Restaurants open and close all the time. With few exceptions, I don’t pine for those that have run their course for more or less standard reasons. Some are the victims of greedy landlords squeezing the life out of tenants who may not be able to find an equally advantageous location. Others fail to adapt to a fast-evolving city or lose a chef essential to the restaurant. Most peter out in a way we barely notice.
That was then. Since the beginning of the pandemic, many places and their skeleton crews have been hanging onto whatever semblance of normalcy they can. Rather than mass extinction, ours is now the age of moribund restaurants, ghostly places where we line up or idle at the curb to collect food that reminds us of better times.
This is a year when too many beloved spots had to shut down for reasons that transcend the standard ones (and for reasons that, at this time last year, would have been unimaginable), and I fear many more will follow. Business closures are human tragedies, leaving behind bereft owners and empty-pocketed employees. What has affected me disproportionately this year is the vanishing of young restaurants that seemed so promising.
Cardinal and its companion market, Third Street Goods, were a fascinating combo of cocktail den and Southern grocer powered by female energy; they have left us way too soon. No more nesting among artists and low-key hipsters clutching CBD aperitifs and grazing on simple yet clever noshes. I had high hopes, too, for Hazel Jane’s. (I never even got to publish the column I wrote about the place; the virus was that swift.) The menu played second fiddle to the natural wines that are the owners’ true passion, but the pandemic dinners to-go were similarly top-notch.
When the couple who opened La Calavera, a Latin-inflected bakery originally located in Decatur, had to shutter their business shortly after a move to Kirkwood, I felt sorry for them and myself. No more rough loaves studded with healthy grains, no more perfect bolillos on this side of town. I didn’t even have the time to revisit Donquixote, a long-lived and ever eccentric Korean restaurant on Buford Highway, after it had been taken over by hipster chef Allen Suh, whose career I have followed with rapt interest for years. Suh’s decision to close the decades-old institution only months after he took it over was heartbreaking.
The bad news kept coming. I am sadder about the loss of Krog Bar, the first and last of the true tapas bars, opened by force-of-nature Kevin Rathbun in a minuscule space across from Krog Street Market (back when KSM was an empty husk of a warehouse), than I am about the closure of the chef’s eponymous restaurant. I’ve long considered Rathbun’s to be a lovable haunt of the Inman Park gentry with a dated kitchen. All the same, I will miss them both.
The last location of Octane, started on the Westside by an enterprising couple who were ahead of the coffee trends, devolved over the years into barely more than a study hall (it was purchased by Birmingham-based Revelator in 2017), but its impact on the neighborhood can’t be stressed enough, and I will always cherish the memories of cultural events there fueled by caffeine. Someone asked me recently where to buy a box of special chocolates as a gift, and I could only think of Cacao, the ultrarefined bean-to-bar chocolatier, uncomfortably aware that its jewel box of a store had closed in Virginia Highland.
It’s a travesty, and not just for Georgia Tech, that the Canteen, the charming micro–food hall from the owners of the General Muir, is no longer around to offer good bagels, fat burgers, and inexpensive cocktails under one roof.
A few blocks north of the Canteen, Shaun Doty’s the Federal functioned like a secret French restaurant, a sexy Midtown room almost untouched by the light of day, where steak frites and game dishes could be a romantic indulgence. Aix, splashier and more obviously ambitious, didn’t nail as many of its “elevated” Provençal dishes as I’d hoped, but what a great spot it was to hang out with a big wine glass full of Champagne at the bar. And what a shame to have two fewer French restaurants in a town already low on them.
I’m not too bothered by the demise of Horseradish Grill near Chastain Park, knowing that its closure does not spell the end of this historic location (once known as the Red Barn Inn and decorated with horse blankets). A multimillion-dollar investment will transform it into the Chastain, helmed by Christopher Grossman, who ran Atlas in Buckhead with such aplomb. At least fine-dining isn’t totally dead. That said, it is down one of its most remarkable innovators: Staplehouse has transitioned from a trailblazing, tasting-menu restaurant to a market offering impeccably crafted pantry staples, beer and wine, and to-go meals, snacks, and cocktails. I support whatever needs to happen to keep Staplehouse afloat—and I hope that, one day soon, it can pivot back to its (unstuffy) fine-dining roots.
A few doors down from Staplehouse, there’s now a notable and regrettable void. I am in mourning for the loss of the wonderful DJ booth of the Sound Table and the presence of king-of-the-hipsters Karl Injex wearing his signature Kangol and introducing everyone to his talented bartenders. (I can only hope that there will remain at that site a regular rotation of the murals like the ones that have famously graced the Sound Table’s massive exterior wall.) [Editor’s Note: Sadly, on December 2, after this article was published, the western wall known for its large murals collapsed, possibly due to nearby construction.] In a different vein, the closing of the Tavern at Phipps after 28 years is a significant blow to a more old-fashioned milieu of wealthy, clean-cut singles who appreciated the loud music on the terrace.
I’d like to end this elegy to restaurants we have lost by honoring a family in Suwanee that has kept its kitchen running through the crisis despite the tragic death of their matriarch and chief tamale maker. Long live La Mixteca, and may Rosa Hernandez Lopez, a victim of the long-range toll on the body of Covid-19, rest in peace in the love of her daughters and her many fans.
This article appears in our December 2020 issue.