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Jesse Schwartz


Yes, Atlanta needed to ban smoking in bars. But . . .


Smoking Ban Atlanta barsMy friend Daria’s teeth were still chattering from the New England cold when she touched down in Atlanta a year ago. I’d hounded her for years to come visit, and now here she was, climbing into my car. I wanted to show her what my hometown was all about, and I could tell she needed a drink.

Our first stop was the Righteous Room on Ponce, which pretty much has it all, Atlanta-wise. Its neighbors include not just one but three of the city’s great neon landmarks: the Plaza Theater, the Majestic Diner, and, just down the road, the Hotel Clermont and its storied lounge. The Righteous Room’s walls are hung with the works of R. Land, the local artist whose “Pray for ATL” stickers cling to nearly every other street sign in town. You can hear Atlanta bands like the Black Lips playing from the jukebox, or even catch them sitting at the table next to you. And, like most everywhere in this town, it serves decent wings.

We were sitting at a table, waiting on those wings, when I pulled out a cigarette, put it in my mouth, and, watching Daria’s expression, struck a match. She stared at me as if I had pulled out a pistol. “Welcome to Atlanta,” I said.

As she watched the thin cloud of smoke ascend, she seemed to drift along with it somewhere back in time. She talked about how the years had dulled and gentrified Boston, her home, into a place she barely recognized anymore, let alone one where she could afford to live. Atlanta was gentrifying too, but not at the same pace. Time can’t help but slow down in a city that still puts ashtrays on the tables.

I was thinking of that moment last month, when the city of Atlanta finally banned smoking in the handful of bars and clubs that had continued to allow it. The ban was a victory for public health advocates and, let’s be honest, the vast majority of bargoers. And it was a step forward for a city that has tried to distinguish itself as the progressive hub of the South.

It also made me just a little bit sad. I’m no longer a smoker. I quit nearly a year ago, and in many ways, I’m glad that the bars have to quit, too. If you’re an employee, it means you not only will breathe easier but can come home from a long shift and, for once, not smell like someone tapped the ashes of an entire pack of smokes on you. If you’re a non-smoker, it means you can eat those tasty Righteous Room wings without having to hold your nose and damage your lungs. And if you’re a smoker, you’ll have to take your cigarette outside. Tough luck. A little fresh air isn’t going to kill you. Those American Spirits on the other hand . . .

So why this sadness? It took me a while to put my finger on it, then it hit me. There are two certainties in a bar that allows smoking: 1) The drinks are cheap, and 2) The bar has history. Those are two precious commodities these days, especially in a city that, like many cities, is morphing into one giant luxury apartment building with a generic name. Boston isn’t Boston anymore; it’s The Bostonian. And I don’t want to live in The Atlantan.

Northside Tavern
Northside Tavern

Photograph by Stephen Talkovich

To be fair, I don’t think the smoking ban, or anything at all, could drastically alter the character of a place as beloved and enduring as the Righteous Room, the Earl, 529, Northside Tavern, El Myr, or any of the other bars that permitted smoking for as long as they could.

What the smoking ban did do was wipe away some of Atlanta’s grit, and grittiness is part of what makes Atlanta so special. Maybe it comes with being a Southern city, but Atlanta possesses a certain outlaw spirit. Try naming another city where the tourist attractions include a strip club in a seedy basement where grandmothers give lap dances.

On the night Daria came to town, I took her, as one does, to the Clermont. Tales of that place had traveled all the way up to Boston. Even still, when the bouncer swung open the door, she couldn’t believe what she saw. It wasn’t just that there was a woman of a certain age in a French maid costume gyrating above the bar, or that the crowd was showering her with dollar bills. It also was the smoke—the way the red lights from the bar made it glow, and how the whole scene before us seemed to warp and glimmer inside of one giant plume.

As we were leaving the Clermont, Daria told me she’d never experienced anything like it. I told her that of course she hadn’t. There’s no place like it on Earth, in the same way that there’s no city like Atlanta. I think that is still true, even now that the smoke has cleared. There’s still enough grit to go around. I just hope we can keep it that way.

So many restaurant soundtracks are all wrong. Here’s who does them right.

Gaja Korean Bar
Owner Danny Song curates the music at Gaja Korean Bar in East Atlanta Village.

Photograph by Martha Williams

We had decided to take a chance on a new restaurant on the BeltLine, and by almost all measures it felt like a win. The space was gorgeous, the service was airtight, and the food and drinks were some of the best we’d tasted all year. But early on, something was clearly wrong. My girlfriend shot me a baffled look.

“What is this music?” she asked.

I had no answer for her then, and I still don’t. You could’ve called it elevator pop, if they had elevators in hell. We were legitimately disappointed in our overall experience for this one misstep. Leaving the place was a relief.

This happens far too often. Restaurant owners will exert a tremendous amount of effort to seduce your senses, but when it comes to choosing the music, it seems their protocol is to click on a generic Pandora station and assume that no one in the dining room has ears.

A few days later, I found myself at Gaja in East Atlanta Village, sitting beneath a row of white banners painted with the lyrics (in Korean) to the Ramones’ “Commando.” The Clash careened out of the restaurant’s speakers. It felt like the Earth had righted itself.

Clearly, I thought, whoever was running this place had put some thought into the playlist. That person is Danny Song.

“I’d rather have no music, and just the sound of the people in here, than bad music,” says Song, who opened Gaja in 2015 with his brother Tim and then-chef Allen Suh.

Gaja bills itself as “The Only Korean Punk Bar in the World,” and the name itself is Korean for “let’s go,” an homage to the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop.” As you enter through a discreet metal door, it feels—and sounds—like you’ve stumbled into an underground rock club. Song plays music through an iPod that’s loaded not just with punk music but also garage rock and power pop that are punk in spirit.

“We cater to the theme of the restaurant without pissing off the guests,” Song says. “I think in the checklist of opening a restaurant, people should put a little more effort into the music selection, especially if the food and service are perfect. Just hearing Meat Loaf can ruin the whole night.”

Jesse Smith, co-owner of Kimball House in Decatur and Watchman’s Seafood and Spirits in Krog Street Market, has his own playlist pet peeve.

“If I hear ‘Float On’ by Modest Mouse at a restaurant, I know that they just absolutely don’t care about ambiance,” Smith says.

A longtime musician himself (you can find his old punk band, the Carbonas, on the Gaja iPod), Smith jumped on the opportunity to curate the playlists for his restaurants. Kimball House is a bonafide French-American bistro, down to the scent of absinthe lingering around the bar, and there’s a timeless feel to its stately, candle-lit dining room. Smith gives it an appropriately classic soundtrack, from early Southern soul to ’60s French pop. At Watchman’s, where vibrant seafood dishes are served in a beachy dining room accented by hanging plant baskets and aqua blue tabletops, Smith takes a more abstract approach.

“I try to use the color palate to kind of drive what the playlist is,” Smith says. Over the course of a meal, you might hear the washed-out blues of the Grateful Dead fade into the bright, snappy, post-punk of the Buzzcocks. “I try not to do the most obvious thing. We’ve had some music from the Caribbean, and it’s fun, but it also makes it feel like we’re trying too hard.”

Restaurateur Ian Jones doesn’t mind leaning into a theme. When he and his business partner Caleb Wheelus first saw the space that would become Little Trouble on the Westside, Jones took note of the entrance: a long, menacing concrete hallway in the underbelly of a posh, two-story shopping plaza. To many, it would have looked like a poor business decision; to Jones, it looked like a bar where the bad guys in action movies hang out.

“We’re consciously picking tunes that fit that vibe,” he says. Most nights at Little Trouble, electronic music pulses throughout the crowded, neon-lit barroom like the soundtrack to a John Wick shootout.

“We’re not in there banging trap music,” Jones says. “Not that that’s something we don’t like; it just isn’t right for the place.” Little Trouble’s playlist leans toward “more synthy ’80s kind of stuff,” he says, “or new, sparse ambient stuff. It’s that side of us.”

You can find another side of them at LLoyd’s, their retro, Midwest-inspired bar in Inman Park, which features vintage beer signs, lots of wood paneling, and a playlist stacked with honky-tonk and trippy ’70s Americana. There’s also the duo’s first restaurant, Victory Sandwich Bar, which just might be—to borrow from Gaja—the only rock-and-roll sandwich bar in the world.

“Instead of telling people, ‘Yeah, we’re really rock-and-roll,’ you just play the Misfits, and people get it,” Jones says.

Over at the acclaimed Staplehouse, chef Ryan Smith’s seasonal tasting-menu spot in Old Fourth Ward, the 12-course menu changes every week, which means you might not think the team spends hours crafting the perfect playlist. Think again.

“It’s such an important thing to the overall vibe,” says chef de cuisine Jake Politz. “If the cooks are in a good rhythm, if everybody is feeling it, it translates to the food.”

To keep that rhythm alive, the owners of Staplehouse encourage the staff to contribute their own playlists, both for dinner service and for the hours they spend together prepping for it. The result is eclectic and surprising. Who knew chicken liver tart would pair so well with Wu-Tang Clan?

“If you go to your friend’s house, they generally have a specific taste in music,” Politz says. “They set a vibe. The same premise goes for here.”

Chef Terry Koval, who with his wife, Jenn, launched the Deer and the Dove in June, says they debated how to best match the Decatur restaurant’s music to its mood. “We have this San Francisco vibe,” he says, “and I just wanted to play John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock.”

“I’m more of a lo-fi gal,” says Jenn. “I wanted to be playing Sonic Youth, that type of thing, so it’s trying to find that happy medium.”

The Kovals found common ground in 80s acts like the Smiths and Joy Division, and in a shared belief that, no matter the genre, the music should reflect their personalities without slipping into extremes.

“It’s got to make sense for us,” Terry says. “That’s the beauty of owning your own joint. It’s a representation of who you are.”

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