When I heard the Houston’s on Lenox Road would be closing its doors for good after service on Saturday, March 31, I was heartbroken. The restaurant opened in August 1978, a year after the first Houston’s appeared in Nashville, and became an Atlanta institution—a place to be seen with shopping bags in tow after doing some damage to your credit card at nearby Lenox Square or Phipps Plaza.
As someone who grew up in Atlanta in the 1980s, the restaurant was an indelible part of my childhood. It was the place my mother took me and my sister after back-to-school shopping at the now-shuttered Rich’s Department Store for tempura chicken fingers and crispy shoestring fries. When I was pregnant with my daughter, I went at least twice a week thanks to an intense, pregnancy-induced craving for their loaded baked potato and a club salad—grilled chicken, not fried—slathered in chunky blue cheese dressing. The valet guys always remembered my name and asked about my baby. And after my daughter was born, they never failed to ask for status updates about her whenever I ducked in for a quick cheeseburger.
If your perception of Houston’s is that of an overpriced chain restaurant, you might be surprised to learn that it’s beloved by many in the food world, including Anne Quatrano of Bacchanalia (who is a big fan of the grilled artichoke) and Steven Satterfield of Miller Union (who, like many we talked to, loves the spinach and artichoke dip and loaded baked potato).
“Whenever any culinarian scoffs at me for saying I like Houston’s, I always say ‘Have you ever actually eaten there? It’s wonderful,'” Satterfield says. “Everyone comes here. It’s the people’s restaurant—casual fine dining for the masses, and no one has done it better. I moved here in 1987 and I’ve probably gone [to Houston’s] at least six times a year since. That’s more visits than any other full-service restaurant.”
“The veggie burger—I have no idea what’s in it, but who cares it’s so good. The melt-in-your-mouth Hawaiian rib eye, the smoked salmon and toast points, and the tortilla chicken salad are all dishes I’ll want any time, any day,” says TV and radio personality Mara Davis.
“Every Monday afternoon, I escape to Houston’s to recalibrate my life,” says Noni’s owner Matt Ruppert. “A cold gin Gibson with impossibly big jumbo shrimp cocktail, low lighting, a smiling bartender in a bow tie who delivers my Hawaiian rib eye with loaded baked potato. If you can’t appreciate the magic that is Houston’s, you’re doing it wrong.”
Andrew Knowlton, the former deputy editor of Bon Appétit and an Atlanta native, even penned an ode to its parent company, Hillstone, for the magazine in 2016. In it, he describes the restaurant as a favorite of his and his mother’s—and includes Houston’s praise from powerhouse restaurateurs such as Danny Meyer (of Shake Shack, Union Square Cafe, and Gramercy Tavern, among others) and David Chang (of Momofuku Restaurant Group and Netflix’s Ugly Delicious). He notes that the Lenox location was where “Shaquille O’Neal, Dominique Wilkins, and many other sports stars came to eat when they were in town.”
“When Houston’s debuted, I argued [to my wife], it identified and then filled a void in the American dining scene,” Knowlton writes in the article. “It wasn’t fast-food burgers, but it wasn’t fancy European-style dining, either. Whether [founder George] Biel knew it or not, he was defining a uniquely American style of eating out that was unpretentious yet discerning.”
Some might disagree about the “unpretentious” part. The Lenox location was embroiled in controversy this past October when Atlanta rap superstars T.I. and Killer Mike called for a boycott of the restaurant after actress Ernestine Johnson claimed she and her party of seven were denied a table for “no sound reason,” even after she said her party offered to split up for easier seating. (In a statement published by CBS46, a Houston’s representative said that the Lenox restaurant had a new policy “whereby large parties of 7 or more will not be split into separate groups at different tables” and that Johnson’s party was “unwilling to wait” for one of the restaurant’s two larger tables. According to the statement, they were denied service after they became “aggressive to our staff and disruptive to our guests’ dining experience.”)
This wasn’t the first time the chain had been accused of racial discrimination. Atlanta Lawyer Yussuf Abdel-Aleem sued the company in 2015 alleging he and three other people were asked to leave the Peachtree Road location on two separate occasions for refusing to remove a baseball hat and for cell phone use, both of which the restaurant prohibits.
Hillstone was responsive to the October protests and met with T.I. and Johnson in what T.I. called on his Instagram “tough but productive discussions.” Houston’s Lenox released an anti-discrimination message on its Instagram on February 2, saying, “Since October, Hillstone has had productive discussions with Mr. Clifford “Tip” Harris, Mr. Jay Morrison, Ms. Ernestine Johnson, and their representatives regarding our Houston’s Restaurants in Atlanta, the business reasons for some of our dining policies, and how those policies are perceived by some guests . . . Hillstone does not and will not tolerate discrimination on any level and is committed to ensuring that guests from all backgrounds are treated fairly and feel welcome . . . To any of our guests who felt their past dining experiences fell short [of our standards], we sincerely apologize.”
And on March 1, T.I. officially called off the boycott, saying on Instagram that he was satisfied with Hillstone’s response and “passion for progress.” He went on to exclaim: “We may now enjoy the spinach dip again!!!!”
The end of the boycott, however, came only days before Hillstone announced it would close the Lenox location. According to Hillstone spokesperson Jessica Treadway, the closing had nothing to do with the protests. “Our lease was nearing a conclusion and discussions with the Lessor did not yield a long-term agreement,” she said in an email.
Hillstone has offered the Lenox staff an opportunity to continue within the company, according to a sign on the door of the restaurant. Good thing: many in Atlanta’s dining industry praise the kitchen staff for their consistency and skill.
“The food is extremely consistent,” Satterfield notes, “Anything grilled is cooked over hardwood, and that makes it taste delicious. This is a very specific skill that most young cooks today have no idea how to master.”
“It’s incredibly high-quality,” agrees Concentrics Restaurant Group owner Bob Amick, “And the service is spot-on. What they do, they do extremely well.”
Amick says that every Houston’s in Atlanta (there are also restaurants on Peachtree Road and on West Paces Ferry) seems to have its own following, and both he and Ruppert said they’d generally visit one of those two due to Lenox’s crowds. “I tend to frequent the West Paces Ferry location [because Lenox had such long waits], but I’m sad for those who considered the Lenox location to be their Cheers,” says author and social media personality Shameeka Ayers, who lists Houston’s among her “top five Atlanta restaurants.”
“What made the Lenox location special is that it’s a snapshot of a busy, bustling, diverse Atlanta,” Davis says. “No matter when you went, you were likely to see families, pro athletes, tourists, business types, and food enthusiasts young and old. Everyone came together for that spinach and artichoke dip.”
And while many are sad to see it close, at least it’s not the completely the end of Houston’s in Atlanta.
“Thankfully the two other locations will remain open, so I’m not mourning that hard,” Davis says. “But if those close, I may need therapy.”