An icon searches for a new identity
Photograph by Johnny Autry

There we were, sitting along a black-and-white petrified wood bar twenty-two stories up, looking out at the Atlanta sky, now blood-orange after a summer storm. Many have wondered if Polaris—atop the Hyatt Regency Atlanta, once the tallest building in the city—still has a decent view. After all, taller buildings have sprouted up nearby throughout the decades. But as Polaris revolved and a sunny glaze fell over Midtown, we felt like there wasn’t a cooler place to be at that moment.

And cool is exactly what Polaris is. Designed by architect and developer John Portman, the revolving restaurant was a novelty when it first opened in 1967, quickly becoming an icon and appearing in every postcard of the Downtown skyline. Polaris closed in 2004 when the Hyatt committed $65 million to renovate the entire hotel. Various delays pushed back Polaris’s reopening, but in June the blue spaceship was glowing again, its redesign entrusted to the venerable Johnson Studio. Channeling 1960s luxury, Polaris is now a work of glitz and metal, evoking a midcentury modern home with curvy armchairs and plush couches amid white, gold, and brown leather tones.

Of course, the Hyatt has higher aspirations for Polaris than simply being a well-furnished room with a view, which is why executive chef Martin Pfefferkorn and chef de cuisine Rodney Ashley update most of the menu every two weeks. Pfefferkorn sources ingredients from a nearby rooftop garden, which is also the origin of the mint and rosemary used in beverage manager Mehdi Natanzi’s cocktails. It’s all an effort to be current and to be more than just a one-time destination for tourists. But as I discovered over the course of several visits, Polaris is still finding its place in Atlanta circa 2014.

Bacon popcorn makes for an addictive nibble to pair with a cocktail.

Photograph by Johnny Autry

First off, don’t come expecting an ornate dinner. The constraints of the space allow for just a tiny kitchen, where the offerings are limited to mostly small plates. Think simple, like a fluffy mousse of whipped Green Hill Cheese with smoky slices of H&F bacon bread or duck liver pâté with pickled vegetables. Sweet tomatoes with burrata and tender artichokes, even bacon popcorn—these are the bites that hold me over until my actual dinner plans. The bigger dishes, meanwhile, consistently fall flat. Steak draped in béarnaise and topped with fishy crabmeat and eggplant served with a chalky mushroom tart radiate a creeping plasticity that sadly rings of—I hate to say it—hotel food. For dessert, stick with chocolate, like the rich chocolate cake filled with a tangy passion fruit caramel.

As the kitchen struggles to master a menu that changes often, the servers are fraught as well, showing little familiarity with the food and rarely having recommendations. And in the five times I visited, I didn’t once meet a soul who could describe a cocktail with confidence, much less list the ingredients. Here, though, the greater concern is the drinks themselves, which are wonky at best. There’s the Campers Hooch, served in a mason jar, filled with bacon-infused bourbon that overpowers apple- and blueberry-infused maple syrup, and topped with two burnt marshmallows. It’s a mixology nightmare with all the subtlety of a Thanksgiving family dinner. But even that’s not as off-putting as the El Chocolate Picante: a perplexing blend of tequila, mezcal, mint liqueur, chocolate, and habanero syrup. It’s oddly milky, tastes like lighter fluid, and is served in a snifter inexplicably covered by a long strip of salt running down the side of the glass. Por qué?

The Jolie Dame (cognac, hibiscus, pineapple essence)

Photograph by Johnny Autry

What’s not overboozed is watered-down, coming off like detox juice served after an hour of Bikram yoga. Slices of grapefruit might be buried in ice and splashed with gin and ginger beer. That’s not what a $12 cocktail should be, yet it’s also the cost of the Girvan Fizz: a near-virgin drink of mostly sour mix and a touch of gin.

Maybe it all would have been different had a server started me with the Jolie Dame, a cognac sipper with notes of pineapple and hibiscus, or the Empress, a vodka-based potion with an aromatic tinge of saffron syrup. Sophisticated, smart, and layered, it’s a cocktail that deserves its $11 price tag—something with balance, verve, and intrigue.

As it stands, none of this will hold our attention for longer than a single forty-five-minute rotation. Its bird’s-eye view is only so attractive, given that the Westin Sundial, two blocks south, affords views from fifty-one stories higher. For Polaris, a relic of the past that once stood for the future, the answer revolves around food and drinks. That is what will drive us to return. The Hyatt trusted distinguished Atlanta designers to breathe new life into the interior. Mission accomplished. Now, for sustenance, the space needs local talent once more.

Rating: 1/5 stars
265 Peachtree Street
Hours Tuesday–Saturday 5 p.m.–midnight

This article originally appeared in our October 2014 issue.