I arrived at Holeman and Finch Public House on a recent Saturday at 7:30 p.m., expecting to wriggle through a surge of bodies to reach the bar. Since it opened in 2008, I’ve introduced the Buckhead trendsetter to dozens of visitors, always prepping them to brace for the crowds, assuring them that the cocktails and the charcuterie and the famous cheeseburger served after 10 p.m. are worth the hassle. But on this night I traipsed into the bar area to find only nine people, including my friend waiting for me at an otherwise unoccupied counter. The host immediately showed us to a table in the thirty-seat dining room. The calm felt unsettling. Imagine if on a weekend when Georgia Tech was hosting a home game, you walked into the Varsity to find it deserted, with the staff’s desolate cries of “What’ll ya have?” echoing off the red-and-white walls. It was that implausible. Holeman never has slow nights.
I’d encountered the typical throngs two weeks earlier on a Tuesday evening. Three of us had been told to expect a hour or so wait. We huddled in a cramped corner, ordering drinks and nibbles like pimento cheese and a hot pretzel. We couldn’t comfortably settle in our narrow bar perch, and a large party wouldn’t budge in the dining room. After waiting nearly two hours, we left to snarf deconstructed jambalaya at Watershed on Peachtree up the street.
And the day after my surreal Saturday meal, I showed up at 12:30 p.m. for brunch, when the kitchen also cranks out burgers. People spilled out the door. All was normal.
But not really. The uneven crowds are just one symptom of the transitional state in which Holeman and Finch finds itself. Three of its co-owners—Greg Best, Regan Smith, and Andy Minchow—departed in the last two years, taking with them the frisky charisma that gave the business its soul. It remains a touchstone for smart food and satisfying libations, but it also needs a fresh infusion of verve and leadership.
It’s hard to overstate the impact that Holeman and Finch’s appearance made on Atlanta dining: It ushered in the craft cocktail movement and helped foster the current sense of pride among the city’s Southern chefs. Best, Smith, and Minchow—all ace bartenders—arrived in town last decade to launch the spectacular flop that was Emeril’s Atlanta. They eventually scattered, with Best landing a job behind the elegant bar at Restaurant Eugene. The trio had once imagined running their own place, and when Eugene owners Linton and Gina Hopkins were offered the small space across the courtyard from their restaurant, the five of them banded together to create Holeman and Finch. (Holeman is a name from Linton’s family; Finch is from Best’s kin.)
Witty concoctions like the Southern Cola—Mexican Coke with herbal Amaro CioCiaro and lime juice ice cubes—opened minds to unusual spirits. And Linton Hopkins brilliantly linked England’s craze for gastropubs (traditional pubs embracing creative, ambitious cooking) with the South’s British culinary roots: He spearheaded a sublime charcuterie program, displaying the meaty objets d’art behind glass, and he dared diners toward funkier pleasures like bone marrow, pig’s ears, and beef tartare. If those dishes no longer sound so outré, thank Hopkins. The owners offered the kind of food and drinks they’d make for their industry buddies. The public gobbled it up.
Fast-forward six years, when the students have surpassed the master in the cocktail realms. Where’s the best place to imbibe these days? I’d point to Decatur. Kimball House employs some of Holeman’s most gifted alums, including ringleader Miles Macquarrie and recent defector Tyson Bittrich. Paul Calvert, who runs nearby Paper Plane (and is close pals with Best), concocts the kind of curios—say, Cognac with minty Amaro Abano, cherry, milk stout, and cardamom—that baffle the brain and thrill the palate.
Holeman recently hired a new lead bartender, Sara Justice, who hails from Manhattan’s cocktail standard-bearer PDT. Justice planned to totally revamp the cocktail program in April; at the end of March the bar’s list included five of her creations. A fuchsia-tinged number called Bonnie Scotland wowed me: Its alchemy of hibiscus syrup, bourbon, lemon juice, and absinthe trumpeted the arrival of our overdue spring. Others like the I-75, a wittily named riff on the French 75 that recalled a mimosa, and the aggressively herbal Bizarre Love Triangle came off a bit monotonous. I hope Justice takes more risks—we’re seasoned boozers at this point; we can embrace cocktails with edge and imagination.
I’m glad the perennial Southern Cola remains on the brunch menu, though: The spicy amaro and lime frame the syrupy Coke twang in a way that’s both familiar and strange. It still pairs superbly with the burger.
Ah, yes—about that double stack of thin patties oozing American cheese and homemade bread-and-butter pickles. Hopkins is bringing his crown jewel to the people, serving it at Turner Field and opening a burger stand next spring in the forthcoming Ponce City Market. So what if its imitators at Bocado and One Eared Stag proved juicier, their ingredients more integrated, than the recent specimens at Holeman? The original will never lose its iconic status.
Overall, though, the cooking still has spunk and vim to burn. In the spirit of fearlessness, try the mondongo, a riff on a stew that’s a staple of Puerto Rican cuisine. It contains tripe (cow’s stomach lining), but you hardly discern it among the punchy collage of umami-rich broth, vegetables, hunks of sausage, and a five-minute egg with textbook runny yolk. The kitchen is currently crushing on the ham made from peanut-fed hogs by Virginia’s Sam Edwards, and it’s showcased in pretty tableaux like pickled tangelos and blood orange segments scattered with ruffles of ham. Look for the creations that sing of the South, like a thick field-pea soup gutsy with ham hock and served with squares of cornbread already crumbling into the bowl.
Chef de cuisine Jason Paolini oversees the kitchens of both Eugene and Holeman. When he was behind the line, potato dumplings (gnocchi, basically) cradled in a supple vegetable ragout tasted like something you imagine sighing over during a Tuscan dream vacation. At a meal when Paolini was absent, a heavy hand with salt broke the dish’s reverie. A saline overdose also marred a batch of fried oysters. And I’ve never been hooked by the one-note desserts—sticky toffee pudding that begs for more complexity, and a fried pie that should lose its Pop-Tart glaze.
The Hopkinses have a growing empire, including the two restaurants, H&F Bread Co., H&F Bottle Shop, and their burger enterprises. It’s up to Justice and her corps of bartenders to claim a new sense of ownership and shake up the town. Rather than relying on status, Holeman has a chance to seduce us all over again. Cheers to its future full of possibilities.
Holeman and Finch Public House
Rating: 2/4 stars (very good)
2277 Peachtree Road
Hours: Monday–Saturday 5 p.m.–midnight, Sunday 11:30 a.m.–3 p.m.
This article originally appeared in our May 2014 issue.