Rathbun’s and Krog Bar were going to close. COVID-19 just accelerated it.

Owner and chef Kevin Rathbun explains what happened to his flagship restaurant and wine bar

Chef Kevin Rathbun
Chef Kevin Rathbun at Taste of the NFL 2018

Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images for Taste Of The NFL

Sadly, permanent restaurant closures are becoming more and more commonplace as the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic takes its toll. But unlike many local restaurants, Rathbun’s and Krog Bar did not close directly due to the pandemic. Chef-owner Kevin Rathbun says the virus did accelerate the closures by a few months; however, the chef’s 17-year-old flagship American restaurant and nearby wine bar were due to shut down in early 2021 regardless because of a lease dispute.

“Rathbun’s was my first restaurant. It was a good run,” Rathbun says.

Asana Partners purchased the land from on which Rathbun’s and Krog Bar reside from Paces Properties in 2018. According to Rathbun, the company plans to knock down Krog Bar and build a circular driveway.

“They had a vision, and I wasn’t in it,” he says. “My restaurants were doing okay. I probably should’ve done a 25-year lease, but it was my first restaurant, and I didn’t know if it was going to work.”

After unsuccessfully attempting to renegotiate his leases, Rathbun agreed to close in 2021. When COVID-19 hit, he decided to close early and focus on reopening his other restaurants, BeltLine-adjacent Kevin Rathbun Steak and KR SteakBar in Peachtree Hills.

“I’m humbled by how long I was there and how many great patrons and employees I had,” he says.

Fans of Rathbun’s and Krog Bar, fear not. Rathbun plans to open adaptations of both spots eventually. We spoke to him to learn more.

How did COVID-19 impact the timeline for the closure of Rathbun’s and Krog Bar?
I was going to announce [the closures] at the end of Q3 and throw a bunch of parties. That’s the sad part—I was going to go out with a bang. At the end of March, I said let’s just go ahead [and close]. Asana wanted to get started with the redevelopment anyway. Who knows how long this thing is going to last?

It’s sad that I had to furlough employees who worked for me for 15 years. I lost about 140 employees, but they each got about $1,000 from an employee relief fund I raised from gift card sales. (Customers can redeem those gift cards at KR SteakBar and Kevin Rathbun Steak in the near future.)

What will the new Krog Bar look like?
I own the steakhouse property—10,000 square feet and the grass across from Ladybird. I’ve had renderings done on [building] a deck. Krog Bar was 750 square feet. I might do an indoor/outdoor Krog Bar with a deck next to the steakhouse.

Where and when will you reopen Rathbun’s?
I’m looking for real estate to do something a little more approachable in price point. Most of my stuff was kind of higher end. I live in Morningside. I drew a 6-mile circle around my house and anything in that radius will work for me. I’ll probably wait 6 months to a year to see how this plays out and then go buy a building somewhere.

How will the concept change?
I’ve often wanted to do fried chicken like I grew up with in Kansas City. I led [former Buckhead Life Southwestern concept] Nava. Mexican food is one of my favorite things. I’ve done barbecue. When you find a space, you have to look at what’s around it, what the area might need, and who you’re not going to piss off.

A lot of local chefs have been tweeting about the closure of Rathbun’s. It seems like you’ve created quite the community! Would you consider partnering on your next venture?
I’ve been in Atlanta for almost 25 years almost. I have a lot of friends. Peter Kaiser is my partner on Kaiser’s Chophouse. I’d do that again with some other people for sure. If I found a young guy who needed something . .  . I like that format.

What kind of safety procedures are you implementing when KR SteakBar and Kevin Rathbun Steak reopen in early June?
It’ll be a combination of curbside and dine-in. I might even start curbside first. I’m putting the numbers together. We’re looking at 30 to 35-percent capacity. We’ll follow the guidelines with social distancing, masks, and gloves. I’m looking into some Plexiglass [dividers] to put on the kitchen line. I’m watching what these other people are doing. I get calls from regular customers all the time asking when I’m going to open. If we can get back to a break-even point or a little over that, and can do it safely, I’ll be happy.

What you think the future will hold for the hospitality industry?
I think the curbside is alive and well. If [scientists] find a vaccine, that could turn the spigot back on. [The pandemic’s impact on the industry] could be a blip on the radar, or it could take some time. I don’t have a crystal ball. It’s unfortunate; there will be a lot of restaurants that won’t come back from this, but people will probably do some pretty creative things. You wouldn’t have to have a big space anymore—you could open up a kitchen with a drive-thru.