Kevin Rathbun is not the chef whose name routinely appears on restaurant awards ballots. You will likely never see him on “Chopped,” scurrying to finish a dish that contains squid, Hershey’s Kisses and creamed corn before the bell goes off. Nor is he apt to grace a multi-paged spread in a glossy magazine, entertaining friends on his patio with champagne and canapes.
But he is, perhaps, the chef who enjoys the best kind of celebrity in Atlanta. His fans here don’t admire him so much as love him. His restaurants have a special quality — that thing that your favorite spot in New Orleans or Rome has, that generous personality, that shaggy ease.
His food can sometimes be too rich and salty for my taste, and his Johnston Studio-designed warehouse dining rooms too noisy. But there’s such vitality afoot that I always have a blast. I always find the dishes to love, the conversation worth shouting for, the wine that merits a second bottle. I’ll spend a little too much and leave feeling a little too full. And I won’t care. This is why you dine.
This past month Rathbun opened his fourth Atlanta restaurant — KR SteakBar in the Atlanta Decorative Arts Center in Buckhead.
For the chef it’s a bit of a homecoming. Before he opened three restaurants in a once-derelict/now-trendy industrial edge of Inman Park, he made his name locally for his work with the Buckhead Life Restaurant Group. He prepared Southwestern fare at Nava and then continued on as a corporate chef, reworking the menus at the group’s other properties, including BluePointe and the Buckhead Diner. He knows this crowd.
“A lot of people told me they were sick of driving to Inman Park and wanted me back in Buckhead,” Rathbun said. “I wanted to diversify beyond my little corner.”
If you know Rathbun’s or Kevin Rathbun Steak, you will recognize the vibe and guiding spirit here even as you pick your way through the new menu. Working with chef de cuisine Chris McDade, an alumnus of Italian restaurant Maialino in New York, Rathbun has fashioned a surprising lineup of Italian pastas, steaks and small plates. Unlike his other restaurants, where the “second mortgage plates” appeal to big spenders, Rathbun keeps the prices down to appeal to neighbors and steak portions the “size of a deck of cards” to appeal to women.
I’ll leave it to Jenny Turknett to fully explore the menu here and determine a star rating. But I will offer up this comparison of Rathbun’s four restaurants:
Year opened: 2004
Current chef de cuisine: Nick Anderson
Style: “We’re all over the board,” Rathbun said. “It’s all about having fun and being an eclectic restaurant.” The chef claims he was influenced by his time at Baby Routh, a Dallas restaurant where he trained.
Interesting design feature: the vast open-air patio set on the old loading dock. Heaters keep it habitable for most of the year. Seating is first come-first served, and conversation is much easier than in the noisy, open dining room.
Must-order dishes: crab tart, Yia-Yia’s eggplant fries with powdered sugar, quartet of mini-desserts.
Best time to go: early in the evening when patio seats are plentiful.
Info:112 Krog St., Atlanta. 404-524-8280. $$$-$$$$
2. Krog Bar
Year opened: 2005
Current chef de cuisine: Raj Kotecha
Style: Spanish tapas and wine bar. Rathbun took over the lease on this tiny space from a public relations firm, which relocated. It serves as an unofficial holding pen for walk-in guests who are waiting for a table at Rathbun’s and need a little bite and glass of wine.
Interesting design feature: This 750-square-foot shoebox is paneled in grooved, pitted pecky cypress.
Must-order dish: salumi and trammezzini finger sandwiches.
Best time to go: before 6 p.m. on a warm afternoon when you’re stealing time. The patio is perfection before the crowds come.
Info: 112 Krog St., Atlanta. 404-524-8580. $$
Year opened: 2007
Current chef de cuisine: Andre Gomez
Style: “It’s a new-guard steakhouse,” Rathbun said. “There’s a focus on appetizers and sides, so it’s approachable to women. I always knew I wanted to open a steakhouse, because they stand the test of time. They’re more secure than a restaurant with an edgy menu.”
Interesting design feature: the creepily oversized portrait of Rathbun that hangs in the dining room. Somehow it doesn’t translate as pure ego, but rather an extension of the chef’s oversized personality.
Must-order dish: dry-aged porterhouse for two, sweet potato gratin, the bar burger.
Best time to go: anytime; it’s always a party.
Info: 154 Krog St., Atlanta. 404-524-5600. $$$$
4. KR Steakbar
Year opened: 2013
Current chef de cuisine: Chris McDade
Style: “We’re calling it an Italian steakhouse,” Rathbun said. “Chris makes all the pastas. He also does a lot with what he calls ‘the fifth cut’ — the variety meats. There’s a tonnarelli pasta with pig trotters and a lamb heart tartare.”
Interesting design feature: Guests walk past a window to the kitchen as they enter the restaurant.
Must-order dish: mushroom salad with a charred lettuce sauce; that tonnarelli, which is delectable.
Best time to go: whenever you can get in; this restaurant is incessantly jammed.
Info: 349 Peachtree Hills Ave., Atlanta. 404-841-8820. $$$-$$$$