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A star-crossed night at Holeman & Finch

Becky Stein

Becky Stein

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.

Backtrack

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.

Backtrack

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.

Finally….

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

27 comments Add your comment

Alison

March 24th, 2014
9:33 am

Not that I’m anxious to go to H&F based on this review, but I feel like the point of this story was, “Even important people don’t get good service at H&F!” which…good, why should you!?

Marsh

March 24th, 2014
9:34 am

I wonder what it feels like to have someone care how long you wait/whether you walk out of a busy restaurat. This concept is foreign to me. Ha ha.

Sounds like a rough night all around.

Alison

March 24th, 2014
9:34 am

That sounded ruder than I meant. Basically, now you guys know what it’s like trying to actually dine in this town!

kmbraunstein

March 24th, 2014
9:34 am

Just out of curiosity, why didn’t they offer to serve you dinner at the bar like many restaurants do when they have an unusually busy night? Also, don’t you as a restaurant reviewer going to the restaurant for a professional visit find it a bit disturbing that first the staff recognized both you and Bill Addison as food critics, second you apparently had used your real last name at the hostess stand and that helped them recognize you, and third, and worse, made it clear to you that they had recognized you and were giving you prefered treatment? How will you ever be able to return there and have a visit that will give you an objective view of the service and food?

Mike

March 24th, 2014
9:42 am

And how about if that was not a table of critics? I highly, highly doubt anything would have been done to appease the wait or soothe the tension.

While the restaurant was founded on ideals of southern ingredients and hospitality, the second half of that really has slipped. I sat in front of their star new bartender on a slow night after the ice storms. I asked for a drink with dark, well-aged rum, got one with light rum. It was fine, but went untouched for 20 minutes. My water glass similarly went unfilled for 10-15 minutes. It was only when I asked for the check that she asked if I did not enjoy my drink.

Frankly, the menu prices are up 25% across the board, tables sit occupied by the croakie crowd from 7:30 until 10:30, nursing their beers in anticipation of burger time. and the collegial atmosphere that used to resonate through the bar has now turned into trench warfare over 6″ of space. I am sure Mr. and Mrs. Hopkins genuinely do not care, as business seems to be good, but it really is a shame for those people that care to enjoy more of their menu than a burger and pimento cheese. While this place used to be my Cheers, there are just too many other places around Atlanta that are doing good work and actually make you feel welcomed.

Mike

March 24th, 2014
10:00 am

@Alison – there are plenty of places around Atlanta that do not make you feel as if you are doing them a favor when you visit their restaurants – One Eared Stag, Cakes and Ale, Bocado, Woodfire Grill, Kimball House, to name a few.

Kar

March 24th, 2014
10:13 am

Isn’t this the third time this article has run? It feels liek the restaurant is trying to do some damage control.

Spending $40 While Waiting in Line

March 24th, 2014
10:43 am

This restaurant needs to get over itself. If the “experience” is just the inconvenience of never getting one of their overrated burgers while having terrible service, then you may as well go to Ann’s Snack Bar.

Brian Collins

March 24th, 2014
10:43 am

It seems to be the norm at H&F. They are always on a wait for tables, wich is good, however, they do a poor job at estimating the wait time. Classic over promise & under deliver.

Ned Ludd

March 24th, 2014
11:01 am

Classic example of being told what they think you want to hear rather than the truth.If they had told you “Mr. K, we have a rare pre-arranged group in addition to our usual full house and don’t know when we can seat you.” Wastershed would have been a viable solution much sooner. Personally would have a difficult time even staying in a pushy corner of a bar after I had been told it would be at least an hour wait.

Good Food Eater

March 24th, 2014
1:47 pm

While I do enjoy H&F, I will never be able to eat a burger after 10:00. The bar at Watershed is delightful and they make a delicious burger (a bit small) anytime!

I could be a food critic too, I suppose.

March 24th, 2014
3:30 pm

I don’t understand the point of this “review.” You went to one of Atlanta’s busiest restaurants and are reporting that it was… busy?

Fascinating journalism.

Feller

March 24th, 2014
4:16 pm

So…educate me, please. What’s the appeal of a no-reservations policy?

holton

March 24th, 2014
4:22 pm

I’ve learned to just go to turner field and get the burgers there.

Mike

March 24th, 2014
4:35 pm

Feller – no cancellations, which can be expensive for restaurants. Also, saves money on opentable, reservationist, etc.

ted

March 24th, 2014
4:52 pm

kmbraunstein- they definitely serve at the bar, but there are also stools around the edge of the bar where there’s really just a drink-width ledge that’s about 12″ wide. I’ve eaten there for Sun brunch with a friend and shared a couple of things there one night with a couple of friends. But if you wanted to really try the menu and share, that’s not the place to do it.

S

March 24th, 2014
6:14 pm

No kitchen is worth waiting for without a reservation.

kmbraunstein

March 24th, 2014
7:05 pm

@Ted Thanks for the info.

Barbara

March 24th, 2014
10:22 pm

Same experience I had at H&F but insert snarky rude waitress who didn’t give a crap. Nobody chased after us begging us to stay after we were treated like they were doing us a favor to let us wait around for 2 hours after quoting an hour. They actually made us feel like since we weren’t “in the club” we didn’t matter much at all. Never went back and never plan to. Too many other excellent places in town to show off to my out of town guests. And as for that famous burger, try the one at Bocado or Local Three. Both are pretty darn delicious.

HotlantaHobo

March 24th, 2014
10:36 pm

Sounds like this place wants to be Rao’s of the south. Endless hype and 30 seats are a recipe for lots of disappointed customers. But they have to have the classic clip joint gimmick of a “rationed” burger to attract the 20-somethings that aren’t going to eat tripe soup. Or brains for that matter.

Scot Krause

March 25th, 2014
12:56 am

H&F cleaned house over the last 6 months big time and lost countless good people. My wife and I knew that bad experiences similar to this article would start to happen as a result. So sad, we loved H&F.

John

March 25th, 2014
6:11 am

H&F
Just serve the burgers all night. You’ll turn 3 times as many tables and not aggravate so many people. Your burger is good, but so are many others in town. This ego trip will wind down just like others do

Allen

March 25th, 2014
6:32 am

I have been through the same experience described in this “review” a couple of times although no one chased me down. Now, I don’t go near this pretentious shoebox.

Baltisraul....

March 25th, 2014
7:05 am

An hour plus wait time!! Never, ever would I do something with that herd mentality. I know it would ruin my evening and would go to all cost to avoid this insane practice. Even at the 21 Club and Tavern on the Green, my wait was under 20 min. H&F does not qualify as a waitable restaurant.

John Kessler

March 25th, 2014
9:50 am

Thanks for the comments. The email on this column has been voluminous and hilarious. By the way, all the folks at H&F I contacted (Gina Hopkins, Bart Sasso, Tim Mustard) were incredibly nice, accommodating, straightforward and honest when I interviewed them for this piece. I hope they feel that I was fair and let their retelling of the story ring true. Restaurants have bad nights; that’s a big part of this business. I thought it would be illuminating to write about it from the operator’s aw well as the customer’s perspective.
Once, for the record: I don’t want or expect to be treated better than any other customer. (And to Holeman’s great credit, they did not bump us ahead on the wait list because we were so-called “VIP’s.”) But I am what I am what I am, and I thought the “two food critics” angle would give the story another layer and the kind of transparency that often comes up short in restaurant writing.
Anyhow, thanks for reading. Over and out.

Edward

March 25th, 2014
10:23 am

I live just a stone throw from H&F and from its opening I enjoyed many meals there, at least a couple times a month. I typically would sit at the bar, but there were occasions when I brought friends with me and got a table or booth. But, I stopped going to H&F about 7 months ago because the experience became too terrible. Even sitting at the bar you get ignored by staff that seem to have a couple of their favorite people who get all the attention while everyone else is abandoned. I very much dislike having to yell over the extremely loud crowd, “HEY! CAN I GET SOME SERVICE OVER HERE?”, but that seems to be the only recourse. And trying to eat at said bar is no fun, either, because you’re so packed in there is barely enough room for your plate. Last time I was there another patron sitting next to me began eating one of my side dishes because he thought it was his. We sat so close together, neither of us could move our arms to eat without jostling the other person. I don’t care how good the food might be, if the dining experience is this horrific, I’m just not going back. When the atmosphere and service at Steak N Shake is better than a “high end” restaurant, something is seriously wrong.

Dean Jordan

March 26th, 2014
2:28 pm

Sure, “everyone has a bad night,” but with both Holeman & Finch and Restaurant Eugene, I think you’ve found their Achilles Heel. A bit over a year ago, my party and I walked-out of Restaurant Eugene after being ignore for 10+ minutes–no menus, no water, no greeting. The thing of it is, Atlanta is far too good a food city to tolerate weak service. One bad night can be forgiven (and by comping your next meal they will hope to be forgiven), but a lack of concern for the experience of their guests cannot.