Our longtime columnist chews over the past decade's dining evolution
By Christiane Lauterbach
I used to spend half my life in Buckhead, blinded by the glitz and resentful of the scene where businessmen and women who mostly weren’t their wives claimed all the good restaurant reservations. When Bluepointe opened to great fanfare on the cusp of the new millennium, I feared that this flashy East-meets-West newcomer in the pretentiously named Pinnacle Building was the shape of things to come. Luckily I was wrong.
Bluepointe did become another lasting gem in Pano Karatassos’s crown. Yet the most meaningful culinary event of the last decade turned out to be the way Bacchanalia, at almost exactly the same time, up and left its poky cottage in Buckhead for a daring industrial location no one had a name for. Back then, there was no “Westside,” no “Midtown West.” Although the Food Studio had opened a few years before in the King Plow Arts Center on West Marietta Street, most of the carriage trade would have rather died than cross Peachtree for a special-occasion dinner in a warehouse district. But the new and improved Bacchanalia was an immediate success due to an epochal combination of frisson-inducing decor and superior American food by chefs-owners Anne Quatrano and Clifford Harrison, who championed local products. The walk to Bacchanalia through Star Provisions, the adjoining gourmet market, became a pilgrimage. Just like that, attention started to shift away from Buckhead.
Soon after, Taqueria del Sol opened in the same compound as Bacchanalia. Its enormous popularity established the demand for significant casual restaurants with unbeatable prices and an actual chef in charge (in this case, Eddie Hernandez). To this day, there is no better bang for the buck in Atlanta. The idea of Memphis barbecue tacos and turnip greens spiked with Mexican peppers remains as fresh and topical as ever. Over the decade, four more Taquerias, including one in Athens, joined the original.
Equally significant, the gradual shift of Watershed from catchall wine bar and deli to a serious restaurant at the beginning of the decade ushered in a new era for Decatur, formerly a gourmet backwater. The initial concept was neither as complex nor as Southern as it is now, but the truffled chicken salad sandwich and the entrepreneurial presence of Indigo Girl Emily Saliers created a buzz. Happily, executive chef Scott Peacock—already a national figure through his tenure at the governor’s mansion and his loving friendship with Edna Lewis—was given the freedom to make the restaurant in his image. He had the authority, sincerity, and understanding of traditions born in the agricultural past to make Watershed a standard-bearer of true Southern cuisine. His iconic fried chicken led us away from the heinous fake gastronomy of the New South that had been perpetrated in the previous decade, and he drew our attention to local producers.
Contrary to what people expected at the eve of a new century, molecular gastronomy never got off the ground in Atlanta. Chefs who like to experiment with modern technology, including Richard Blais of Flip Burger Boutique and the more grounded Hector Santiago of Pura Vida, have to be almost sneaky about the process by which they arrive at good food. (Blais and Santiago have both been Top Chef contestants. The chef as media clown doesn’t exactly jibe with me, but the new respect accorded to the profession thrills me.)
Atlanta’s clamor for uptown glitz has never completely subsided, but Kevin Rathbun, one of Buckhead Life’s largest talents, staged a revolution when he broke ranks in 2004 and charted new territory that soon became a defining template for the latter half of the decade. His first restaurant, Rathbun’s, made it not only safe but also desirable for people to dine on the fringes of the Old Fourth Ward; it was one giant step toward adventurous dining. He now has three places to his name, including one of the best steakhouses on record. Bob Amick, an early mind behind the Pleasant Peasant chain, is part of the same movement to rehab old buildings off little-known streets and transform them into fun, loud places to nosh and drink. His company’s raucous Two Urban Licks succeeded and its pizza-themed Pie Bar didn’t, but despite the occasional setback, Amick’s empire keeps on growing.
The defining trend of the 2000s—a focus on local food born from a growing pride in all things homegrown—began the previous decade with Guenter Seeger. Alas, the first chef to introduce Atlanta to extraordinary ingredients ended up leaving us because of our collective failure to love him. We should have been proud of Seeger the way San Francisco is proud of his friend and supporter Thomas Keller, chef-owner of the French Laundry. Seeger closed his eponymous restaurant in 2006, and then, in the next two years, Sotohiro Kosugi relocated his Soto to Manhattan and Joël Antunes of Joël also left for New York (he’s currently opening a restaurant in London). Arnaud Berthelier, the last of the great stars of the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead, departed for Shanghai after the Dining Room closed in October.
Maybe the city had to reject (or be abandoned by) its international chefs to embrace a more regional identity. Atlanta native Linton Hopkins opened Restaurant Eugene in 2004 and Holeman and Finch Public House in 2008. He may be less flamboyant or plugged into the world scene than the chefs of the previous decade, but he mines the Southern vernacular to dazzling effect, bestowing nobility on the humble pig and juggling small plates driven by farm vegetables. He also was one of the first area chefs to recognize the importance of cocktails as an art form.
Eating local used to mean a trip to the Colonnade. At the end of the decade, we have Cakes & Ale, with a young chef, Billy Allin, who harvests dandelion greens in his own Decatur garden and patronizes sustainable farms as a matter of fact, using those precious ingredients in a cuisine whose beauty relies on unvarnished freshness. On an even narrower scale, the same can be said of David Sweeney at Dynamic Dish, whose imaginative, mostly vegetarian menu changes every day and captures the essence of the surrounding terroir, including large gardens in East Point.
Atlantans didn’t stop eating out when money got tight in the last year. Whether fetishizing luxe hamburgers and artisanal pizzas or sitting quietly at the bar at Shaun’s in Inman Park to nibble elegant chopped liver and french fries cooked in duck fat, the dining community has developed an unprecedented interest in all things culinary. The raging passion for craft beer goes hand in hand with the interest in affordable gastronomy, and it has played its part in the recent enthusiasm for gastropubs such as the Porter Beer Bar and Leon’s Full Service.
By the time the decade was almost at an end, projects in play before the economy went south managed to steal some of the limelight from our burgeoning homegrown restaurants. A sudden invasion of New York clones—Craft, BLT Steak, Spice Market, and even Il Mulino—crashed our party. Buckhead staged a comeback with a gaggle of hotels and buildings such as Terminus and Sovereign, whose names echo the pretensions of earlier years.
Yet the farm-to-table movement has done nothing but gather strength. I bet on the young chefs to keep us eating responsibly and pleasurably—particularly Kevin Gillespie of Woodfire Grill and Julia LeRoy at the Bookhouse Pub, two Georgia natives with an intuitive approach to showcasing local bounty. With its long growing season, experience in animal husbandry, and access to the coast, Georgia has a wealth of ingredients to put on my plate and, finally, enough homegrown chefs to shape the way I’ll eat for the next ten years.
Bluepointe: Buckhead Life
Cakes & Ale: Judith Pishnery
A Culinary Wish List for the Next Ten
By Bill Addison
Support a food truck culture.
In a recent presentation, Christiane Lauterbach explored why cities such as Portland, Oregon, have robust food truck cultures and we don’t. An excellent question. Consensus is that City Hall creates red tape for food trucks, discouraging their existence. But wouldn’t you love to walk outside your office, step up to a parked van, and grab a pork belly taco for lunch? Mobile kitchens have gone gourmet in other cities. Atlanta should address the legal constraints around food trucks so that our chefs can take to the streets.
Take more culinary risks.
I’m grateful to see less fried calamari and crème brûlée on menus, yet too many chefs still play it overly safe. There’s a reason food writers won’t quit yapping about Holeman and Finch: It braves an outside-the-box approach and is consistently packed. Risk doesn’t have to mean weird science on a plate or a smorgasbord of offal; it means using sound cooking techniques to explore underrepresented realms of flavors and textures. Surprise us.
Claim a stronger sense of regionalism.
The history and possibilities of Southern food are so lush, it still astounds me
that more chefs don’t turn to the regional lexicon for inspiration. We’ve got fried chicken down; now look deeper. Research old cookbooks. Use our superb local products to reimagine the recipes that those ingredients originally inspired—Brunswick stew and baked shad, perhaps, or even spoon bread.
Increase the midrange and high-end ethnic options.
Atlanta food lovers boast of our ethnic food options, but are the bragging rights justified? High rents ghettoize most of the authentic-minded mom-and-pop spots to Buford Highway and the suburbs. And in other American cities, ambitious restaurateurs open midrange and high-end ethnic restaurants—Indian, Persian, Mexican, Chinese, Japanese—that offer refined but true tastes of the culture in swankier settings. We have a few such worthwhile restaurants—Kyma (Greek) and Nam (Vietnamese)—but more of them would round out the richness of our dining scene.
Boost the booze scene.
Cocktails and craft beer are coming of age locally, but there’s still an overall lack of sophisticated brew haunts and watering holes. And, wow, do we need better wine bars. (Thank heaven for you, Krog Bar.) As our fine-dining restaurants diminish, so too does our appreciation of wine. The city is ripe for renegade young sommeliers to open a feisty spot or two and finally teach Atlanta that the grape can be a wellspring of pleasure—no matter what the budget.