairs
Takeout: yes

28 comments Add your comment

KatieB

July 19th, 2012
9:53 am

Nice review and so true. Hal’s is busy, busy…sometimes too busy and loud…but the filet is always spot on, the service is professional, and the people watching can’t be beat.

I like the new “Atlanta Classics” review theme. Atlanta needs more true classic restaurants to stand beside the trendy, cutting edge, here-today-gone-tomorrow restaurants. All the great cities have classic restaurants…Atlanta–oh so few. Perhaps a focus on and recognition of Atlanta classic restaurants will bring others to the forefront. Thanks.

Steakhead

July 19th, 2012
11:50 am

“There is nothing trendy about it” except the clientele. But since cigarette smoke is one of the vilest subtances on earth, this carnivore will likely never darken their door. Agreed on “medium” being the absolute top end of how a fine piece of beef should be prepared.

veronica

July 19th, 2012
12:04 pm

Ate there once on the recommendation of a friend. Dining room had too many tables for the size of the room.We were cramped and the table was not large enough to eat from comfortably. Waiter’s butt was in our faces as he served the adjacent table. Clientele looked sketchy, not “well heeled’ and some of the women looked like hookers.Food was good, but it was smoky.The “regulars” seemed to be having a good time, though.

Deanna

July 19th, 2012
12:48 pm

Hal’s website content is not accessible beyond the home page. Not realizing the importance of having your website running correctly when you are featured in the AJC – now that really is old school

art

July 19th, 2012
2:57 pm

@Deanna – Funny! Hal’s is definitely old school and one of the few places where you can smoke a cigar at the bar… good times and good steaks!

I really like the “Atlanta Classic” and “Atlanta Revisited” concepts. Hal’s was the perfect choice to kick-off the new “reviews”.

Ann Lee

July 19th, 2012
3:36 pm

I have been going to Hal’s since they opened. The bone-in ribeye is always excellent; the trout w/crabment delightful. And his addition of the grill oysters was phenomenol. For those that do not chose to be around cigar smoke, there is the upstairs addition. Hal is always charming. His manager Mark always makes his way around to the tables to make sure the customers are satisfied with their service. The longevity of the restraunt speaks for itself. I don’t go very often, But when I get a chance, it is on top of my list.

Hal's

July 19th, 2012
6:22 pm

Yes Hal’s website has been being revamped and updated for the past 2 weeks. Hal’s internet team was unaware of this great article by Mr. Jon Watson of the AJC.

The site will be up within the next 24 hours.

http://www.hals.net

Also you can see some great pictures on our Facebook page!

https://www.facebook.com/halsatlanta

Thank you AJC, Mr. Jon Watson, and all of our neighbors in Atlanta, GA

The Hal’s Team

Colberson

July 19th, 2012
7:09 pm

Hal’s website works, i was just on it, very cool! Great article!

Colberson

July 19th, 2012
7:10 pm

also if you are logged into facebook when you go to their site, you can see your mutual friends on the bottom of their site

[...] was the first of a new series that I’ll be writing periodically that we are calling the Atlanta Classics. The focus will be feature stories on classic Atlanta restaurants, institutions that have been [...]

vann

July 20th, 2012
10:25 am

agree that is best filet i have ever had. too bad it so noisy. snapper dish is my wifes favorite.

AtlMtnGrl

July 20th, 2012
12:00 pm

Smoking allowed?? Wow, thought that was outlawed some years ago. Glad to know – won’t go there – no way to enjoy eating and breathing in cigarette/cigar smoke at the same time – don’t care how good the food is.

Shawn

July 20th, 2012
12:04 pm

Hal’s is my choice of steak in Buckhead. I go to Kevin Rathbun’s Steak when I’m downtown or Inman park. Both places our gems of meat in this city

Robert

July 20th, 2012
12:12 pm

I really like the “Atlanta Classic” theme, keep this going.

As to Hal’s, it’s really fun and the vast majority of the review is spot-on. My only gripe would be with the wine list. It is full of excessively-marked-up, mediocre cabs. Nothing wrong with cabs in a steak place, but the selection and pricing always leaves me shaking my head. And a few decent pinots wouldn’t hurt, either.

ATL Fatty

July 20th, 2012
12:35 pm

Don’t forget to sample some of the hookers over by the piano. They are in season right now, and they are exquisite.

Goose

July 20th, 2012
1:26 pm

Though smoking is allowed at the bar, the ventilation system is superb. I detest cigarette/cigar smoke but I always request to eat downstairs in the “action”. I’ve never detected smoke while eating at a table. If you haven’t been you are missing one of the bests in Atlanta!

Sammy Lott

July 20th, 2012
2:28 pm

It’s also good for tyring to pick up some PWAZZIE!!

Last Word

July 20th, 2012
2:56 pm

Sammy, I believe the expression is “POOSWA.”

Last Word

July 20th, 2012
2:57 pm

Sorry: “POOSWAH”

DonnaF

July 20th, 2012
3:39 pm

Hooray for Atlanta Classic and hip hip hooray for Hal’s. We were there the night it opened, with Hal walking around all the tables and his son learning the business at a young age. From day one the food was delicious, the steaks were prepared perfectly, and the drinks were filled to the top. The tables have gotten a little closer together, and the level of conversation is at shouting volume, but you still can find Hal as charming as he was 20 years ago (ask him why he learned to cook :) ) and the meat and seafood remain fit for foodies. There are lots of reasons why it has not only survived, but prospered over two decades.

Dawg Dude

July 20th, 2012
4:03 pm

If there is anywhere to skip the filet and get the ribeye it is Hal’s. The bone in French cut rib eye is the best steak I have ever had, the filet is good but just as you described above cannot compare to the flavor of other steaks, even at Hal’s. Best atmosphere in the city in my opinion, smoke and all. I agree that the ventilation system must be the best you can buy because it doesn’t bother you at all. Ask for Zane…..the best waiter/bar manager/bartender in the land.

younverknow

July 21st, 2012
7:23 pm

I like the concept of the column. As far as Hal’s is concerned, I’m all about old school but draw the line when it comes to ciggy smoke, my sinus will rebel in a hurry.

Joe

July 21st, 2012
8:31 pm

Very accurate column. I love Hal’s for all that it is and for the fact it removes people like AtlMtnGrl from my presence. Thank you Hal!

T. Talisker

July 22nd, 2012
9:25 am

AtlMtnGrl and Steakhead apparently did not make it to paragraph six of the review on the smoke free second level. Why comment if you have never been there?. Would you have an opinion on a record album / CD / MP3 / Cassette you have never listened to even once?

Have a single malt @ Hal’s and enjoy a great steak.

Lisa

July 22nd, 2012
11:12 am

Best food in town. Sure, it’s loud, crowded, smoky but it’s fun. Great manager and waiters. If you don’t like to indulge, don’t come. We don’t want all you whiners there anyway.

JimmyZ

July 23rd, 2012
8:59 am

First of all, thanks for adding these features. Not everyone has been here for years, and ignoring places like this that have been around for years is doing both those businesses and new residents was a disservice.

Second, thanks for covering Hal’s. I’ve never been there. Will be going now though.

[...] News here – Food and More with John Kessler ← Atlanta has eighth-most small businesses in U.S. – The Business Journal [...]

KatZ

July 25th, 2012
4:28 pm

The best steaks in town and a place with a lot of atmosphere in spite of the smoke. People with bad manners always call the women “hookers”. They are jealous they are not the long timers that have enjoyed Hal’s for many years. I try to eat here at least once a month, sorry I do like my steaks dead and well done and they are always melt in your mouth. Thanks Hal! You are a dear sweet man.