I’ve walked up to the storefront of Gato on McLendon Avenue too many mornings of my life to count. In the beginning, 15 years ago or so, I almost always was walking through a cloud of mental fog, the result of an excess of hours spent the night before at MJQ with my breakfast companion, a shaggyhaired guy who lived up the street from Gato and would later become my husband. Two years ago, we moved back to the neighborhood after living out of state for a while, and we were psyched to discover that Gato had become that rare restaurant that got better over the years; its new owner, Nicholas Stinson, had preserved the charm of the sliver of a space and the quirkiness of the Southern-meets-Mexican menu, but injected smart and subtle tweaks that made it more relevant. Most significantly, he started offering dinner, initially in the form of two, long-running pop-ups by creative young chefs, then introducing his own regional-Mexican menu, including a mezcal program and tortillas crafted with housemade masa. My husband and I—now with the addition of our shaggyhaired toddler son—reestablished our status as regulars.
Of all the times I’ve walked up to Gato’s front door, though, none were like my visit on a Saturday in late April, when the front door was blocked by a metal patio table offering industrial-strength hand sanitizer, and my order of a breakfast burrito, huevos ranchero, and pancakes was deposited there for me. Stinson also hand-delivered a ziplock bag packed with the pound of his fresh masa that I’d ordered, which I pressed into tortillas at home in an attempt to recapture some of the magic of eating at Gato. It actually worked.
Many diners feel a pang of sadness when gazing upon the dining rooms, now empty, that have populated their memories. I’ve felt those pangs, too, a little, but mostly I’ve found comfort in peering into these hollowed spaces. Unlike most other ghosts, these are ones that, with enough sheer will (on the part of the people who run them, those who frequented them, and, hopefully, the organizations and governmental agencies that will step up aid), can slowly materialize, solidifying again into their former selves.
My husband’s birthday was in April, and continuing on my mission to deliver memories in the shape of food, I pulled up to the curb of Sotto Sotto, where we’d celebrated his birthday two years earlier (and where we’d eaten with my parents years before to toast my pregnancy, and where, years before that, we’d gone on numerous fancy dates we couldn’t really afford, etc., etc.). I remembered that his 2018 birthday dinner had coincided with Grady High School’s prom, and we were seated near the window, across from a large circular table of impossibly sophisticated teenagers, their absurd glow nearly obliterating the restaurant’s shimmering patina.
The dining room was dark when an employee brought my food to the car, but the day was perfect. We ate our risottos under the sun in our backyard.
While picking up food at other restaurants around town, I caught glimpses of other eaters trying to make the best of the situations. I saw a family huddled in their minivan, the back door flung open to create a makeshift dining room in the Memorial Drive parking lot of Supremo Taco. (I can attest that those tacos are too good to force yourself to suffer through the wait of the drive home.) I saw a couple tailgating behind their vintage Porsche in front of Lazy Betty, which for a year had been a luxe, ticketed, prix-fixe spot and one of the city’s most ambitious new restaurants. The pandemic forced it to switch gears to a more accessibly priced menu of comfort food, crafted with no less precision. (More on the impact of that decision here; more on the food itself here.)
Of the meals I ate at newer restaurants in prepandemic months, the ones at Supremo and Lazy Betty—at the very end of the spectrum from each other, but similar as far as quality—were two of my favorites. If there’s one thing the pandemic hasn’t changed, it’s how much I continue to appreciate their cooking.
Prior to March, there were two, soon-to-open restaurants that I’d been counting the days to visit, certain they’d become new favorites as well. But they had to shut their doors to the guests who badly wanted in. Both got their start as pop-ups (the ones that, it just so happens, had lengthy stints at Gato); both chose to locate their brick-and-mortar operations in Summerhill, one of the city’s newest and most dynamic dining destinations; and both got screwed, timing-wise, by COVID-19. Well, maybe not completely screwed.
Chef Jarrett Stieber’s Little Bear was only two weeks old, riding the high of night after successful night, when it had to switch gears to a takeout-only operation. Little Bear began offering underpriced, multicourse meals for two, changing the menu each week to represent food from a different country hit particularly hard by the coronavirus. I scored the Italy menu (I’m still thinking about the vegetable fritto misto with green garlic creme fraiche and the chicken cutlets that rival my mom’s). While I wish I had been able to eat this food in the restaurant’s stylish space, I was grateful to bring something so delicious into my own dining room.
As I suspected, I will be a repeat customer not just of Little Bear but also of its fellow Summerhill newcomer, Talat Market—though, judging from the early response to chef Parnass Savang’s modern, Southernized Thai menu, being a repeat customer might not be so easy. The seven-course, $50 dinners for two sold out online in mere minutes during the restaurant’s first two weeks in business in April (one bite of the crispy rice salad with red chili jam, beets, peanuts, and herbs is enough to explain that phenomenon). I was lucky to snag a meal, but I literally had to queue up Talat Market’s site and repeatedly hit refresh, missing the initial window of opportunity but succeeding the next day. It felt, for a minute, like the way things are supposed to be.
Wash down your takeout meal with a local brew
This article appears in our June 2020 issue.