One night in early 2004, my friends and I staggered away from a filling dinner at Blais — the short-lived Richard Blais restaurant that was in the heart of Buckhead when Buckhead had a heart. As we digested our frankincense-scented parsnip cake, we ventured down an alleyway lined with cheesy bars and clubs and found ourselves in front of the rowdy nightspot Mako’s. There we saw a woman in hot pants on a swing in a window doing that thing women in hot pants on swings in windows used to do in Buckhead: swinging.
Back in 2004 Buckhead didn’t just have any old heart: it had a proper four-chambered one. There was one chamber for the trashy drunkenness of Mako’s and its ilk; one chamber for the big-city glamour of Joël and the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton; one chamber for staid spots like Pano’s & Paul’s and Anis that appealed to the wealthy mansion-dwelling neighbors, and that last chamber for the true culinary innovation of Blais, Soto and Seeger’s.
Of these, only Anis remains. But others have vanished, along with the tacit knowledge that Buckhead was the one Atlanta neighborhood that mattered above all others when it came to nightlife, entertainment and the most delicious meals the city had to offer. These days the most anticipated new restaurants likely open in west Midtown, if not Inman Park, Decatur or Roswell.
Those of us who actually anticipate the opening of restaurants no longer drop “Buckhead” as an adjective to indicate a level of ambition, glitz or moneyed extravagance, as we once did. In late 2012, we have a better notion of what constitutes Gangnam Style than Buckhead Style.
San Diego-based developer OliverMcMillan now promises the long-stalled and scaled-back project to rebuild the neighborhood’s core will be complete within a year’s time, and eight to 10 new restaurants should figure in the mixed-use development. But for now, the streets of Buckhead lie dormant like an empty-chested patient on a gurney, waiting for his heart transplant.
Yet there have been some promising new places opening around the periphery as restaurateurs strive to give Buckhead proper the currency and energy of developing neighborhoods. Consider the fact that before the opening of STG Trattoria last spring, there wasn’t really anywhere in central Buckhead to enjoy small plates fashioned from seasonal, locally sourced ingredients in a casual environment.
Earlier this month, a restaurant called Seven Lamps opened in Shops Around Buckhead and has been getting a lot of attention from food hounds. Chef/owner Drew Van Leuvan oversees this warm, amber-hued spot from an open kitchen. During a time when other new menus around Atlanta seem formulaic or conservative, he cooks with real brio. Chocolate corzetti pasta with duck confit, savory potato zeppoli doughnuts and house-made mortadella mousse are but a few of the intriguing dishes he proposes.
It’s been a few years since the city’s most buzzed-about restaurant has been in Buckhead. But the neighborhood that started the Atlanta restaurant boom still has a pulse.
Here are three other new Buckhead restaurants to consider:
If you’re still mourning the passing of Craft Atlanta, you might want to make sure you’ve completed the stages of grief before you walk into the restaurant that took over its space. What was elegant and spare, with stacks of firewood setting the naturalistic tone, is now as sparkly and glitzed up as a dress in the window at Tootsie’s. A glowing red light fixture running along the staircase of this two-story restaurant cast a brassy light. One bar wasn’t enough, so now there’s a second one on the top floor, and both overflow at all hours.
And Buckhead loves it. Old Buckhead goes at midday when the ladies lunch cheek to jowl. Glam Buchkead goes at night, where the steakhouse-plus menu has something for everyone. Del Frisco’s Grille is a high-end, multi-unit offshoot of Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse — a place that takes the focus away from the steaks and chops and instead pushes the shareable appetizers, cocktails and the kinds of fried items you want to resist, but can’t. Some folks here will order a generously portioned entree, but many more will get lost after the crispy tacos filled with raw diced tuna and avocado and the greasy, doughy but snarfable wild mushroom flatbread.
After one visit, I’m guessing that’s the way to go. A short rib beef stroganoff with wide pappardelle noodles was a congealed clump with a disconcerting pasty texture, and the prime-grade Delmonico (rib eye) steak with barbecue rub was a thin, overseasoned thing that did not taste like a $32 steak. The wine list has some nice surprises, like a delicious Bodegas Numanthia-Termes “Termes” — a Spanish tempranillo from the Toro region with integrated fruit and earth flavors. But the markup is about three times retail.
3376 Peachtree Road, Buckhead, 404-537-2828, delfriscosgrille.com/atlanta $$$-$$$$
This dressed-to-impress newcomer joins the eclectic dining lineup at Tower Place shopping center, which recently welcomed Twin Peaks, a so-called “breastaurant.” (Other tenants include Farmburger and Ru San’s.) It hearkens to the kinds of restaurants that opened in pre-recession Buckhead, when sleek lounge design was often matched with ambitious gourmet food. Think dark wooden floors, bar tables, flowing white sheers and dim party lighting. Now think duck, foie gras and lots of French cooking terms on the menu.
The latter here comes from Mark Alba, who has been a well-regarded chef on the Atlanta scene for more than a decade. The food here is elaborately plated and garnished and speaks to Alba’s experience in fine dining. I liked a plate of salmon with grain mustard cream arugula salad with cornbread croutons. A little tweak to the acid and salt levels in this dish would have put it over the top. A galantine of duck wrapped around a center of chicken mousse didn’t get much help from its watery pear sauce, nor its shallot marmalade, but I welcomed seeing this kind of cooking in the post farm-to-table era.
A little editing and focus could give this ambitious menu some real oomph.
3365 Piedmont Road, Buckhead, 404-554-1100, modernbuckhead.com $$$
Market, the restaurant in the W Buckhead, featured a loopy yet kind of heartless space-age decor and a paint-by-numbers menu from Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Both are gone and replaced with a concept Atlantans like a whole lot better. You know what it is, right? A farm-to-table gastropub with a warm, rustic decor. Yes, it’s another one of those places where people eat sliders and drink $12 cocktails with ironic names. But Buckhead needs one of these places.
Don’t you like the idea of nursing a good bourbon cocktail as you pass plates of kale Caesar salad, crispy duck taco, pimento mac and cheese and chicken liver mousse before a movie at Phipps Plaza?
New York-based beverage director Belinda Chang has assembled some fine spirits and come up with a clever do-it-yourself cocktail kit. It works like this: You pick at least two shots of spirits for the table, and the bar manager brings all kinds of mixers, shrubs and tinctures along with all the necessary bar equipment to invent your own cocktail. It’s a bit nerve-wracking for the first round, as you add wormwood bitters from an eyedropper, not sure if you’re going to wreck your good hooch. But the second round turned into a fun science project/cooking experiment. I want to try a third round, but I think I’ll need a hotel room at the W for that.
3377 Peachtree Road, Buckhead, 404-523-3600, cookhallatlanta.com $$-$$$