Snaking my way through the packed lobby and past the busy hostess, I stop to survey the crowded bar, hoping for an open stool upon which to pounce. I hover, scan and fidget. Realizing that the owner of that nearly empty margarita glass isn’t coming back, I swoop in, politely confirm my suspicions, and waste no time staking my claim.
“Good lord, it is busy in here tonight,” I murmur, reaching for a menu and eyeing the row of beer taps in front of me.
To my right, from just beyond the neighboring shoulder pressed against mine, I hear, “Yeah, man. It is like this every single night.”
Assuming that I’ve lucked out and landed near a regular, I reply, “Oh, you come here a lot? Any recommendations?”
“I live in St. Louis, but I come to Atlanta every week or two, and I come here every night that I’m in town.”
I’m at the bustling bar of Spondivits in East Point, and it is the busiest Tuesday night I’ve seen a restaurant in this city have in a long time. I don’t know what I was expecting from the long-standing seafood joint, but I know that it isn’t this.
When owner Andy Camp, a Riverdale native, first opened Spondivits in 1979 in a small house he purchased in East Point, he was aiming for a fun, casual, coastal seafood bar. Little did he know that planting roots next to what would become the busiest airport in the world would help mold the destiny of his then-humble crab shack.
Built right off the Virginia Avenue exit on I-85, this 34-year Atlanta institution is flanked on all sides by hotels catering to airline employees, conventioneers, white-collar road warriors and weary layover sufferers. And Glenn Gagne, executive chef at Spondivits for the past 22 years, later confirmed what I could quickly tell from looking over the crowd: Nearly every single one of them comes to Spondivits when they are in town.
Let’s be honest — nothing about the selections on Spondivits’ menu will surprise you. They serve exactly what the
Marlin on the logo and the beach kitsch on the walls leads you to expect. But it is decidedly fresh, which makes all the difference.
Camp and Gagne pride themselves on the freshness of their seafood, none more so than their king crab claws, Spondivits’ flagship dish. From the early days, Camp decided that if he was going to pinch pennies, it wasn’t going to be on the seafood. Taking advantage of their proximity to the airport, they get their king crab from Alaska whenever it is in season, filling the gaps between seasons with supplies from Greenland.
And there isn’t a single criticism I can levy against my king crab cocktail ($23.95). I still get that primal satisfaction, the sense of accomplishment, as I cleanly extract a thick, perfectly intact, five-inch stalk of meat from the shell. Dunking my prize into melted butter, I barely hear the pair of more-than-tipsy flight attendants I’ve befriended on my left congratulate me as I indulge in the sweet, flakey and certainly fresh crab.
A close second is a cup of Gagne’s World’s Greatest Clam Chowder ($7.95). A Maine native, Gagne took the top prize at the Cape Cod Chowder Festival three years running and Spondivits has been serving his recipe since he took over the kitchen in 1991.
Though I see a lot of giant steaming buckets of crab and bowls of chowder stacked on trays weaving through the crowd, there are just as many rounds of steamed or raw oysters, fish filets and baskets of all sorts of crispy fried seafood stacked with them.
Gagne guesses that about 30 percent of the crowd is made up of locals. Combined with the Hartsfield contingent, that makes for a very eclectic mix of patrons. But it seems everyone is here for the same reason: to have a couple of cold ones, let their hair down, kick their feet up (if there were room), and dig into some good, old-fashioned fresh seafood.
Despite seating only 154 diners, Spondivits churns through a massive amount of food to fuel that crowd. Bolstered by the fact that the kitchen serves the full menu until 4 a.m. six nights a week — and typically has a wait for a table past 2 a.m. — Gagne goes through at least 30 gallons of clam chowder nightly.
But the seafood isn’t what truly makes Spondivits. There is a vibe to the crowd that you can’t manufacture, and there isn’t a more appropriate word to describe it than “fun.” That energy is self-sustaining, generating an atmosphere that is the real draw as they’ve packed in folks in for three decades.
There are a lot of places we can go to get some crab legs and a beer, but I don’t know of any quite like Spondivits.
Spondivits – East Point Food: Coastal seafood Service: manages the crowd well Best dishes: king crab legs, shrimp po’boy, oysters Vegetarian selections: limited Price range: $$ Credit cards: all major credit cards Hours: 11 a.m.-4 a.m. Mondays-Saturdays, noon-4 a.m. Sundays Children: welcome Parking: complimentary and necessary valet Reservations: recommended Wheelchair access: yes Smoking: no Noise level: buzzing to raucous Patio: yes Takeout: yes Address, phone: 1219 Virginia Ave, East Point. 404-767-1569