In the search for Atlanta Classics, you would be hard pressed to find a more tenured candidate than The Colonnade.
First opened in 1927 by Frank Tarleton, The Colonnade quickly established itself as an institution of classic Southern food. Only one other restaurant in Atlanta can claim a longer history — Atkins Park Tavern, which opened as a deli in 1922 — but none can claim to have operated unchanged continuously as long as this icon of old Southern cooking.
Tarleton ran the restaurant out of the original location at Piedmont Road and Lindbergh Drive until losing his lease in 1962, when The Colonnade moved to Cheshire Bridge Road. It wasn’t until 1979 that current owner Paul Jones took over. In 1982, Jones expanded the restaurant to the size it is now, increasing the dining room to more than 200 seats and adding the bar area.
To say that stepping into The Colonnade feels like a time warp is certainly true — the décor has a decidedly ’70s aesthetic, in that “haven’t gotten around to updating it” sort of way. Of course, the crowd favors the older set, which is to be expected with 85 years of loyal customers. But the demographic is more melting pot than geriatric ward, a lively blend of the old guard, their children, eccentrics from the less-than-uptight Cheshire Bridge area, and young new Atlanta diners looking for a taste of the old South.
It only takes one evening seated at the bar, or a quick eavesdrop or two in the dining room, to feel the immense sense of community that exists between the regulars and staff here. I frankly feel out of place, because it seems I’m the only one in the faux library/bar who doesn’t know the bartender’s entire family by name.
Therein lies much of the charm of The Colonnade and an integral reason why it has outlasted every other restaurant in Atlanta: These patrons know The Colonnade, and The Colonnade knows them. That sort of familiarity takes time, cultivated over years and generations, but for folks raised in the South, the food will instill the same feeling from bite one.
Make no mistake: This is the house that fried chicken built.
Pick the brain of most longtime Atlanta residents, and you can safely bet the Southern fried chicken ($14) will be the first dish they mention. It is undoubtedly the restaurant’s most famous and most popular dish, and rightfully so. If I
were to put my food-critic hat on, I’d comment on its execution and simplicity. Extra crispy skin, juicy meat, fried in fresh oil, with just the right amount of saltiness and deceptively simple seasonings. But that would over-complicate things. Put simply: It is old-school chicken, done right.
But there is more to The Colonnade than fried chicken, and it seems they have been just a few decades ahead of some of our more recent trends.
For all of the fancified plates of offal around town, none seems to pull off fried chicken livers ($6, half portion) quite so well. The secret lies in flaky, crispy batter and the freshness of the livers — not a hint of that disconcerting chewiness liver is so apt to develop.
And if you like your beef on the bloody side, don’t be shy about ordering the half-pound sirloin burger ($10) medium rare. I’d eaten here at least 20 times before a regular pushed the burger on me — my dedication to the fried chicken marking me as an obvious newbie.
Take a straw poll of regulars, and you’ll find many of the dishes have their own camps of dedicated loyalists, meals they return to week in and week out. Trays of thick, braised short ribs slathered in brown gravy ($15) routinely make the rounds through the dining room, and I’ve known more than one devotee of the gut-warming, fork-tender pot roast and whipped potatoes ($14).
While the Colonnade’s menu remains largely unchanged, the arrival of Executive Chef Ryan Cobb six years ago marked the injection of some new blood. With a background in fine dining (the Georgian Club, Carbo’s Cafe), Cobb was given the freedom to mix things up, with a rotating selection of Chef’s Features like kangaroo tenderloin or pan-seared calf’s liver smothered in bacon, apples, Vidalia onions and brandied demi-glace ($16).
Amidst the rapid expansion and evolution of Atlanta’s restaurant scene, rife with countless hot new things opening and flashes-in-the pan shutting their doors, we need a classic like The Colonnade. There would be no new South cuisine without the old South, and it’s worth keeping around just to hang on to our roots.
Or, more importantly, for a mean plate of fried chicken.The Colonnade — Atlanta Food: classic Southern Service: Southern charm, but fast-paced Best dishes: Fried chicken, fried chicken livers, cheeseburger Vegetarian selections: plenty of sides to build a solid veggie plate Price range: $-$$ Credit cards: cash or check only (ATM on site) Hours: 5 p.m.-9 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Fridays, noon-10 p.m. Saturdays, 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Sundays Children: welcomed Parking: ample, if you don’t mind spilling into the Cheshire Motor Inn lot Reservations: no Wheelchair access: yes Smoking: no Noise level: loud Patio: yes, but more of a smokers lounge Takeout: yes