The hostess sauntered toward us, menus in hand, smiling. Finally!
“So that table I told you about?” she said like a question. “The one that was getting ready to leave? Well, they decided to stay for burgers. So the wait will be a little longer…”
Burgers?! Gah. We were at Holeman & Finch Public House, crowded into the corner, drunk from cocktails. We had been quoted an hour wait for a table, which was now going on an hour and a half. It was 9:30, meaning that the famous 10 p.m. burgers wouldn’t drop for another half hour. It was time to bail.
We made our excuses, walked out the door and remitted our parking stubs to the valet. A tall, bearded, managerial-looking sort came bounding out of the dining room.
“We’re so sorry for the wait,” he implored. “Let me buy you a round of cocktails and a table will be ready for you soon.” We thanked him and promised to return. But no more booze; we had to eat.
Jason Paolini, the executive chef who oversees both Holeman & Finch and Restaurant Eugene, was in the kitchen orchestrating a dinner hosted by Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black for all the Southeastern state agriculture commissioners. The party (a rare booking in this strict no-reservation room) had ballooned from 14 to 17, and it occupied a long table stretching through the dining room. Black asked for wine pairings after sitting down, which demanded an emergency delivery of glassware. They wanted a menu that showcased Southeastern products in a convivial setting, and Paolini obliged with wild Oconee River catfish and Sapelo Island clams.
It was shaping up to be a hard night, and it was only about to get worse.
Shortly after 8 p.m., Paolini looked out into the dining room and there, at the worst barstool in the house, sat a gray, rumpled man with the vaguely academic demeanor of an adjunct professor at a community college. Uh oh. He called over Tim Mustard, the new maitre d’.
“That’s John Kessler with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution,” Paolini said. With him was Bill Addison, the dining editor at Atlanta Magazine (and soon to be national restaurant editor for the website Eater). There was also an unknown third guest — an out-of-towner judging by the round of awkward bro hugs and effusive greetings. “I’d better go check on their table,” Mustard said.
I know it can be risky to walk into Holeman & Finch at prime time, even on a weekday. But I was long overdue for a professional visit, particularly now that founding partners Greg Best and Regan Smith had departed and the restaurant had hired lead bartender Sara Justice from the New York cocktail destination PDT. Besides, I had a colleague who was in Atlanta on a book tour, and I always love to show off Holeman & Finch to out-of-towners.
I know the routine here. You find a spot, any spot, in the bar. Then you jump on a better spot when it opens.
We crammed three barstools together into a circle, drank our cocktails and had one of those shouty “HOW’S IT BEEN GOING?” conversations. Our spot under an overhead light was not great, not even good, and never going to work. We were sandwiched between a woman whose laugh could change bird migration patterns and the kitchen pass where hot food was languishing far past the expediter’s comfort zone.
“I need a runner. I NEED A RUNNER!!” she called again and again.
“I’m starving. I need a pretzel,” said Bill.
We order the pretzel as well as a crock of pimento cheese. I was hungry, too, and wanted to sample one dish I might write about before I started shoving anything into my face. So we got a bowl of H&F’s take on mondongo, a Dominican tripe soup. Let me tell you, it’s hard to pass around a bowl of tripe soup when you don’t have a table.
But before we ate anything…
Mustard checked the waiting list with hostess Katie Gasner, who was new to the position. She had recorded the Kessler party as arriving at 8:10 and had quoted an hour wait, which was perhaps ambitious. There was a nine-top and two four-tops ahead of this party. It could work out if the group of ag commissioners broke at the right time and neither party currently sitting at the two booths lingered.
Paolini texted the restaurant’s owner, Gina Hopkins, who had just arrived in town from an overseas flight, and let her know about the situation. Keep me informed, she texted back.
Back in the bar…
We had just missed our opportunity to pounce on one of the two small round tables when it opened. We had been there over an hour, so I called the waiter over and asked him to do a little reconnaissance work on progress in the dining room.
He came back with a good news/bad news report. The table wasn’t ready yet, but it looked close. The party had finished eating and the server had dropped the check. It looked like we’d get it in the next 20 minutes or so.
“That’s great,” I said. “Why don’t you go ahead and bring our check?” We waited as some choice bar seats got scooped up and instead perused the menu. Bill wanted the potato dumplings with celery root puree, I had my eye on the fried kale salad with sausage and pickled lime, as well as the mackerel escabeche with green banana stew. Our friend couldn’t leave the South without getting the Nashville-style hot chicken. And, of course, the pasta carbonara, the veal brains … mmm … brains … hungry like the “Walking Dead” …
After 20 minutes, that nice hostess came toward us, menus in hand, to deliver the bad news.
Mustard had gone into the kitchen to get a bowl of bacon caramel popcorn to tide over the Kessler/Addison party when he heard they were still waiting. “It’s like a perfect storm,” he thought grimly, as he looked through the 30-seat dining room and packed bar.
He went to the party’s corner and found it empty. “Where did they go?” he demanded of Gasner.
“They just left,” she said, pointing outside. He ran outside to try and lure them back with cocktails.
At the end of a long evening, after all 24 burgers dropped at 10 p.m. and the nine-top ordered its last round of cocktails, Mustard sat down to a computer to write the nightly post-mortem. It began, “John Kessler came in with Bill Addison and a friend tonight and was hoping for a table. They arrived at 8:10 and were quoted an hour wait…”
By the time Mustard wrote that report, my happy belly was full of barbecued shrimp and jambalaya from Watershed on Peachtree. I was on my way home and thinking about that poor new manager and how much it must suck to have two food critics walk out of your restaurant. But everyone has a bad night, and I just hoped he knew I realized as much.
- by John Kessler for the Food & More blog