About a year and a half ago, two of Atlanta’s most renowned restaurants, Staplehouse and Bacchanalia, ditched their tasting menus. Why was this important? In some circles, the tasting menu was thought to be symptomatic of a certain style of tyrannical restauranting—in which chefs not only dictated what their helpless diners consumed but held them captive for hours on end. The abandonment of the tasting menu, therefore, could be viewed as a noble attempt to unshackle customers.
Of course, no serious eater in Atlanta considered either restaurant’s tasting menu oppressive. In its first year, Staplehouse was almost exclusively a tasting-menu restaurant; the a la carte menu was only available at the bar and on the patio. Composed of five courses, with a few little snacks interspersed, the tasting menu was a relative bargain at $85 and lasted a reasonable two or so hours. It also earned the restaurant, in 2016, the only four-star review this magazine has issued in eight years, not to mention the designation by Bon Appetit of best restaurant in America.
In other circles, the larger takeaway was that Atlanta simply wasn’t a tasting menu kind of town. In fact, it so wasn’t a tasting menu town that it lost in close succession two of the friendliest—and finest—tasting menus in the country. Perhaps in September 2015, when Staplehouse opened, it was ahead of its time.
“I think we opened up as a tasting menu-only restaurant maybe a little too soon,” says Staplehouse founder Jen Hidinger-Kendrick. “We also introduced a brand new reservation system [in which diners booked a seat weeks in advance] and took prepayment. None of these things were new for the restaurant culture that exists around America, but for Atlanta it definitely was new.”
Or, as then-critic Corby Kummer wrote in his Atlanta magazine review, “the real question is whether the diners who can and should keep Staplehouse alive will drive from Buckhead, Alpharetta, or Johns Creek to the Old Fourth Ward.”
Two years later, Atlanta is less reliant on wealthy suburbanites to keep a restaurant like Staplehouse afloat. For better or worse, the urban core—particularly south of Ponce—has become more affluent. And a short jaunt through Ponce City or Krog Street markets is all the proof you need that there are now many more food obsessives, much closer to the Old Fourth Ward, who are able to fill Staplehouse’s seats. That’s one of the reasons why the prepaid, ticketed, tasting-menu format is back and why it’s bigger and more expensive than before.
Again, why should you care? Because this time around, it signals that Atlanta is finally ready for the kind of cutting-edge restaurants that flourish in other cities: ambitious, purposeful, personality-driven food irreverently served in casual dining rooms instead of on white tablecloths. Also: It’s freakin’ delicious.
“We have a really strong platform to push Atlanta to become a city to compete with and match the New Yorks and the Chicagos,” says Hidinger-Kendrick, in defense of bringing back the tasting menu. “Why not hold our food community to the standard that it should be?”
To snag a seat, you must go to Staplehouse’s website on the second Friday of the month for the following month’s seatings. No change there. But starting with the April reservations, diners must again commit to the tasting menu (now $105, which comes to about $10 a course) and must pay in advance. There is no longer an a la carte option, but for walk-ins, a menu of light snacks is available at the bar or at Paper Crane Lounge upstairs.
At least initially, response to this change was positive. When the April tasting menu tickets went on sale last month, they were gobbled up even faster than reservations in recent months—within minutes. I failed to secure a seat but added my name to the waitlist, and when seven more tables were announced to the waitlisters two weeks later, I landed a table for opening night.
I never had the chance to try the first go-around of the Staplehouse tasting menu (my excuse: I lived 2,000 miles away at the time), but the meal I had off the a la carte menu in late 2016 was the best I experienced that year. I don’t have adequate words to describe one ethereal dish that featured three preparations of carrot. It simultaneously tasted purely like carrots and unfathomably like magic.
While I didn’t have a moment quite that ineffable among the ten courses I was lucky enough to eat last week, a dish of cabbage, green garlic, and “sake bushi” was almost as transcendent. (Sake bushi has shown up on the menu before, including in a beef dish; Kummer pointed out in his review that it’s made up of “home-smoked and dried salmon flakes . . . from leftover bits of summer salmon, cured and shaved like bonito” and that it possesses “a mysterious saline depth.”) Had it been possible, I’d have ordered two.
The menu, which shifts a little from night to night and more dramatically from season to season, has delicate interludes of decadent proteins, from a first course of raw beef mingled with salt plums and wedged between waifish crackers to a fifth course of halibut poached to the consistency of butter. But most astounding, as restaurant critics have long pointed out, is what executive chef Ryan Smith does with vegetables, and that’s part of what predisposes his cooking to a tasting menu. Even at 10 courses, this meal will not weigh you down—nor does it feel dainty. His adoration of the vegetable allows him to make the most of what the South offers—to reap the benefits of our local farms while bucking our deep-fried stereotypes.
The regularity of the tasting-menu model also streamlines the operation, which in turn gives the restaurant’s employees more free time, according to Hidinger-Kendrick. “The staff morale and work-life balance are obviously incredibly important for the well-being of the business as a whole,” she says, and that’s crucial for a business whose profits go to its sister nonprofit, the Giving Kitchen. The organization provides grants to restaurant workers across the South who face illnesses, medical bills, and other hardships.
The tasting menu, Hidinger-Kendrick says, is “an opportunity for us to strengthen what we’ve created”—both at Staplehouse and the Giving Kitchen.
It makes Atlanta’s reputation as a serious food destination stronger, too.