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
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.
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