"Oh, wow," exclaimed an out-of-town friend when we walked into the Optimist for lunch. That’s the typical first reaction to the Westside space, a former country ham distribution warehouse. Atlanta holds a fondness for industrial castoffs converted into glittering restaurants, but owner Ford Fry (who also runs JCT Kitchen & Bar and Decatur’s No. 246) and his designer, Smith Hanes, trumped all others with this beauty. You enter through the oyster bar, an evening enticement for rummy fish house punch, raw and roasted oysters from both coasts, and the city’s dreamiest lobster roll. Turn right into the vastness of the main dining room, where a whitewashed ceiling, rich hardwoods, and touches of nautical navy blue set off a shimmery, backlit wall of bottles behind the long bar.
All the seaside-inspired elegance makes you thirst for a zingy quaff like Lara Creasy’s Cava Cocktail, with Herradura Silver tequila, Navaran Brut Cava, muddled cucumber, and a generous squeeze of lime. Then get your hands messy with peel-and-eat shrimp crusted with spices, and Georgia white shrimp cooked "a la plancha" (griddled) and slathered in a creamy tomato sauce tingly with arbol chile. Executive chef Adam Evans composes entrees in which the fish takes center stage without overembellishment: Florida mahi mahi, for example, needs only lemon and olive oil to showcase its sweet flavor and meaty texture. Halibut bathes in garlic cream with celery for earthy contrast and Calabrese peppers for a flicker of heat. Don’t skip the side of basmati rice jazzed with smoked fish, curry powder, crushed peanuts, and scrambled egg. Between the energizing vacation-by-the-beach atmosphere and the accomplished food, it’s easy to understand why the Optimist quickly drew national accolades, including Esquire’s best new restaurant of the year.
914 Howell Mill Road, 404-477-6260, theoptimistrestaurant.com