Talking about money is uncouth in some circles. Thomas Catherall—one of the defining forces of the Atlanta dining scene for nearly three decades, with eleven restaurants under his Here to Serve Restaurants umbrella—does it to remind me that there are things that matter more to him than the opinion of the press. During a recent conversation, I couldn’t take my eyes off his colossal watch, which I was promptly told was a Bentley and weighed a full pound. I got to hear about his identical, supercharged Range Rovers; his forty-foot sport fishing boat, the Perseverance; and his philosophy (“I want the masses, not the classes,” a more refined version of his oft-told “an ass in every chair” motto). I tried not to flinch every time he mentioned the word millionaire in rapid-fire tones.
Catherall also regularly brings up his humble origins as the oldest of ten children in the gritty industrial town of Newcastle upon Tyne in northeast England. While apprenticing as a cook at the age of fourteen, he realized that there was more to life than gravy and offcuts of meat. His vanity plate spells out his trajectory: PO B 4.
After landing jobs in progressively fancier resorts around the Caribbean, Catherall became the highest-paid chef in Atlanta during his tenure at the Cherokee Town Club in the early 1980s. He appeared on my radar when he left to open Buckhead’s Azalea, then TomTom, both of which launched the fusion craze and the small plates trend before they closed.
Catherall, sixty-two, has a thing for one-word restaurant names: Prime, Noche, Goldfish, Twist, Shout, Strip, Aja, Coast, Cantina. He says his clientele includes more women and more African Americans than his competitors, and he is proud of the party atmosphere he creates in most of his places. He just launched a line of Washington State Rieslings (impossibly sweet to my taste), bottled under the name Fly with a suggestive, partially open zipper on the label.
The restaurant I like best in Catherall’s empire is Prime in Lenox Square, the first upscale steakhouse in Atlanta to feature a sushi bar. It just turned fifteen, and the airy design—with terrazzo flooring, maple paneling, and kitelike lights in the soaring dining area—has held up. The scene still spills into the mall, where huge chesterfield armchairs define its boundaries. The restaurant just renewed its lease for another ten years.
Plans are in the works for a Texas-style barbecue in Buckhead, a concept Catherall couldn’t make work in Morningside as last decade’s short-lived Star Steaks & BBQ. The restaurant, which he hopes to open next year, will have an on-site brewery directed by his older son, one of the five children he has from three marriages. Negotiations are also under way for four restaurants in the expanding Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
I bet Catherall is still sensitive to the unkind reviews his restaurants have received (party scenes and cooking tailored to the masses tend not to get much traction with critics) and wishes he got more love from the media. But his staying power—bolstered by incredibly loyal staffers such as pastry chef Joan Trotochaud, who has been with him since his Cherokee Town Club days—is a proud accomplishment in its own right.