Commentary: When it comes to dining, Atlanta should look inward

Parting thoughts from critic Corby Kummer
Corby Kummer
Our critic Corby Kummer departs this month

Illustration by Marina Muun

“The thing I love about Atlanta is it’s 45 minutes from the South,” my pal Kim Severson, the New York Times food writer, said as she drove us around Atlanta one spring day almost three years ago. My spouse had been offered a job at the Centers for Disease Control, but he had little sense of the city. I didn’t know much beyond Watershed, my touchstone for Southern food, whose history I had long studied and loved. As a restaurant critic in Boston and writer for many national publications, I’d written about Watershed, and so had Kim. The late Edna Lewis had made poetry of rural black post-Reconstruction life and particularly its necessarily seasonal, thrifty, and imaginative dishes. Watershed, under its founding chef Scott Peacock, drew directly on this heritage. I was looking forward to a stream of Lewis-inspired wild greens, ham hocks, and corn sticks. Kim told us to go to Miller Union for our arrival dinner, and then she’d take us to someplace called the General Muir.

The dinner at Miller Union was just the kind of taste of place and season I always want first in a new city. The sauteed field peas were later echoed by tender Sea Island red peas at the Pig & the Pearl, the first restaurant I reviewed. Red peas! We don’t have those up north. Or scuppernongs, which we found on our first foray to Whole Foods. This was all in the Edna Lewis universe. Todd Richards, the former chef of the Pig & the Pearl and now at White Oak, is black, and one of Atlanta’s great lures to my spouse and me was that it had been described as the most successfully diverse city in the country. Maybe we really had arrived in the South.

Or maybe not. The lunch at the General Muir, where I admired the subway tile and 1940s graphics as much as the matzo ball soup, was, ultimately, more typical than either of those Edna Lewis–territory dinners. I certainly knew at once that I was in an exciting city—one that in our two years here would grow before my eyes, with different neighborhoods getting colored in as anchor developments Krog Street and Ponce City markets finally filled up with tenants.

But it’s a city that looks outward far more than inward, or even nearby. Outward, say, to the Lower East Side (the General Muir’s pastrami), or to China (Gu’s Dumplings), or to Korea (Simply Seoul’s bulgogi bun), or to Basque country (Cooks & Soldiers’ tapas), or to France (Bread & Butterfly’s tender, airy omelets). Not as much to, say, Alabama for lady peas or North Carolina for barbecue. With the glorious exception of Ryan Smith at Staplehouse, I didn’t find a posse of young, or youngish, chefs all cooking as much for each other as for the public—as there has long been in Boston and is starting to be in Washington, D.C., another city where I work and eat. The priority in Atlanta is less innovation based on local ingredients, as at Staplehouse, than finding a formula that works and then pumping out food to fit it, as at the Barcelona/Bartaco empire that progressively took over a block of North Highland in Inman Park. This makes for generous, untweezed food. But it also means food that, once successful, can become rote. The hard work that drives the restaurants I was lucky enough to review here for the past two years—and every restaurant involves ridiculous amounts of work—seems centered more on hospitality (as at the ideal neighborhood bar-restaurant One Eared Stag) and design than on food you just have to eat again.

Saying that Atlanta brings both service and design to nationally competitive levels—and it does—is no backhanded compliment. Boston is facing a chef shortage of near-crisis proportions because living expenses are pushing both cooks and servers out of the city. So not just food but the level of service is dicey, as it is in New York City and San Francisco. In Atlanta there’s a general friendliness that’s more genuine than the bless-your-heart Southern charm we’d been bracing for. Seldom did we feel indifference from servers, or like they were counting the minutes till they punched out. Sure, the level of professionalism varied. But the air of welcoming willingness happily prevailed.

The dining room at Atlas

Photograph by Patrick Heagney

Partly because of high rents and difficulty finding professional servers, partly because of a hipster preference for beards and tats over ties and tablecloths, fine dining is in its death throes in many cities. Not here. It’s hard to think of a restaurant in the country as serene and sumptuous as Atlas, where the French doors that open onto a manicured garden can easily lull you into thinking you’re in Provence, and the collection of art lets you imagine you’re in your own museum.

Restaurant Eugene may be a bit stiff and bare, and Bacchanalia may be in need of freshening, but both have remarkably high ambitions and the staff to realize them. Bacchanalia, indeed, is set to reopen in a new location next year. (A sad casualty will be Little Bacch, which was one of my happiest discoveries as a critic: It was clubby but not pompous, and pretty much everything on its fine-honed menu was executed with calm, careful skill.) Even before Aria updated itself this year, I had the most polished dinner there of my time in Atlanta. Every course, every detail—the dark mahogany, melting short rib, the potato puree beside it, even the bread service—was impeccable and unshowy. If Michelin ever comes to Atlanta, Aria should get its first three stars.

Design and restaurant as theater took me by surprise, and is something I mention first when telling out-of-towners about the dining scene. Just walk into Two Urban Licks or the Optimist, whose vaulted ceilings and spectacular stage-set design still take my breath away. Only two restaurant groups I know pay so much attention to the theatrical nature of dining: Chicago’s Lettuce Entertain You and Philadelphia’s Starr Restaurants. Here, of course, the leader of the pack is Ford Fry, who seems to invest more money and thought into how a restaurant looks and feels than the food it serves. And so the strongest balance in his restaurants is where the menu makes relatively few demands on the cooks and can be mass-produced: the hot-out-of-the-pot green posole and pork shoulder of the El Felix and Superica, or the simple bar menu at the attractive, luxurious Bar Margot at the Four Seasons. (Superica, along with Hop City, brings Krog Street Market to vibrant urban life and marks it as a dining destination in a way no food vendors have yet done at Ponce City Market.) The best combination? Vibrant design married to an unusual concept terrifically executed: Cooks & Soldiers, exciting just to sit in, served us chuletón, a grilled and oft-basted steak for two that no steakhouse I tried ever beat.

Some gaps never really filled. One is ambitious Asian food outside Buford Highway, though Sushi House Hayakawa and Tomo can go up against almost any classically minded sushi restaurant in the land. Another is regional and ethnic cuisines translated for a broader audience in a finer-dining setting than is found on Buford Highway. Kyma does this for Greek food, Rumi’s Kitchen for Persian, and (less notably, except for the design) Le Fat for Vietnamese. Not just regional Chinese and Korean and Malaysian but Turkish and South American cuisines await their turn. I still look in vain for a far wider variety of artisan breads in restaurants and retail bakeries. There’s no Italian equivalent to the pitch-perfect Bread & Butterfly, Billy Allin’s homage to the French cafe (where people are ever so much nicer than in Paris): Bellina Alimentari is lovely as far as it goes, which isn’t far enough toward a varied menu. BoccaLupo is impossible to get into. Storico Fresco has fabulous carryout lasagna and pasta but needs to make the sit-down experience match the at-home one.

Most disappointing is not enough black chefs and owners, something I’d hoped would go with the diverse restaurant crowds and staff. Todd Richards turned out to be the only black chef whose restaurant I reviewed. What can be done to make the back of the house as diverse as the front? Culinary schools should recruit more diversity. And local business owners should give priority to chefs and restaurant operators of color when it comes to loans or small-business assistance. This is a problem by no means confined to Atlanta, of course. But it should be one Atlanta takes the lead in solving.

So, about that taste of the South. Straight-ahead Southern cooking—never mind reinventing it—just doesn’t seem to interest Atlanta chefs. Go to Mary Mac’s, most friends would dismissively tell me, and close the conversation there; only tourists and hicks would look for Southern food in Atlanta. Charleston’s Sean Brock, one of the Southern chefs I most admire and was excited to learn was coming to Ponce City Market, chose a taco-and-burrito formula to handle crowds—damn. Watershed, the first Atlanta restaurant to win my heart in its Decatur gas station, moved to a corporate room in south Buckhead, where it provides inconsistent pleasures.

Fried chicken at Revival

Photograph by Johnny Autry

Kevin Gillespie is the exception. He fills his very enjoyable Revival, which pays tribute to the meat-and-three, with pictures of his ancestors, who he says could never have been able to afford one of his restaurants. He stops short of marrying that cuisine to the freewheeling creativity of his Gunshow; may I suggest that as the concept for his next restaurant? Ryan Smith, the explosively creative chef of the signal restaurant of my time as a critic here, Staplehouse, is interested in reinventing the impeccably local ingredients he finds and features—but in a national and even international idiom that seldom has a strong Southern accent.

Which, as we very unwillingly leave Atlanta for Washington, D.C., and Boston, brings me back to that first meal at Miller Union, still our go-to restaurant for sampling what’s in season this week. Steven Satterfield is from Savannah, and some of his menu pays tribute to the kind of country food Edna Lewis immortalized. His is the food we’ll need to have first when we come back, often, to check in. It’s what I happen to like best. But that won’t stop me from also checking in on what Ryan Smith and Billy Allin and Kevin Gillespie are up to, and doing what I can do in no other city’s restaurants: appreciating the deep diversity other cities can only aspire to. Feeling like people are happy to see me, don’t want me to pay up and get out so they can turn my table, and want us to come back. Having my breath taken away just by walking through a restaurant door.

This article originally appeared in our December 2016 issue.