Topgolf, Alpharetta's 65,000-square-foot entertainment complex, opened two weeks ago with a focus on computerized golf games, but executive chef Mark Nelson has no intention to serve subpar grub. Going beyond the usual cardboard pizza and movie theater hot dogs, Nelson has crafted a lengthy menu of dishes like prosciutto, artichoke, and olive flatbread; curried chicken salad sandwich; and, for brunch, caramelized French toast. The bar is also stepping up with cocktails like the Mexi-Gin Martini with jalapeno syrup and Tito’s Strawberry Mule with fresh mint. We spoke to Nelson to learn more.
Tell me about your background.
I started in the restaurant business at age fifteen. I was a banquet manager with Hilton in 1989. I opened my own restaurant in Lake Oconee eight years ago, Filet Steak & Seafood. For the last two-and-a-half years, I’ve been consulting with other chefs on food and beverage menus. I worked on the Woodland Country Club menus in Texas.
Why’d you decide to come to Atlanta and Topgolf in particular?
I wanted to get back to Atlanta to be near my girlfriend and my daughter. I was looking for something interesting and different and a company that did things the right way—a from scratch kitchen, essentially. Several of my friends said to check out Topgolf, said that they were doing some really cool stuff.
Topgolf had a Chopped-style competition for the culinary management positions, and that’s how I got my job. I did a sliced strip steak with white truffle and shitake mushroom topping and braised kale; and beer-braised mussels with red and yellow peppers, ginger, fresh cilantro, and lime juice. We had about forty-five minutes to do an appetizer and an entree.
How is the menu at the Alpharetta Topgolf similar or different to that at other Topgolf locations?
We have a corporate chef team that does the menu design. Each chef has some input into their menu. We’ll probably have three or four unique items on our menu and three to four new ones that we’ll contribute to the national menu. We redo the menus once a year. This menu is a brand new one, and Atlanta is the first site to launch it. I helped them work out some of the specifics of some of the menu items to get the flavor profile and plating right. It’s a very collaborative effort between the corporate chef team and the executive chef at each site.
Tell me about the food.
Ninety-five percent of everything is made from scratch. We use products that come from the earth–not a factory or a freezer somewhere. For example, for our nachos, instead of opening a can of pinto bean paste, we do drunken beans—soak them, cook them, add onions and fat, and then puree them. We make the cheese blend and chimichurri from scratch. We smoke the chicken. We marinate and grill the beef.
What’s the restaurant like? Do you consider it a destination in itself or is it more for golfers?
Every seat in the place is a dining seat. Guests can order food at the bar or when they’re playing a game. We can have as many as 1,200 people at one time. It’s not a golf facility with a restaurant, but a restaurant with a golf facility. We have some event space, but there is no dining room. There are booth and high-tops at the bar that will hold more people.
A large percentage of people come just to eat and drink and for the live entertainment Thursday through Saturday on the rooftop terrace. There’s so much more to do than just the game, but the game is part of it.
What’s the focus of the bar?
We have several local craft beers that we’ve selected from the market—some from Jekyll Brewing in Alpharetta, a couple from other Atlanta and Georgia outlets. The wine list is mostly domestic. [Topgolf also offers cocktails].
Anything else I should know?
People come expecting bar food and what they get surprises them. I’d call it chefed-up bar food. [Topgolf] is the kind of place that will change the scene for both lunch and nightlife in the Alpharetta area. People come from the office, with a date, with friends, or bring their family.