A city’s food scene extends far beyond the hyped restaurant openings that consume the spotlight. With one exception, this rundown of Atlanta’s biggest food moments of 2018 does not concern itself with those. (Check out our Best of Atlanta winners to fully explore what’s new and exciting to eat in town.)
Looking beyond such fanfare as the opening of Tiny Lou’s and the rise of fast-casual everything, what else happened in the food world this year—and what does it say about Atlanta? We received a few snubs on the national stage (our chefs and restaurants took home no James Beard Awards and were mostly absent from the national food magazines’ “best” lists), which might suggest that our dining scene is faltering. It could also be that we’re currently stewing on our most promising culinary ideas and talent. Atlanta is scrappy by nature and determined to prove (if only to ourselves) what we’re capable of.
It’s safe to say that some of the pivotal developments in 2018 could be setting us up for an even more delicious 2019. At the very least, there’s some very good brunch news on the horizon.
Rising stars, challenging the status quo
One of our two rising-star chefs—at least according to the James Beard Foundation’s list of 27 semifinalists, announced in February—hailed not from Inman Park or Buckhead but from Marietta, further challenging the notion that our culinary innovation is sequestered ITP. Of course, you don’t need an award to confirm that Brian So’s Spring on Marietta Square is a restaurant worth celebrating.
Interestingly, the other semifinalist doesn’t even have a restaurant (yet). Parnass Savang rose to prominence with his pop-up dinner series, Talat Market, held at Gato in Candler Park. Savang is in the process of bringing his Georgia-inflected Thai food to a brick-and-mortar space, which is expected to open in Summerhill in 2019—in large part thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign. The fundraiser is one of the most uplifting examples of the depth of community support for our city’s chefs.
Rallying around chefs in need
The community also rushed to support two beloved chefs this year, for reasons more challenging. In May, the red-bearded Top Chef finalist Kevin Gillespie announced he was battling renal cancer. Atlanta chefs, including several cancer survivors, rallied around Gillespie, offering encouragement based on their own recoveries. Miraculously, Gillespie was back in the kitchen at Gunshow in August, after having a kidney removed. Chef David Bies, who helms another of Atlanta’s favorite restaurants, Ticonderoga Club, found out in the summer that he has a rare form of plasma cancer. Bies is currently undergoing chemotherapy, and a GoFundMe created in September to assist with his expenses is more than a third of the way to its $75,000 goal.
A booze-soaked success
The bad news: Only one Atlanta restaurant advanced from semifinalist to nominee for a James Beard this year. The good news: It was Kimball House, which rightfully landed on the shortlist for Outstanding Bar Program (that it lost to New Orleans’s Cure is somehow okay). Sazeracs for everyone!
Listening to women
One last thing about the Beards: The semifinalists, nominees, and winners looked different this year—different in that they are more reflective of the diverse communities in which they ply their trade. That the shift came on the heels of the rise of #MeToo and the fall of food-world titans John Besh and Mario Batali (both accused of sexual misconduct) is no coincidence. As chef Anne Quatrano of Bacchanalia, who chairs the Beard Foundation’s awards committee, told the New York Times regarding the selection process: “It’s just making sure we feel comfortable that people on that list have integrity, and that those restaurants have good leaders, and that everyone can thrive in their kitchens.” But it was a coincidence that for the first time in 2018, Dominique Love chose an all-female advisory council for the Atlanta Food and Wine Festival; earlier this year, she told Atlanta magazine she made that decision prior to #MeToo: “Our mission is to shine an international spotlight on the rich traditions of the South,” said Love, who cofounded the festival in 2010 (it launched the following year). “For us to continue to tell that story and be authentic, we needed to make sure there were more voices around the table—particularly women, who are overlooked in the kitchen, overlooked in the industry, overlooked by media, overlooked at festivals.”
A high-end tasting menu and cheap fried chicken
One of the best things about eating (and living) in Atlanta is its interplay of highbrow and low. So, it’s fitting that when a Nashville-style hot chicken restaurant opened its doors on Moreland Avenue, it created the same level of frenzy as when Atlanta’s most celebrated restaurant decided to return to its tasting menu–only format. After launching in July, Hattie B’s Hot Chicken drew lines up the street of daredevils eager to feel the burn of its insanely spicy fried chicken. Staplehouse offered a less incendiary but no less exhilarating temptation when it ditched its a la carte menu in April and returned to its origins as a tasting menu–only restaurant. Back when Staplehouse opened in 2015, Atlanta wasn’t quite ready for the tasting menu–only format that had taken root in other cities. But Atlanta’s food scene has grown leaps and bounds since then. “We have a really strong platform to push Atlanta to become a city to compete with and match the New Yorks and the Chicagos,” cofounder Jen Hidinger-Kendrick told us in April, explaining the decision to resurrect the tasting menu. “Why not hold our food community to the standard that it should be?”
Gone but not forgotten
If only Cakes & Ale had been visited by the same crush of diners as Hattie B’s and Staplehouse, it might not have closed in June after a decade in business. Just three years ago, it held the top slot on our 50 Best Restaurants list (and held on at a respectable number five earlier this year). The loss of this singular, exceptional, intimate, and honest restaurant is a blow to the restaurant scene overall—and serves as a reminder that we should not neglect such gems. Cakes & Ale was the most tragic restaurant loss of the year, but others near and dear closed shop as well, including Japanese innovator Miso Izakaya, Burmese charmer Royal Myanmar, meat-and-three staple Our Way Cafe, glam pioneer One Midtown Kitchen, and nostalgia-inducing longtimer Houston’s on Lenox Road.
Then, there’s Watershed, the iconic restaurant—cofounded by Indigo Girl Emily Saliers—that expanded the definition of Southern food after opening in 1999 with a farm-to-table ethos way ahead of its time. Watershed is still with us but, as of March, is under new ownership that introduced a $350 french fry plate (served with a bottle of Krug, but still) and reportedly has struggled to fill the dining room.
The mimosa mandate
You might have heard it referred to as the mimosa mandate or the more generic brunch bill, but whatever it’s called, it’s a godsend. Earlier this year, the legislature and Gov. Nathan Deal cleared the way for cities to vote on allowing Sunday brunchers to imbibe starting at 11 a.m., rather than the random and almost post-brunch 12:30 p.m. It’s about damn time. There’s nothing more obnoxious than beating back the brunch crowds for a coveted table—only to realize you have to wait an intolerable 90 minutes for a mimosa.
This article appears in our December 2018 issue.