The arrival of chef Zeb Stevenson’s Redbird—which has landed in the former home of fine-dining bastion Bacchanalia—signals a new era for the Westside’s restaurant scene. Back in the late ’90s, when Bacchanalia chef Anne Quatrano and her husband Clifford Harrison moved their six-year-old restaurant into new digs, they created a space posh enough to befit Bacchanalia but also more industrial than that of any Atlanta fine-dining establishment. And they did it in a part of town, the then sleepy Westside, where no fine-dining establishment had opened before. Industrial-chic dining rooms are now ubiquitous, and the Westside has become the epicenter of Atlanta’s high-end restaurant explosion. The neighborhood is so packed with options—Miller Union, Marcel, JCT Kitchen, the Optimist, Cooks and Soldiers, Le Fat, Aziza, Forza Storico, and, a mile west, Bacchanalia’s new digs—that, unlike in those pioneering Westside days, it’s hard for any new spot to stand out. Redbird does.
Given its pedigree, that’s not exactly shocking. Stevenson most recently helmed Watershed, and his former boss and current business partner, Ross Jones, was one of the four women who opened that iconic modern Southern restaurant more than two decades ago. (In 2018, she sold it to its new chef-owner, who just put it back on the market.) Stevenson’s famous Watershed predecessors include James Beard Award winner Scott Peacock, who helped redefine high-end Southern cooking on the national level. That challenge proved tricky for Stevenson. Though clearly gifted based on what he did at Watershed, he was never recognized for establishing his own style there.
Now, Redbird has freed Stevenson from the looming legacies of Watershed specifically and Southern cooking in general. What does he do with that freedom? Creates dishes that are simpler and healthier than you might expect but just as sophisticated. And that stripped-down deliciousness, coupled with a dining room high on style yet free of pretension, makes Redbird feel instantly essential.
Stevenson, the son of a fire-and-brimstone preacher in Warsaw, Indiana, rebelled against family traditions by becoming an artist and a cook. After dropping out of Cornell’s Fine Arts program, he moved to Atlanta, where he became sous chef and, a year later, executive chef at Livingston and its cocktail bar, Proof and Provisions, both in the Georgian Terrace. It was his first crack at directing a menu. He left that gig in 2013; the following year, Jones and her partner (now wife), Susan Owens, hired him to be chef at Watershed.
Redbird is the first restaurant where Stevenson has been able to create an entire concept from scratch. And with the help of chef de cuisine Christian Perez, formerly of City Pharmacy in Covington, his culinary vision is finally clear.
Redbird’s menu is composed of 16 or so reasonably priced small plates (most of them vegetarian, vegan, or gluten free, with few surpassing the $10 mark), and seven a la carte proteins. Extraordinarily beautiful offerings could include roasted beets with shredded endive glossed with basil oil and flecked with blue cheese and sourdough crumbles (which the chef makes with his own sourdough starter); unctuous chicken-liver mousse with black bread and muscadine jelly; and crushed fingerling potato tostones with almond mole. Stevenson loves textural plays in signature dishes, and that’s perhaps most apparent in a ravishing dessert of crushed pecan ice in the style of a Filipino halo halo, with shaved coconut, candied summer squash, mango, pineapple, tapioca pearls, and pomegranate seeds.
While I may not appreciate the blandness of a plate of cacio e pepe fritters inspired by a trip to Italy or the color of a grayish (but delicious) strawberry custard with meringue, I can’t argue with the mastery evident in tender, slow-cooked chicken legs, simply adorned with olives, lemons, oregano, and toum (Lebanese garlic sauce) or, in the similarly pared-down pan-roasted fish, topped with a contrasting, fresh and green, finely minced “sizzling scallion condiment” embellished with pea tendrils.
Stevenson bakes his own bread, which shows up in various dishes, and he prettily displays a distinctly un-Southern, angelic-looking sugar cream pie, his mom’s favorite, on a marble slab in front of the open kitchen. The message is two-fold: an homage to his roots and a signifier of his straightforward cooking style.
Stevenson and Jones oversee Redbird’s wine program, and they’ve created a serious destination for oenophiles. Their exquisite taste is on display in rarely seen French and Spanish varietals—and the bar serves their selections at the proper temperature (you’d be amazed how often this is botched elsewhere). The superb list, with a significant number of offerings by the glass or half-bottle, boasts discoveries such as a blend of Roussane and Vermentino from the Languedoc, a Mencia from Spain, and unusual varietals from Macedonia.
Step inside and you’ll hardly be able to tell that this space ever belonged to Bacchanalia. With a new entrance and an altered orientation that takes better advantage of the large bay windows, Redbird is airier, the mood of the room more festive than rarefied. An informal chef’s counter, a lively bar, and splashes of color such as raspberry-red placemats on a green glass counter (the underside of which is hand-painted) also help lighten things up.
Redbird is that exceptional restaurant that makes you feel instantly at home—or, rather, at the home you wish you inhabited. That’s all the more impressive considering that this particular space is the former home of Atlanta’s grande dame of fine dining, Bacchanalia, and that it’s in a neighborhood crammed with worthy restaurants. Redbird is very much its own creature—simple, unpretentious, delightful—and it finally provides chef Zeb Stevenson a chance to soar.
★ ★ ★ ★
1198 Howell Mill Road, 404-900-5172
What to order
Stevenson himself bakes the black bread served with it.
The “sizzling scallion condiment” that tops the fish is also offered as an a la carte sauce. Order three, and put it on everything.
Crushed pecan ice
Inspired by the Filipino dessert halo halo, this mashup includes coconut, candied squash, pomegranate seeds, and tapioca pearls—and it crushes the sum of its parts.
This article appears in our January 2020 issue.