Like naming a baby, picking the right name for a restaurant can trigger high-level anxiety. How can you make sure the chosen moniker will properly sum up your progeny? Will the name be easy to pronounce and remember? Will it stand out from the others?
On top of that, restaurateurs must ask themselves: How Google-able is it? And what if it has been registered by an entity that will sue you if you try to infringe on its rights?
One reliable, old-fashioned solution: Go the eponymous route. Alon’s Bakery is named for Alon Balshan, Gu’s Kitchen (and Gu’s Dumplings) for Yiquan Gu, Kaiser’s Chophouse for Peter Kaiser, Sushi Hayakawa for Atsushi Hayakawa, Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q for twins Jonathan and Justin Fox, and, back in the day, Seeger’s for Günter Seeger and Pano’s and Paul’s for Pano Karatassos and Paul Albrecht.
Occasionally, though, a “junior” can cause confusion. In the early aughts, some people meaning to eat risotto at Sotto Sotto wound up at Soto, chef Sotohiro Kosugi’s sensational (and, sadly, now shuttered) Japanese restaurant.
When it comes to newer restaurant names, the prevailing sentiment is to name them not as if they’re children but as if they’re animals. Poor Hendrix is both a beloved rescue pit bull and its owners’ delightful bar and restaurant in East Lake. Little Bear, a fluffy Great Pyrenees belonging to chef Jarrett Stieber and his wife, will soon have his name above the door of the couple’s Summerhill restaurant. Birds are in, too, as evidenced by Cardinal, a secret bar in Grant Park, and Redbird, Ross Jones and Zeb Stevenson’s restaurant in the former location of Bacchanalia. Cephalopods (8Arm and Octopus Bar) and game (The Deer and the Dove) also get a nod.
Today’s non-animal names are just as whimsical. Vietvana sounds hippy-dippy, but it may turn out to be a better name for a Vietnamese restaurant than Buckhead’s Le Colonial, which could be construed as glamorizing a regrettable chapter of French history. Japanophiles will get a kick out of the name of Michael Lo and George Yu’s latest production, Salaryman, and people who love their mothers will appreciate chef Ron Hsu cheekily calling his place Lazy Betty (for a mother who was anything but a slouch).
And while there’s no denying that the name Slutty Vegan adds to the wild popularity of Pinky Cole’s plant-based burger joint, more polite terms—say, ex–Gunshow chef Joey Ward’s new Poncey-Highland spots Southern Belle and Georgia Boy—make a case for manners.
The arrival of chef Zeb Stevenson’s Redbird—which has landed in the former home of fine-dining bastion Bacchanalia—signals a new era for the Westside’s restaurant scene. Back in the late ’90s, when Bacchanalia chef Anne Quatrano and her husband Clifford Harrison moved their six-year-old restaurant into new digs, they created a space posh enough to befit Bacchanalia but also more industrial than that of any Atlanta fine-dining establishment. And they did it in a part of town, the then sleepy Westside, where no fine-dining establishment had opened before. Industrial-chic dining rooms are now ubiquitous, and the Westside has become the epicenter of Atlanta’s high-end restaurant explosion. The neighborhood is so packed with options—Miller Union, Marcel, JCT Kitchen, the Optimist, Cooks and Soldiers, Le Fat, Aziza, Forza Storico, and, a mile west, Bacchanalia’s new digs—that, unlike in those pioneering Westside days, it’s hard for any new spot to stand out. Redbird does.
Given its pedigree, that’s not exactly shocking. Stevenson most recently helmed Watershed, and his former boss and current business partner, Ross Jones, was one of the four women who opened that iconic modern Southern restaurant more than two decades ago. (In 2018, she sold it to its new chef-owner, who just put it back on the market.) Stevenson’s famous Watershed predecessors include James Beard Award winner Scott Peacock, who helped redefine high-end Southern cooking on the national level. That challenge proved tricky for Stevenson. Though clearly gifted based on what he did at Watershed, he was never recognized for establishing his own style there.
Now, Redbird has freed Stevenson from the looming legacies of Watershed specifically and Southern cooking in general. What does he do with that freedom? Creates dishes that are simpler and healthier than you might expect but just as sophisticated. And that stripped-down deliciousness, coupled with a dining room high on style yet free of pretension, makes Redbird feel instantly essential.
Stevenson, the son of a fire-and-brimstone preacher in Warsaw, Indiana, rebelled against family traditions by becoming an artist and a cook. After dropping out of Cornell’s Fine Arts program, he moved to Atlanta, where he became sous chef and, a year later, executive chef at Livingston and its cocktail bar, Proof and Provisions, both in the Georgian Terrace. It was his first crack at directing a menu. He left that gig in 2013; the following year, Jones and her partner (now wife), Susan Owens, hired him to be chef at Watershed.
Redbird is the first restaurant where Stevenson has been able to create an entire concept from scratch. And with the help of chef de cuisine Christian Perez, formerly of City Pharmacy in Covington, his culinary vision is finally clear.
Redbird’s menu is composed of 16 or so reasonably priced small plates (most of them vegetarian, vegan, or gluten free, with few surpassing the $10 mark), and seven a la carte proteins. Extraordinarily beautiful offerings could include roasted beets with shredded endive glossed with basil oil and flecked with blue cheese and sourdough crumbles (which the chef makes with his own sourdough starter); unctuous chicken-liver mousse with black bread and muscadine jelly; and crushed fingerling potato tostones with almond mole. Stevenson loves textural plays in signature dishes, and that’s perhaps most apparent in a ravishing dessert of crushed pecan ice in the style of a Filipino halo halo, with shaved coconut, candied summer squash, mango, pineapple, tapioca pearls, and pomegranate seeds.
While I may not appreciate the blandness of a plate of cacio e pepe fritters inspired by a trip to Italy or the color of a grayish (but delicious) strawberry custard with meringue, I can’t argue with the mastery evident in tender, slow-cooked chicken legs, simply adorned with olives, lemons, oregano, and toum (Lebanese garlic sauce) or, in the similarly pared-down pan-roasted fish, topped with a contrasting, fresh and green, finely minced “sizzling scallion condiment” embellished with pea tendrils.
Stevenson bakes his own bread, which shows up in various dishes, and he prettily displays a distinctly un-Southern, angelic-looking sugar cream pie, his mom’s favorite, on a marble slab in front of the open kitchen. The message is two-fold: an homage to his roots and a signifier of his straightforward cooking style.
Stevenson and Jones oversee Redbird’s wine program, and they’ve created a serious destination for oenophiles. Their exquisite taste is on display in rarely seen French and Spanish varietals—and the bar serves their selections at the proper temperature (you’d be amazed how often this is botched elsewhere). The superb list, with a significant number of offerings by the glass or half-bottle, boasts discoveries such as a blend of Roussane and Vermentino from the Languedoc, a Mencia from Spain, and unusual varietals from Macedonia.
Step inside and you’ll hardly be able to tell that this space ever belonged to Bacchanalia. With a new entrance and an altered orientation that takes better advantage of the large bay windows, Redbird is airier, the mood of the room more festive than rarefied. An informal chef’s counter, a lively bar, and splashes of color such as raspberry-red placemats on a green glass counter (the underside of which is hand-painted) also help lighten things up.
Redbird is that exceptional restaurant that makes you feel instantly at home—or, rather, at the home you wish you inhabited. That’s all the more impressive considering that this particular space is the former home of Atlanta’s grande dame of fine dining, Bacchanalia, and that it’s in a neighborhood crammed with worthy restaurants. Redbird is very much its own creature—simple, unpretentious, delightful—and it finally provides chef Zeb Stevenson a chance to soar.
In the 1970s, most of the clientele that showed up at Atlanta’s dark, stifling Indian restaurants had Birkenstocks on their feet and vegetarianism in their heart. Back then, there was no such thing as a fun Indian restaurant. One could catch a thin curry here and a biryani there, but it wasn’t until Robert Blazer opened Your DeKalb Farmers Market in 1977 that a significant Indian population, including many employees of the market, began moving to the area and later started cooking a huge variety of casual street food.
The Indian restaurant that ended the era of boring was Zyka. When it opened on Scott Boulevard in 1997, I no longer had to alternate between Haveli in Marietta (too formal) and the now-closed Calcutta in Little Five Points (not enough creature comforts). I immediately embraced the weirdness of a counter-service and Styrofoam-plate kind of place that shared a building with a Montessori school and a huge banquet hall. I devoted myself to its rich and spicy snacks and to its informal entrees.
To this day, the menu remains unchanged and includes the overwhelmingly popular spicy-hot Chicken 65, the little fried nuggets sprinkled with fresh curry leaves; aloo tikki, plump potato and lentil croquettes; and dense, pistachio-flecked matka kulfi, a dessert that’s frozen in a small clay pot. There is golden naan or muthi paratha to wrap around the chicken seekh kabobs or to scoop up the chana masala. One doesn’t linger at Zyka—too much noise and too many children running around in too cavernous a fluorescent-lit space—but the take-out operation is astonishingly efficient. And as the crowded parking lot attests, the food is a hit not just with the local Indian population but with eaters from every background.
If you are an environmentalist, Curry Up Now—a small, fast-casual California chain that specializes in modern Indian street food and just opened a location near the epicenter of Indian food along Scott Boulevard—is the antithesis of Zyka. There is no single-use plastic anywhere. As for the street food it serves, expect plenty of healthy and unorthodox twists: deconstructed samosa, paneer quesadilla, kathi rolls made on whole-wheat paratha enriched with a layer of egg, Naughty Naan that looks like a pizza topped with spicy cubed chicken or paneer. The mango lassi, including one flavored with rose essence, comes in a mason jar. Snacky options include kachori chaat (a hard-shelled puri stuffed with lentils, potato-garbanzo mash, and masala yogurt), and many items are vegetarian, vegan, or gluten-free.
There are several better options for modern Indian street food, starting with Meherwan Irani’s Chai Pani in Decatur and Botiwalla in Ponce City Market and, as of recently, on the green in downtown Alpharetta. Irani’s delicious rolls (sandwiches) on hot, buttered naan and his crunchy bhel puri made with puffed rice, flour crisps, and crunchy chickpea noodles drizzled with green chutney are at the apex of the snacky Indian-food scene.
There’s also the joyous Masti Fun Indian Street Eats, which also has expanded to the suburbs. Like the original Toco Hills location, the second outpost in Duluth properly channels what’s happening at the street level in contemporary Indian cuisine. The suburban menu also happens to be wilder and broader, with butter chicken tacos on uttapam “pancakes,” spiced keema burgers on soft buns, and both kabob and paneer dogs. We’ve come a long way since ’97.
Discussions have long raged about what is and isn’t authentic Chinese food and whether or not Chinese restaurants are allowed to evolve with the times. Meanwhile, one proudly old-school place on Clairmont Road near Toco Hills has for 44 years served a loyal clientele—a solid mix of Westerners and Asians—in a low-ceilinged dining room guarded by an enormous gilded statue.
When Been Lee opened Golden Buddha in 1975, there was no doubt that his kitchen had to please locals who would eat pretty much anything as long as it was fried, sweet, and came in large portions. Generations of Atlantans made a ritual of these Americanized Chinese dishes, from sweet and sour chicken to pork with broccoli, egg drop soup to (of course) fried rice.
But Lee, who is Chinese and was born and raised in Korea, also offers a far spicier and more distinctive Korean menu with hallmark dishes such as jjajangmyun (flour noodles with a thick, salty, smoky sauce made from fermented soybeans) with shrimp, squid, pork, and onions; a bright-red jjamppong (a seafood noodle soup with scallops, squid, and shrimp in a broth spiked with hot chilies); and colossal Empress Chicken Wings with a rich, garlicky lacquer coating flesh that’s been partially flayed from the bone, to facilitate otherwise messy eating.
Bossy, well-dressed waiters deliver dishes in minutes, telling you how much sauce to put on your noodles, and a constant scrum of business reminds you why a place like Golden Buddha can’t be improved upon.
Minimalist yet still transportive
Part of a new generation of Chinese restaurants, Xiao’s Way Noodle House, which opened this spring in Johns Creek, is embracing a modern aesthetic and an impersonal style of service. To order, you pencil in what you want from a printed list and wait for a buzzer’s summons. If you order correctly, you’ll be rewarded with gorgeous, handmade soup dumplings (xiao long bao) served hot in a steamer; Chinese pork, chicken, or beef burgers (rou jia mo) on crisped steamed buns; and, for lunch, Taiwanese bento boxes with pick-your-own proteins and veggies.
When it comes to choosing from the huge selection of noodles, however, the process easily goes off the rails. How are you supposed to know that the stir-fry you ordered is, in fact, a deep-fried basket of thick noodles with seafood inside? And what about the beef noodle soup versus the spicy beef noodle soup? Discussing the merits of both with a real human could have helped you make a better choice.
Sleek, modern places such as Xiao’s, Ah-Ma’s Taiwanese Kitchen in Midtown, Gu’s Kitchen in Chamblee, Urban Wu in Buckhead, and Hai Authentic Chinese in Decatur may feel emotionally cold to the Golden Buddha crowd, but all five are true to their culture and backed by serious kitchens. The food will transport you to Taiwan or Sichuan, even if the dining room doesn’t. So, while you may like the pomp and showmanship—not to mention the community vibe—of the old-school Chinese restaurants, you’ll likely find a more enlightened menu at the minimalist places that eschew the red and the gold.
Few things feel more Southern to me than a fish fry. You can locate some of the best by following a sign advertising one at a local church—but if that doesn’t pan out, you’ll find a similarly iconic Atlanta experience at the somewhat decrepit-looking, old-fashioned Merkerson’s Fish Market, a longtime fixture on Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard near West End. Merkerson’s offers fresh porgys, sheepheads, snappers, mullets, and catfish whole at the counter, which you can cook yourself. Better yet, have them fried on the spot while you sit on one of the benches, waiting for your order to be called.
A scant $7 will buy you three pieces of deftly fried flounder, two thin slices of wheat bread, some fries, and a few jalapeño hushpuppies. The hot sauce waits for you at the counter. The whiting fish sandwich, priced as low as $3.49, trumps anything you could ever purchase at a fast-food restaurant. Eat your fish burning-hot at a long folding table overlooking a broken Pac-Man machine or in your car with the windows open.
The selection of fish is more limited at Trederick’s on Whitehall Street just south of downtown, but the place is a real restaurant. Opened in March by the owners of the now-closed Blue Ivory club next door, it even has a small patio and keeps later hours on the weekend. The catfish and whiting fillets in a light coating of cornmeal batter are especially splendid, and don’t forget the baskets of huge, sweet shrimp, the crinkly fries, the thick homestyle chips, and the sweet coleslaw.
Crab legs and lobster
In addition to its inexpensive fried offerings, Trederick’s offers more decadent options such as crab clusters and lobster tails. That also earns it a spot in the growing ranks of Atlanta restaurants serving higher-end Southern seafood.
Last year, the influential chef Darius Williams—who in 2017 helped energize Westview’s dining scene with Greens and Gravy—opened Soul Crab in College Park, specializing in seafood by the pound. Located in an attractive historic storefront, the restaurant serves fruit-forward cocktails and draws well-dressed crowds that rip into crab clusters (both snow crabs and king crabs), lobster tails, and shrimp paired with a choice of melted butters, including ones flavored with Hennessey or jerk seasoning. Expect the bar scene to be hectic and your manicure to be ruined.
New Orleans–inspired Bon Ton is rightly lauded for its applewood-smoked snow crabs and a $33 mixed-seafood boil, and Krab Queenz Seafood, the wildly popular minichain out of Louisiana, is replacing the downtown location of Gladys Knight’s Chicken and Waffles. Both are further proof that spicy, buttery Southern seafood works as well in roadside dives as it does in elevated dining rooms.
Cold Beer, Kevin Gillespie’s new BeltLine-adjacent restaurant in the shadow of the Edgewood Avenue bridge, isn’t any more about cold beer than Gunshow or Revival—his other high-profile restaurants—are about firearms or religion. Gillespie, who was born in Henry County, an hour south of Atlanta, is working on an emotional oeuvre about his roots.
Despite, or maybe because of, a cancer battle last year that cost him a kidney, Gillespie is more willing than ever to double down on innovation. Cold Beer makes a powerful statement about the BeltLine and its maturation: More than a place for casual noshing, our all-important ribbon of concrete has come of age with a restaurant that (almost) captures its ambition.
Not everyone turns down a scholarship from MIT to study cooking, but Gillespie’s instinct was right: His calling was elsewhere. Ten years ago, when he was chef at Woodfire Grill, he competed in season six of Top Chef. He became a finalist, was named Fan Favorite (as much for his intelligence and charisma as his culinary prowess), and has been one of Atlanta’s splashiest, most experimental culinarians ever since.
Once a competition chef, always a competition chef: Gillespie is constantly pushing the envelope, as if trying to impress judges with a dazzling array of as many skills as possible. His drive to differentiate himself from the fray is both his greatest strength and his vulnerability. At Cold Beer, he and chef Brian Baxter, a veteran of Husk and Bastion in Nashville, have the same impulses: Explode and recreate dishes with no undue reverence for classic ingredients. Beverage director Mercedes O’Brien, Gunshow’s former cocktail maven, pushes as hard as her boss to make a statement. Service at the restaurant is much friendlier than at comparable hipster spots and much more capable of supplying adequate explanations of a slew of ingredients unfamiliar to the average diner.
After an early period at Cold Beer when every small plate felt too much like stunt food designed to stimulate the intellect rather than the taste buds, Gillespie’s creations are starting to relax. The thick cover of flowers and herbs blanketing a shrimp pancake now looks less like a floral centerpiece and more like something you’d like to eat. The lamb ribs no longer hide under an overwhelming layer of cashew yogurt and instead are presented as a fetching little rack of Kentucky-style barbecue, plunked sauce and all onto a thin slice of housemade white bread.
There is much to admire at Cold Beer. A cross-cultural dish of fried okra is pungent with hot-and-numbing Sichuan peppercorns and mellowed by a smooth labneh blackened with eggplant powder. The aged beef steak tartare, mixed tableside with a plethora of microdiced, pickled, and fermented ingredients, as well as Russian dressing with a pineapple-ketchup base, becomes a kind of Reuben sandwich–flavored quenelle, with thick planks of potatoes fried in beef fat serving as bread.
But the food often can be overwrought. A thick slice of beef belly, blanketed with watermelon hoisin sauce and served with little gem lettuces, fried shallots, and crushed peanuts, and the popular but weirdly bland smoked and fried chicken wings don’t even amount to elevated bar food. The desserts—ranging from an unexpectedly dull, overbaked pavlova with mulled wine and fig-leaf anglaise to a stale funnel cake with equally unpleasant toasted hay cream and hyssop ice cream—are good in theory and letdowns on the table.
O’Brien’s talent behind the bar is undeniable, but some of her ideas work better than others. Why make your own (acrid-tasting) Chartreuse? Why add avocado to the frozen margarita when it serves only to make it weirdly thick and less refreshing? On the other hand, the Eastern Trinidad Sour with fermented cashew and sour mango is an unusual little jewel. And a multilayered ice cube composed of frozen melon and mezcal that graces an herbal cocktail redolent of Alpine spirits and elderflower is great fun. One can always seek the restaurant’s namesake refuge in its excellent German beers, including the Helles Vollbier from Mahrs Bräu. Also, $2 will buy you a small beer while you wait, a practice more restaurants should embrace.
Prestigious local firm Ai3 did a bang-up job with the sleek architectural interior (for the ambitious eaters), its relaxed patio (for the people-watchers), and its vibrant rooftop (for the partiers). In the dining room, a photo of chef Gillespie’s torso that shows his tattooed arm but not his head symbolizes, according to him, the lack of ego to which he aspires, while a giant oil painting of a standing polar bear lords over the scene.
The philosophy of the restaurant is, in Gillespie’s words: “Just because something hasn’t worked yet doesn’t mean we aren’t supposed to do it.” In practice, such an approach demands a lot from diners who may have expected more straightforward pleasure. Yes, you likely will experience flavor combinations in the dishes and the cocktails that feel new, and, yes, most of them will delight rather than confound. But not all of them. Cold Beer is a restaurant that deserves your support—as long as you’re willing to be patient while it pursues its aspirations.
First, there was Gu’s Bistro, which opened in December 2010 in a thinly populated Buford Highway shopping center just outside the Perimeter—and quickly ignited a debate as to whether Sichuan standard-bearer Tasty China had finally been dethroned. Gu’s Bistro was formidable in talent, manned by Yiquan Gu, a veteran chef with prodigious restaurant experience on the West Coast and beyond; his wife, Qiongyao Zhang, who was top of her class in culinary school in the family’s native Chengdu, the capital of China’s Sichuan province; and their daughter, Yvonne, who’d earned two nursing degrees and had agreed to switch gears to help her family. The restaurant owed its success in part to a combination of serious cooking skills and an ability—mostly Yvonne’s—to connect with the clientele.
Zahed Khan first came to Gu’s Bistro as a customer. When the soft-spoken, half-Indian, half-Iranian Georgia Tech grad couldn’t find a website for the restaurant, he volunteered to help launch one. He also ended up tweaking the menu’s wording to make it more customer-friendly (“I told them not to put the words ‘black fungus’ on the menu,” he remembers). Eventually, the Oklahoma-born, Singapore-raised Khan married the daughter of the house. Everything was going gangbusters.
In 2015, shortly before their lease was up for renewal, the family decided to close the restaurant. Chef Gu, who was nearing 60, didn’t see himself cooking a 100-item menu for another decade. Yvonne Gu Khan and her husband had a plan for keeping her parents’ legacy going: Gu’s Dumplings, a basic counter with a simplified menu in the hip environs of Krog Street Market. The half-moon dumplings at the market stall became a hit, but they weren’t enough to console diners who’d fallen under the spell of chef Gu’s many Chengdu delicacies.
It turns out that as much as customers missed chef Gu’s food, “Dad missed cooking,” Gu Khan says. A comeback was inevitable. Once again, the family leased a space on Buford Highway, closer to town and in a better location than the original. Last November, they returned to culinary form with Gu’s Kitchen, a more modern-looking noodle and dumpling house than Gu’s Bistro, initially with distressingly short hours (so as not to overwhelm the kitchen). Gu Khan and her husband heralded the return of Gu’s with an Instagram-ready invention: a small but heavy stainless-steel stand into which two slightly downward-angled chopsticks are inserted. If it doesn’t sound terribly interesting, consider that, when it lands on the table draped with cold, thin Chengdu noodles slippery with chili oil (one of the restaurant’s specialties), it looks as if a ghost is holding those chopsticks, a mouthful of noodles eerily suspended in the air. Everyone who came in simply had to order it—and share photos of it, of course—and the restaurant was launched.
Such newfangled publicity contraptions would be of little consequence if not for the quality of the cooking. While some of the dishes, such as the aforementioned ones, use the finest grade of commercially available Taiwanese noodles, Qiongyao Zhang rolls the stiff dough by hand for the ropy, chewy ones that are among Chengdu’s best-known street foods. Rolling pin in hand, the matriarch shapes her dough into a thick rectangle and cuts each noodle cleanly with a cleaver. She then gently stretches them before laying them in a half-sheet pan, where they wiggle ever so slightly before coming to a rest.
In addition to seeking out the noodles, longtime fans and eager millennials come to Gu’s Kitchen in droves for the Zhong-style dumplings, a 100-year-old recipe originating in Chengdu, prepared daily in a separate room in the back of the restaurant. In this cool space, separate from the brutally hot main kitchen, you’ll find Zhang and her assistants making piles and piles of pork, chicken, or vegetable fillings for the famous dumplings, served in slightly sweet sauce that’s ruby-red from the housemade chili oil.
Under pressure from his followers, many of whom were original customers (and also because he can’t help himself), chef Gu has taken to adding dishes to the menu. Tea-smoked duck, smoked pork tongue, baby bok choy with Chinese mushrooms, and dozens of other delights have joined the core dishes.
A second location of Gu’s Dumplings is about to open in the Halcyon multi-use development north of Alpharetta, but Buford Highway is the mothership. Standing in the modern and efficient kitchen with several giant woks, chef Gu approaches his craft with the same energy that has motivated him since he started cooking at 18. “My father and mother are very proud of their Chengdu techniques,” says Gu Khan, who, along with her husband and three daughters (including an infant), is posted up at Gu’s Kitchen more often than not. “It’s all about the family.”
When one of the best chefs in Atlanta turns his attention to barbecue and opens a restaurant in a fast-changing neighborhood near downtown, sparks will fly. Todd Ginsberg, whose General Muir near Emory forever changed what Atlantans could expect from a Jewish deli, does something similar with Wood’s Chapel BBQ: He takes an old-fashioned concept and makes it stunning and modern in a way that respects its integrity.
Together with his partners in the General Muir, Yalla!, Fred’s Meat & Bread, and TGM Bread, Ginsberg now finds his empire expanding into geographically new territory. Even though he lives less than a mile away from Wood’s Chapel, in Grant Park, Ginsberg until recently was unfamiliar with Summerhill, a neighborhood in the shadow of the former Turner Field that, though historically important for its streetcar line (now defunct) and bustling mom-and-pop businesses (long shuttered), had become better known over the years for botched revitalization efforts and a desolate commercial strip.
But things are changing along Georgia Avenue. The tasteful redevelopment of several historic buildings by megafirm Carter respects the scale of the neighborhood. That strip has attracted a slew of high-profile spots—Little Tart Bakeshop, Big Softie ice cream, Halfway Crooks Beer, Junior’s Pizza, and the soon-to-open Little Bear by Jarrett Stieber. (Parnass Savang’s Talat Market will open a few blocks south on Ormond Street.) But Wood’s Chapel, named after one of the first churches built in the neighborhood after the Civil War, is Summerhill’s largest restaurant by far—and serves as an anchor to a reimagined Georgia Avenue.
Born in New Jersey, Todd Ginsberg came South for a gig at the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead, where he worked under the dazzling Joël Antunes. From his stint a decade ago as chef at Bocado to the present, Ginsberg has concerned himself with food that tastes good rather than food that’s trying to reinvent itself through feats of engineering. With the initial help of consulting pitmaster Bryan Keenan and, later, permanent pitmaster Craig Hoelzer (formerly of Fox Brothers BBQ and the General Muir), Ginsberg has conquered the technical challenges of bonafide barbecue. Chef Wilson Gourley, another General Muir alum who came to Wood’s Chapel from 8Arm and does most of the work in the indoor kitchen (inventive sides, apps, and salads), completes the team.
For its barbecue, Wood’s Chapel starts with Riverview Farms whole hogs and certified Angus beef. Those meats are treated with proper reverence: Wood’s Chapel is a purely wood-smoked joint, equipped in part with an Oyler open pit and two Texas-style Offset smokers in a spacious smokehouse at the back of the compound. The pitmaster practices whole-hog barbecue (in which the whole pig is smoked at once, as opposed to its parts), and batches of the other meats are cooked throughout the day to ensure that everything is fresh and therefore moist and tender.
In addition to offering an especially splendid sliced brisket with near-black bark, glistening racks of St. Louis ribs rubbed with white pepper and other dry spices, and heaps of rosy pulled pork topped with a fluff of chopped crunchy pork skin, Wood’s Chapel distinguishes itself with the unusual barbecue options of thickly sliced smoked turkey breast and hot-smoked Scottish salmon. (A nod to Jewish delis and pescatarians.) Sandwiches include a beauteous Cue-bano with smoked pork shoulder and the restaurant’s own ham, insanely rich grilled cheese with brisket, and chopped turkey awash in mayo.
For those who like sauce with their meat, there’s a station set up with traditional, long-cooked BBQ Sauce with maple syrup and reduced onions that’s sweet, spicy, rich, and salty; the vinaigrette-style All Purpose with smoked paprika; and, my favorite, the Hog Mop sauce based on distilled vinegar and tons of various chilies.
You’ll also find creative salads, fun appetizers, and thoughtful sides such as a beet and jalapeño coleslaw, Mexican-style creamed corn with cotija cheese, and fried rice with chunks of smoked pork belly. Fresh pies, prepared by pastry chef Chris Daugherty in a central commissary for all of the group’s restaurants, look as if they were made by a grandma who’s spent decades perfecting recipes for banana-pudding, lemon-chess, lattice-peach, and peanut-butter varieties.
Cheerwine slushies (with or without whiskey) are the house specialty, but there’s also a handful of stiff and smartly composed cocktails. The beer list covers ground that’s local (Creature Comforts Tropicalia, Eventide Kolsh) and farther afield and includes some bargains on tap and in cans. While I don’t see the point of drinking wine in a barbecue restaurant, those who feel differently can choose from one red, white, or pink.
If the weather agrees, the place to be is the 120-seat biergarten-style patio with a cornhole rig, Adirondack chairs, and a view of the modern-looking, barn-doored smokehouse. If it doesn’t, there’s a dining room filled with communal picnic tables and flanked by a smaller game room outfitted with foosball and shuffleboard. Expect to stand in line at the counter (there’s no table service) with young families, tattooed ’cue aficionados, and the occasional rap star.
From the sourcing of the meats to the methodology of smoking them, everything at Wood’s Chapel BBQ has been researched to the nth degree by chef Todd Ginsberg and his team—yet the result is impressive less for the precision of it all than for the fun. There’s no such thing as “typical” Georgia barbecue, and a place like this makes us thankful for that: Here, you can experience top-notch barbecue broadly rather than by narrow regional roots. It’s a perfect neighbor to the Georgia State Panthers, who’ve taken up residence in the old Turner Field, and an auspicious addition to the impressive restaurant scene that’s taking shape in Summerhill.
Compared to the taco stands and chicken joints of his Texas childhood, Ford Fry’s new restaurant, in a former tattoo parlor overlooking the gnarly intersection of Piedmont and Cheshire Bridge roads, is a big-deal production—the Hummer version of a rusty taco truck.
Little Rey is Fry’s 16th restaurant in an empire that includes JCT Kitchen, the Optimist, No. 246, St. Cecilia, and King + Duke. Simpler than Superica and the El Felix, his other Tex-Mex blockbusters, this fast-casual spot primarily serves wood-roasted chicken, tacos, and margaritas on tap. Who knew what kind of people would show up in a neighborhood better known for sketchy strip clubs than gastronomy? Apparently Fry did. Ansley and Morningside families came rushing in, followed by a crush of outliers.
Fry, a Houston native who grew up as the not–especially academically oriented kid in a family of doctors and businesspeople, first appeared on Atlanta’s radar in the late ’90s, when he became the corporate chef for Eatzi’s Buckhead, the ahead-of-its-time gourmet grocery. With plenty of capital and an uncanny sense of which neighborhoods were ready for conquest, he went on to open one splashy and successful restaurant after another. Why Little Rey? “I wanted to cook over wood, and I thought the neighborhood needed help,” he told me, beaming about a $2.5 million investment that is already doing twice as much business as anticipated.
There are many ways to cook pollo al carbon on both sides of the border. The chicken, typically grilled over charcoal, is wood-roasted at Little Rey, which uses natural birds—spatchcocked, brined aggressively for four hours, then marinated for 24 more with citrus and achiote. They’re cooked on racks in a custom-made, fully enclosed wood-burning contraption backed by a formidable exhaust hood. Throughout the day, the chicken, juicy and rosy from the smoke, is served family style, hacked into burnished and fragrant pieces, with tortillas, smoked onions, charred jalapeños, cilantro rice, and rancho beans.
The breakfast tacos, served on supple, homemade flour tortillas, are easily the best in town, filled with sliced skirt steak, potatoes, chorizo, and/or poblano pepper layered over migas (eggs scrambled with crumbled tortilla chips) and twice-fried beans. From huevos rancheros to pancakes with buttermilk syrup, the breakfast menu is deeply comforting.
Starting at 11 a.m., diners can gorge on chicken al carbon, regular lunch tacos (such as ones stuffed with Oaxacan cheese, mushrooms, and poblano peppers, or slow-smoked brisket and tomatillo) served on corn tortillas, or fancier al carbon tacos served on the house flour tortillas and available “rico style,” with grilled jalapeños and chili con queso. Among the sides, the creamy esquites-style corn off the cob with mayo and crumbled cotija is a big hit, but others, including the “super greens” with radish, pumpkin seeds, and lime vinaigrette, are merely trendy and ultimately boring. While the various house salsas in squeeze bottles (including a smashing creamy garlic one) are spot on, the weirdly seasoned, pinkish queso is not. And the arroz con pollo is a bland aggregate of chopped chicken and cilantro rice topped with super greens.
The chemical-tasting, relatively weak margaritas are served on tap out of plastic cups. There are no options for those who appreciate a fine tequila, and the margarita choices are limited to frozen or on the rocks; big or small; and with grapefruit juice or not. One of the biggest problems with counter service—the fact that nobody wants to stand in line to get a second drink—has been resolved with a separate, dedicated drink counter. The selection of beers, including some on draft, and wines (many canned) is better than decent.
Loud and fun, the mood is modern-day Texas roadhouse—spectacularly organized to get you in and out with a minimum of fuss. You pour your own water (sparkling or still), grab your own salsa and cutlery, and find your own niche in a large, sun-soaked room that’s cheerfully and stylishly adorned with primitive art, Mexican festival masks, and touches of neon. The patio out front, edged with string lights, is perched high enough above the street to be desirable.
Don’t worry about the lines or the chaotic parking lot: Everything moves quickly in this high-style, fast-casual joint done right. The wood-roasted chicken is king, but the tacos (particularly the breakfast ones and the giant steak al carbon on a superb flour tortilla) also are worth the trip.
For Several years, Kathryn DiMenichi and Holli Medley knew the name of their eventual bar would be Cardinal, a bird they believe watches over them along with the spirits of their ancestors. The eccentricity of Cardinal, which opened in April, hardly stops there—and you should thank your burning sage it doesn’t.
To think of Cardinal as a mere speakeasy doesn’t do justice to its extraordinary whimsy. Two friends have created a free-spirited space—hidden behind their small food market, Third Street Goods—not only for congregating over iced vermouth or CBD juice drinks but for highlighting priorities such as waste-reduction and locavorism. The community vibe inside Cardinal is a logical extension of the one that distinguishes the compound where it’s situated. The Beacon, a collection of low-slung former industrial buildings, now houses an art center, several restaurants, a brewery, and a “pinfall” (bowling-meets-football-meets-cornhole) parlor with sets by popular DJs. It’s looser and more nightlife-oriented than similar developments. The south Grant Park location, formerly known mostly to graffiti artists and mounted police whose horses still graze in a nearby pasture, is adjacent to a yet-to-be-completed portion of the BeltLine trail.
Finding Cardinal in all of this is part of the fun. Once you’ve arrived at the Beacon from the surrounding maze of one-way streets, you’ll make your way down the hall of the main building, a former commercial cinnamon-bun factory, and enter a mysterious corridor with a plush curtain, a scattering of herbs and dried flowers on the floor, and, painted on the wall, a pink triangle symbolizing nature’s golden ratio. Just be sure to consult your lunar calendar before going to all that trouble: The bar is never open when there’s a full moon.
DiMenichi and Medley have worked as bartenders at beloved establishments including Leon’s Full Service, where they met. Medley, who went to culinary school in her native Alabama, and DiMenichi, an Atlantan with an art background, stick to a routine in which one of them is always behind the bar while the other runs the store or the kitchen. The cooperative approach helps make Cardinal feel more like an intimate experiment than a traditional drinking destination.
As befits a conscientious and creative joint like this, the cocktail menu offers low-ABV cocktails, sherry and vermouth bottle service, smartly curated wines such as a pungent red from Puglia with a beer bottle cap, and nonalcoholic drinks boosted with CBD oil. The eponymous signature drink, a riff on a gin martini poured in a classic small coupe, honors the South with delicate (and not too sweet) touches of honey and Georgia muscadine wine. The more daring Amiright (arak, rum, and lime) and Hip to Hip (bourbon, curaçao, coconut, lemon, and salt) serve to shroud Cardinal in additional magic.
On the tiny bar menu, snack-sized mortadella sandwiches on potato rolls with tangy housemade mustard are the only hot food item. Beautiful, smoked Portuguese sardines are served in their tin can, along with pickled quail eggs from Alabama, hot piri-piri sauce, housemade pickles, and toasted rounds of baguette to sop up their rich oil. There’s also a generous helping of marinated olives tossed with mild Caly Road feta; a salad of peaches, blueberries, and freshly snipped herbs served with a mound of sumptuous housemade ricotta; and a simple cheese plate with a choice of Gouda flavored with nettles, buttery young cheddar (both from Working Cow Dairy in Alabama), Sweet Grass Green Hill from Georgia, or Point Reyes Original Blue from California. The sublime pointy baguettes accompanying both the cheeses and the Sparkman’s butter (churned in South Georgia) are from the best baker in town: Root Baking Company in Ponce City Market.
At peak strawberry season, the kitchen put out a strawberry salad, strawberry syrup, and strawberry leather—as unlikely to find in a bar as the house Bibb salad with lemon vinaigrette and homemade croutons.
The space exudes its owners’ deep-held beliefs in planetary harmony and cyclical renewal: You can’t help but feel relaxed hanging out here. The walls are a seductive pool-table green, the old-fashioned horseshoe bar is crafted of rich walnut wood, large tables in various corners foster conversation, and the hypnotic lighting (the owners have been collecting vintage fixtures—most of them globes—and light bulbs over the past year) make it easy to fall under Cardinal’s spell.
Cardinal is not your typical bar. Ethereal cocktails, Southern snacks, and warm, artistic, female energy coalesce to create an idyllic refuge. The mood here is dictated not by the culture of excess or the lure of debauchery but by the bounties of nature and the cycles of the moon.
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