The Dining Diva: Christiane Lauterbach dishes on her 40 years as Atlanta magazine’s dining critic

In this interview with her colleague, former AJC chief dining critic John Kessler, Lauterbach talks about influential chefs, a restaurant she made a bad call on, and witnessing a murder in a restaurant dining room.

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Christiane Lauterbach 40 years as Atlanta magazine critic
Christiane Lauterbach has been Atlanta’s dining critic for 40 years. From 2014-2019, Zohar Lazar created illustrations like this one for her monthly “Christiane Chronicles” columns.

Illustration by Zohar Lazar

For 40 years, Christiane Lauterbach has been a dining critic for Atlanta magazine. A Parisian by birth, and a single mom raising two daughters, Christiane was tapped by Atlanta to take over dining coverage and reviewing duties soon after she and a group of friends debuted the monthly dining newsletter Knife & Fork in the early 1980s.

By the time I moved to the city in 1997 to become the chief dining critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Christiane was the publisher of and sole voice in Knife & Fork (that voice being a royal “we” that only she could carry off), as well as the must-read critic in Atlanta magazine, known for her stiletto-sharp criticism and shoe-leather exploration of the city’s protean dining destinations.

We were competitors, I suppose, but also great friends. When I think back to my favorite moments as a restaurant writer in Atlanta, my mind always goes to my daylong excursions with her—to Buford Highway and beyond—in which we’d explore the city’s outer limits, stopping for a bite in every strip-mall restaurant that showed a glimmer of promise.

John Kessler: Tell me about the call from Atlanta magazine.
Christiane Lauterbach: It was my beloved Lee Walburn [Atlanta’s longtime editor-in-chief] who hired me. He was a magic editor, so proud of Atlanta, who pushed me and supported me.

Kessler: Did he give you any advice about writing?
Lauterbach: The best. He said the world is divided between creeps and assholes, and an editor is a creep who has to learn to function like an asshole. He is very Southern.

Kessler: What does it take to get a good review from you?
Lauterbach: I have to experience some emotion. It’s good theater as well as good food. There needs to be some comfort factor, but it has to be different enough from stuff I’m familiar with.

Kessler: Who do you like to take with you on reviews?
Lauterbach: My kids, Pauline and Hillary, are my favorite dining companions. Pauline goes at it with so much innate curiosity and enthusiasm, while Hillary has earned her own wings as a critic (for Flagpole in Athens, primarily). But since I didn’t have a husband to bully around, I had to assemble a stable of regulars. Sometimes it’s like finding a babysitter—you call one, and then the next.

Kessler: You also like eating alone at the bar, right?
Lauterbach: I love to eat by myself because I’m such a voyeur. Of course, I’ve been known for hooking up with perfect strangers, not in a sexual sense, but by sitting next to them at the bar and asking if I could buy them dinner so I could try more dishes.

Kessler: I’ll always think of you as the greatest chronicler of Atlanta’s brilliant international dining scene. When did Buford Highway become Buford Highway?
Lauterbach: In the late ’80s. The first time I went was to try Mexican food in some construction trailer. There were a lot of contractors who moved to Atlanta to get it ready for the Olympics. But soon there was that mixture of South American, Central American, and Asian that was so unique in America.

Kessler: By the time I got there, the big story was Korean.
Lauterbach: Yes! And I love the taste of Korean food because I love fermentation and all that funky stuff. 88 Tofu House was amazing. A. May. Zing. I had my first egg on the table. I thought maybe it would be hard-boiled, but it was perfectly raw to crack into the bubbling stew, sundubu jjigae.

Kessler: I hate it when restaurant critics use the word “discover,” but you are always first with news of a new place and/or cuisine. What motivates you?
Lauterbach: It’s almost an obsessive-compulsive disorder, but it’s about mapping my world, exploring my world.

Kessler: Any great ones come to mind—places where you were the first food writer on the scene?
Lauterbach: Of course. What’s that great Chinese restaurant way, way out?
Kessler: Masterpiece?
Lauterbach: That’s it. I’m sure I was the first [non-Asian] person to walk in there. It used to be a Korean noodle house, but I’m always watching spaces. When it changed hands, I went right away. Now [the chef] is doing some upscale stuff I don’t like as well, but it’s still good.

Kessler: So let’s talk about the fancy restaurants: Who are the five best or most influential chefs who’ve come out of Atlanta during your tenure so far?
Lauterbach: Günter Seeger [The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead, Seeger’s] for sure. Sotohiro Kosugi [Soto] was one of the finest and most missed chefs the city has seen. Pano Karatassos [Buckhead Life Restaurant Group] understood service at a level the city had never seen. Before him, all people knew was fancy clubs. Scott Peacock [Horseradish Grill, Watershed] put Decatur on the map, and I don’t think ever got the credit he deserved. And then I’d say Tom Catherall [Tom Tom, Shout, Twist], not for the food but for the theater of dining he created. He always told me he didn’t care about anything except one ass in every chair. That was his religion.
Kessler: Any other chefs you’d like to call out?
Lauterbach: Well, the first bad-boy chef was Paul Luna [Eclipse di Luna], for sure. His own eccentricities destroyed his efforts in town, but he created his own contained world that was so remarkable.

Christiane Lauterbach 40 years as Atlanta magazine critic
Lauterbach has reviewed the fancy and the modest. Here, an illustration from one of her “Christiane Chronicles” columns.

Illustration by Zohar Lazar

Kessler: What has most bothered you about Atlanta’s upscale dining culture?
Lauterbach: This city is so ungrateful. Ungrateful, ungrateful! Most “Atlanta” chefs who become famous only do so after leaving. Seeger and Soto both had to go to New York, and do you remember Teaspace in Little Five Points? The chef there [Joshua Skenes] went on to open the most acclaimed tasting menu in San Francisco [Saison], but we never paid him any attention. Then, when great chefs from other cities throw their hat in the ring, we ignore them. Jean-Louis Palladin [Jean-Louis at the Watergate] opened a beautiful place serving rotisserie à la ficelle in Buckhead, and it closed so promptly.

Kessler: You witnessed a murder in a restaurant once. What happened?
Lauterbach: It was at Babette’s Cafe when it was on the southern end of Highland, not far from my house. My waiter was shot as he was bringing me my check back. I can still see the white napkins held against his neck.
Kessler: Where did the assailants come from?
Lauterbach: Oh, they just walked in the front door and started quietly robbing the people at the bar, people I knew, my neighbors. The [robbers] walked through the dining room to go out the back, when one of them turned to the other and said, “Just shoot one of them.”
Kessler: Jesus, that’s horrifying.
Lauterbach: I’ve seen guns in restaurants three times since.

Kessler: Let’s change the subject. Did you ever make a bad call about a great restaurant?
Lauterbach: I’ve always been ashamed that I did not immediately recognize Bacchanalia in its original location. It seemed like another one of those cramped little house restaurants. I didn’t make the right call.

Kessler: You never held back on criticism, particularly in Knife & Fork. Did you ever get threats?
Lauterbach: All the time. One anonymous threat was serious enough that I recorded it and brought it to a police station. I had my suspicions about who did it.

Kessler: And then some restaurateurs said they’d ban you. What was that place where [former Atlanta magazine dining editor] Bill Addison and I joined you as backup?
Lauterbach: Lure. The owners [Fifth Group] told me I would be escorted out after I reviewed their so-called Mexican restaurant, Alma Cocina. Maybe it was flippant on my part, but I said in a Knife & Fork review that I’d rather eat at Hooters down the street than at their restaurant.

Kessler: You spent a long time on the James Beard Awards restaurant committee. Your meetings would take you to different cities around the country, and you’d often write up reports of your peripatetic dining adventures in Knife & Fork. How did that experience affect the way you evaluated restaurants in Atlanta?
Lauterbach: It had a tremendous impact on me. I’ve eaten with everybody in the food world, from Ruth Reichl to R.W. Apple, and it opened me up. I began to understand the point of restaurant criticism isn’t gourmandise but taxonomy. It’s about creating categories in your mind. Maybe it’s something new to me, like a Philly cheesesteak or red beans and rice; maybe it’s something I’ve had bad versions of before, but there’s nothing like that feeling of having foods revealed to you.

Kessler: Anything else?
Lauterbach: Well, after eating in so many cities, I learned to make fun of chefs who think they’re so special. I’m like, “I’m sorry, but there are so many different idiots doing the same thing in every city in America.”

Kessler: The world of dining has changed so much in 40 years. Do you take pictures of your food now?
Lauterbach: Please. If I wanted to take pictures of cheeseburgers, I’d have had a different career. But I do keep a Hall of Shame on my phone.

Kessler: Which is?
Lauterbach: All those unidentifiable dishes I get served. Have you ever read those online lists about what disgusting foods you’ve eaten, like the asshole of a pig? Well, let me tell you, I’d rather eat the asshole of a pig than some of the fancy food I’ve been served by big-name chefs.

Kessler: Speaking of which, what’s the grossest thing you’ve eaten on the job?
Lauterbach: I believe it was Soto who served me the fermented intestines of a sea slug. I couldn’t eat it, it was too vile. Then there was a Korean restaurant that served lobster that was still alive and moving around. I don’t mind it when an oyster flinches, but I do not want my food to move of its own volition.

Kessler: What about the silliest?
Lauterbach: I remember when Canoe hired an Australian chef who served kangaroo. I’m sorry, but I don’t need to be looking at the Chattahoochee and eating kangaroo.

Kessler: Where do you spend your money freely in Atlanta?
Lauterbach: Taqueria del Sol. It is a cult, and I am a proud member. Also Fellini’s; I’ve been to it a million times. I always used to say if they’d sprinkle vitamins on their pizza, I’d take my kids there every night.

Kessler: What food did you most learn to love in Atlanta?
Lauterbach: No question: The food that has had the most impact on my taste has been soul food. If I ever leave America, it’s the only food I’ll miss.

Christiane’s quick take on some Atlanta restaurants

Pano’s & Paul’s
I can’t overstate how influential it was.

The Coach and Six
[Owner] Beverlee Soloff hated me and I hated her, so it was a good match.

Aunt Fanny’s Cabin
Horrific, embarrassing.

The Colonnade
The gays and the grays? Of course I went there, but it was always puzzling that people love it so.

Nino’s
I like its sinister space, but don’t take it seriously. I know the father of our junior senator loves it.

Deacon Burton’s
Magic. There were so many things there I had never heard of, like fried chicken. I was so surprised [to learn] you eat the wing separate from the body.

Seeger’s
The best restaurant Atlanta ever had or ever will have. That is, unless Günter opens up another.

Alluvia
That place in the Cheetah? It’s a grotesque name, but I don’t harbor bad feelings.

Dick & Harry’s
Amazing. One of the first destinations in the suburbs for me.

The Busy Bee Cafe
I adore the space. It’s where civil rights leaders went when they couldn’t get into Paschal’s.

Harvest
It came, it went. Never a huge fan.

Joël
Amazing. A little too south-of-France for my taste, but an important chef for sure.

The Abbey
So weird. Where I come from, they don’t have restaurants in churches.

This article appears in our March 2024 issue.

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