For more than a decade, ever since the 2009 closure of City Grill in the historic Hurt Building, there have been tragically few destination restaurants downtown. That’s a shame for many reasons, among them the abundance of architecturally significant spaces to house such restaurants. But with the recent restoration of the Candler Building, a 17-story blunt flatiron in the same style as the Hurt (which it predates), downtown is reclaiming some of its lost luster—and has gained one of its most posh restaurants in ages.
Completed in 1906 on a triangular piece of land at the northern edge of Woodruff Park, the Candler first served as the headquarters of Coca-Cola cofounder Asa Griggs Candler’s Central Bank and Trust—though it more recently gained acclaim as the scene of the bank robbery at the beginning of Baby Driver. Late last year, the building began a new chapter as a boutique hotel, part of Hilton’s Curio Collection. The entrance, rather modest for such a prestigious project, is on a side street, where an elegant, thin marquee leads to a double set of heavily polished original brass doors. The grand marble staircase with carved cherubs, the Beaux-Arts details, and the plush little lobby communicate a sense of old-world luxury that’s increasingly elusive downtown.
A short walk through the lobby brings you to By George, the restaurant named after the building’s original architects, George E. Murphy and George Stewart, and created for the hotel by celebrity chef Hugh Acheson. Like most hotel restaurants, By George serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and it has been a blessing for downtowners in search of a luxe spot for happy hour. As for the food itself, Acheson has come up with a felicitous theme: classic French cuisine to match the grandeur of the location.
Raised in Ottawa, Acheson followed his now ex-wife to Athens, where she was pursuing a graduate degree and, in 2000, opened what would become the college town’s best restaurant, Five and Ten. That was followed by a second Athens spot, the National, and Empire State South in Atlanta. As a competitor on the third season of Top Chef Masters and a judge for five successive Top Chef series, Acheson became widely known for his debating skills, charisma, and unibrow. The By George project appealed to him in part because, in his words, “many people haven’t experienced classic French cuisine.” To execute the menu he created, Acheson relies on chef Ian Quinn, who has fine-dining experience with Linton Hopkins’s Resurgens Hospitality Group and hotel experience with the Four Seasons in Washington D.C.
If only everything at By George could achieve the gorgeous simplicity of the classic poulet roti (which is really a poussin, a smaller, younger chicken) and the pommes Dauphines. The roasted bird wears thick slices of fresh, raw turnip like oversized jewelry, and the fried potato puffs, served with sauce gribiche (similar to mayonnaise but made from cooked yolks and mixed with diced cornichons), provide pillowy comfort. Together, they make a meal at By George an irresistible affair.
The vichyssoise (a summer dish, to most) tastes more like buttermilk than leek and potato but makes up in delicacy what it lacks in authority. At the other end of the seasonal spectrum, the “gratin” section of the menu is a wonderfully wintry idea, with a choice of tangy Belgian endive, salsify (a root vegetable) with smoked oysters, or spaghetti squash with a blanket of Comte overlaid with crunchy breadcrumbs. The kitchen also knows its way around French lentilles du Puy and knife-cut steak tartare topped with shreds of fried leeks.
Alas, much of the rest of the food is still a work in progress. Some of that work is progressing in the right direction. The pot au feu, which early on was executed as a daube (France’s fancy version of a pot roast), has evolved into a properly brothy dish, the tender meat accompanied by a fetching melange of young carrots and waxy baby potatoes briefly simmered in the rich, slow-cooked broth, all of it served in an elegant, oval copper pan.
Almost everything I tried multiple times changed from one visit to the next—and not always for the better. An appetizer of blue crab and celeriac in creamy remoulade was decadently effortless on one visit and wildly (and inappropriately) spicy on the next.
I also have a hard time trusting a kitchen that sends limp fries to the table or calls a squishy foie gras mousse a terrine. And when a massive wedge of pâté en croute with bitter greens and porcini dijon hit the table with a thud next to a far too dainty plate of minuscule steamed Sapelo Island clams on a film of nearly invisible pastis broth, the erratic scale of the dishes confused me. Grilled langoustines bristling with legs and intimidating little beady eyes hardly merit their price tag (a stiff $36), not to mention the effort it takes to rip the not especially flavorful flesh from their shells. Steak Diane, requested medium rare but arriving near raw, was served with a thin potato puree and a mildly alcoholic sauce; it may not be the ultimate in nostalgic Continental cuisine, but at least it won’t foul your palate the way a leathery rendition of calf’s liver does.
Nicole Bernier’s pastry and bread kitchen can be as uneven as much of the rest of the menu. There are wide variations in the execution of her deeply caramelized tarte Tatin (which sometimes achieves a heavenly texture and sometimes doesn’t), and her Paris Brest with hazelnut cream is occasionally stale. But her creme brulee, which hides a smooth custard under a wonderfully thin crust of torched sugar, is consistently perfect.
Acheson’s longtime, trusty, nationally renowned beverage team, the daring sommelier Steven Grubbs and innovative cocktail maven Kellie Thorn, make regular appearances at the restaurant, and they’ve expertly steered the near-flawless bar program. The drinks based on French spirits such as cognac, Calvados, and Pineau des Charentes fortified wine are beguiling in range and composition, and the wine list, mostly French and full of surprises, highlights interesting small producers of such rarities as mature Muscadets, Loire Valley light-bodied Bourgueuils, and lesser known Beaumes de Venise.
Located in Candler Building’s former bank hall, a cavernous space punctuated by massive, gray-veined marble columns, By George could have been intimidating. Yet the dining room, whose somewhat staid decor would benefit from a little more glamour and warmth, nonetheless manages to comfortably occupy the outsized room. The immense windows on one end and, on the other, the well-lit, vintage-looking bar help tame the space.
Downtown needs a restaurant like By George, one where the business-casual set can entertain clients, hang with friends, or just unwind at the bar. Food enthusiasts, on the other hand, may be less excited about By George’s high-priced French classicism. Still, Acheson’s concept befits the historically significant structure it occupies—and By George is an indisputably regal addition to the neighborhood.
★ ★ ★ ★
127 Peachtree Street, downtown
What to Drink
This article appears in our March 2020 issue.