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Slurp cocktails and oysters at this dapper Decatur hot spot
Kimball House, Decatur’s buzziest new restaurant, doesn’t take reservations. In most places, such a policy leads to a wait about as pleasurable as the midnight drive-through line at Zesto’s. But I’ve grown partial to a nook in the far corner of Kimball House, diagonal from its entrance, where hanging out for a table feels like a retreat—a perch to soak in the room’s nostalgic glamour and its colorful crowds.
For one thing, this alcove, lined with a white marble counter and brass railing, is situated next to a contender for the city’s handsomest bar. Booze bottles and martini shakers rest on shelves that reach to the ceiling; a library ladder on a rolling track helps the staff reach what they need. Globe fixtures dangling from long wires cast a silvery glow over the pine bar, fashioned from the building’s original floorboards.
The scene makes me thirsty. A server usually navigates through the throngs to ask the four or five of us gathered in the alcove what we’d like to drink. A cocktail, certainly—something like the Amber Lens, a harmony of gin, sherry, vermouth, Luxardo maraschino cherry liqueur, and citrus bitters served in a gold-rimmed glass. And to nibble? I always plow through a tray of hot, pudgy cheese straws peeking like crocuses from underneath a snowfall of grated Parmesan. Occasionally, the lonely moan of a locomotive horn cuts through the ruckus. I can peer out a small window to watch a cargo train clanging down the tracks a few yards from where I’m standing.
Kimball House resides in the former Decatur railway depot, built in 1891, that rests atop a stubby hill at the edge of East College Avenue. It is the fourth restaurant to occupy the space in the last three decades (longtime Decaturites may remember it as the Freight Room in the 1980s), but the first in recent years to qualify as a success. Credit the team behind it. Miles MacQuarrie, Bryan Rackley, Jesse Smith, and Matthew Christison either tended bar or worked the front of the house a few blocks away at Brick Store Pub or Leon’s Full Service; they’ve been plotting their own place for several years. The owners of Brick Store and Leon’s—David Blanchard, Michael Gallagher, and Tom Moore—helped finance the place. When the depot became available, the partners embraced the idea of an atmosphere evoking bygone saloons and public houses. The name hearkens to a grand hotel, constructed in 1870 and rebuilt after a fire in 1883, that spanned a block of downtown Atlanta; its ornate decor and massive chandeliers set the standard of sophistication for its day. (You can guess its fate: It was torn down in 1959 and replaced with a parking garage.)
For a new business with seven owners, the restaurant runs with an astonishing sense of unity. MacQuarrie is one of Atlanta’s genius bartenders who understand both whimsy and restraint, so the cocktail program—full of potions with names like “Mexican Razor Blade” and “Scurvy Dodger” that bewitch the taste buds—is no surprise. But the team also recruited other crackerjack talent. Bright-eyed William Bubier serves as maître d’, manning the door and doling out hugs to regulars just as he did previously at Cakes & Ale. Two chefs head up the kitchen. Jeffrey Wall and Phil Meeker met while cooking on the line at departed Joël Brasserie. Wall became executive chef at Buckhead’s short-lived La Fourchette, and Meeker was most recently sous chef at East Atlanta’s Holy Taco. The two reunited professionally (they’re also roommates) to create menus of intense, artful dishes that change nightly.
Before you venture into their creations, though, order from the raw bar. Co-owner Bryan Rackley oversees what instantly became the city’s finest selection of oysters, an ever-changing array of twenty or so beauties from the West Coast, New England, Canada, and the Chesapeake. Rackley procures 70 percent of his assortment directly from small farms, and the tasting notes speak to his zeal and humor: If you’re not tempted by the flavors of “melon and collard greens” inherent in the Wildcat Coves from Washington, try the Island Creeks—“a face full of seawater”—from Massachusetts. The oysters arrive, looking pristine and prehistoric in their craggly shells, over ice on pewter trays once in service at Pano’s and Paul’s. A squeeze of lemon or a few beads of shallot-vinegar mignonette (applied from an apothecary dropper bottle) is the only accent needed. Well, a glass of Champagne certainly adds to the merriment . . .
As for the rest of the meal, Meeker and Wall divide their offerings into fish, meat, and vegetable categories, with appetizer and entree portions in each group. Few remain available for more than a couple of weeks. Beef tartare is an exception. Preserved lemon and tarragon brighten a precise circle of chopped meat that shares the plate with a swipe of pureed black olives, halved mushroom slices scattered like rose petals across a pillow, and slicks of homemade steak sauce. Follow that painterly number with one of the earthier veg dishes—perhaps gentle, warm sauerkraut gussied up with ham, apple, and mustard, or shaved Brussels sprouts in a busy jumble of sausage, mushrooms, and garlic chips over a tangy pimento pepper puree.
Ryan Smith, former executive chef at Empire State South and co-owner of forthcoming Staplehouse, is on board part-time as guest charcutier, crafting porky delights like saucisse de Toulouse, a spiral sausage served over root vegetables in a thyme-scented broth. Cut its richness with a fish course, but be wary: I’ve had uneven experiences in this department. A silky block of sturgeon dazzled; cured halibut on a subsequent visit stung our mouths with salt. And desserts, though clever, need more heart. I understand the creative impulse to deconstruct pumpkin pie into filling, meringue, and ice cream, but a homey rendition with a buttery crust still trumps all.
As much as I love sharing an evening at Kimball House with pals, I equally savor solo meals at the bar. There I’m free to further study the scenery (like the stuffed bobcat on the shelves above the tufted leather booths, a trophy of MacQuarrie’s father-in-law) and the customers (men who dote on their beards; women wearing retro eyeglasses). The ideal Kimball House meal for one: a few oysters, natch, and then the $45 steak dinner, which includes a rotating soup, salad, and rosy slices of New York strip (the cut may also vary) surrounded with vegetables du jour. Simple, classic. To finish, a nip of Duplais Blanche, an herbal Swiss absinthe that’s more digestive aid than hallucinogen. Before I depart, an admiring pause: I respect a restaurant that conjures the past but also manages to feel very much a part of its time.
Rating: Three stars (Excellent)
303 East Howard Avenue, Decatur
Hours: Sunday–Thursday 5 p.m.–1 a.m., Friday–
Saturday 5 p.m.–2 a.m.
This article originally appeared in our January 2014 issue.