When Petite Auberge opened in 1974, it rode in on the coattails of midcentury continental cuisine. Wedged in the corner of a strip mall in North Druid Hills, the staunchly French restaurant had carpeted floors, gold-plated chandeliers, and white tablecloths. It served the classics then—vichyssoise, escargots à la Provence, coquilles St. Jacques—and still does four decades later. “If you look at our menu in 1974 and our menu today, a lot of items are still the same,” says co-owner Michael Gropp. “Maybe we’re just stubborn.”
Petite Auberge is also one of a handful of restaurants that still ferry carts loaded with burners and pans right into the dining room, where servers carve Châteaubriands and ignite baked Alaskas. Indeed, tableside service was once de rigueur in fine-dining establishments like Pano’s & Paul’s, where tuxedoed servers sauteed Dover sole from a gueridon.
Luxury restaurants today are not nearly so buttoned up or so French, and rarely do they employ servers trained to perform feats of dining theater. As a result, tableside traditions have largely fallen away—but not entirely. At Gunshow, which opened in 2013, chefs roam the floor, personally pitching their dishes to each customer. At Viande Rouge, a cabaret-like steakhouse that opened in Johns Creek in 2011, servers sear steak Diane, flambé bananas Foster, and toss Caesar salads from wheeled carts. And we’ve seen an uptick in entrees that command the attention of other tables: the whole chicken at Little Bacch, a 2.2-pound steak at Cooks & Soldiers, beef Wellington at Marcel. “We’re going to see a resurgence,” Gropp predicts. “[These days] every new restaurant has an open kitchen because people are interested in how the chefs are working. There’s great entertainment value in tableside service.”
Kevin Brown, a general manager at Chops, agrees, adding that the “pendulum is swinging the other way. “The last generation of diners didn’t want opulence. They wanted straightforward. But after 10, 20, 30 years, people start to say, ‘That was kind of cool.’”
Dinner and a show
Manhattans at the Mercury
In keeping with its 1960s decor, the Mercury offers four era-appropriate cocktails mixed tableside. Order a Manhattan and the staff will wheel over a retro bar cart equipped with a beaker filled with fist-sized ice cubes. Next the bartender pours in rye and vermouth, stirring it with a spoon and adding bitters. The chilled concoction is decanted into coupes garnished with cherries. $60, serves four
Crepes flambé at Dolce Italian
Legend has it that crepes Suzette was created when a server in 19th-century France accidentally caught his pan on fire. This off-the-menu version is a modern-day riff. Chef Paolo Dorigato fills crepes with pastry cream infused with orange and lemon zest, douses them in orange liqueur, and sets them ablaze. Crepes are served with a side of vanilla ice cream. $12
Dover sole at Chops
Revered for its delicate taste and tender flesh, this fresh dover sole is cooked in the kitchen and deboned in front of guests. The server then heats lemon-infused olive oil in a pan until it sizzles, pours it over the fillets, and garnishes with parsley and capers. $46
Cafe diablo at Bistro Niko
Manager Sam Than starts by pouring Kahlúa, triple sec, and hot coffee into a large goblet, then uses a zester to produce a two-foot curl of orange rind, all while heating a brandy-filled ladle on a small gas burner. After setting the brandy alight, he pours the flaming liquor down the rind and into the goblet, where it extinguishes. The rind goes into the coffee, which is topped with whipped cream and served piping hot. For added effect, Than will briefly set the tablecloth ablaze with a flourish from the ladle. $20
—Evan Mah and Scott Henry
This article originally appeared in our September 2016 issue.