Review: Revival worships at the altar of butter

Kevin Gillespie’s version of a local meet-and-three re-creates the food he grew up with
Revival Chicken
Fried chicken

Photograph by Johnny Autry

If not the flat-out ideal customer for Revival, I’m pretty close. I’ve loved meat-and-threes since the tender age of 20-something, when I made the mandatory stop at Mrs. Wilkes’ in Savannah and saw the vegetables of my dreams: not carefully and stingily tender-crisp but braised to bring out their full flavors, meaning some form of ham or bacon was usually involved. And, oh yes, sugar. I’ve since toured meat-and-threes in their spiritual home, Nashville, and experienced them at their Formica-table, ancient walnut-paneling, barest-bones best. Good or bad, though—and sliced meat on a steam table for hours can get a little dry, if you hadn’t noticed—they all share what brought me to that first love: a family table generosity, a nothing-fancy welcome, a judgment-free license to eat as much as you like. The essential democracy of a meat-and-three transmits powerful messages about community.

Revival, in a cute clapboard house with a wide veranda in downtown Decatur, has my number. It’s Kevin Gillespie’s re-creation of the food he grew up eating at the table of his grandmother, whom he calls the best cook he’ll ever know, and who specialized in flavor-packed abundance. Revival is Gillespie’s first new restaurant since Gunshow, which he opened in 2013 after training at Woodfire Grill, where he gained national celebrity on Top Chef. The story of why he opened Gunshow can’t help but move you: His father didn’t feel Woodfire Grill was the kind of place that would welcome his kind of person. So Gillespie defied those who thought that naming a restaurant Gunshow in honor of some of the trips his father took him on was, well, suicidal, and soon enough it was impossible to get a table there.

The food at Gunshow is freewheeling in several senses: the eclectic styles that frequently change up; the rolling carts that bring plates of food around at the rate the kitchen can cook it, not when the diner commands it. The food at Revival, meanwhile, specifically goes back Gillespie’s family and their roots outside of Atlanta. Very specifically—the recipe for cornbread, unlike any I’ve ever tasted, is a family secret. Each piece comes hot out of the iron skillet, and it’s less like bread than butter and a mystery fat suspended with just a bit of golden corn flour; you have to really, really like butter. The recipe for fried chicken is secret, too, and mighty good. Unlike the cornbread, the chicken is not oily. What it lacks in crunchy batter it makes up for with moist and full-flavored meat.

Photograph by Johnny Autry
Photograph by Johnny Autry

The welcome at Revival is familial. I’ve seldom had sunnier servers since moving here, or really anywhere, and the smiles did not feel forced; a wee envelope arrives at the end with your name written on it and a tiny thank-you inside. The pictures all over the homey restaurant, with convivial tables placed close enough together that you don’t exactly eat with your neighbors but you can certainly pass pleasantries, are of Gillespie’s family. (The story of his father’s unease at a white-tablecloth restaurant and Gillespie’s need to honor his socioeconomic as well as geographic background makes me feel less discomfited about the fact that nearly every face in the many pictures, not to mention at the tables, was white.)

Revival isn’t an actual meat-and-three, but if you pick any entree and ask for it as a “family-style dinner,” the table will fill with relishes, the “trimmings” that are a whole menu section of side dishes, and the cornbread that isn’t otherwise listed as a side dish (one piece comes with each entree). The charge for the family dinner—not mentioned on the menu, so you might think the table-covering plates simply come with a grandmother’s goodwill—is $42 per person, plus $7 for pork steak or ribeye. The goal is to bring a chef’s care in finding local ingredients to a traditional meat-and-three, to put polish on food that in its native habitat might be served in Tupperware, to make simple things shine.

Does Revival live up to those honorable aims? A lot of the time. Not all of it. I put this down less to Gillespie than to the difficulty that dogs any ambitious chef: a deep bench that will keep a restaurant consistent. Salt is an occasional problem—practically missing in the sides at my first meal, but overabundant at my second. The plate of fresh field peas and snap peas in sweet cream butter and dill, whose vegetal sweetness enraptured me the first time I tried it, was choked with salt at my next visit.

Creamed Georgia white shrimp with red Savannah rice
Creamed Georgia white shrimp with red Savannah rice

Photograph by Johnny Autry

At our first dinner, the food flew out of the kitchen as if it had been waiting in the steam tables of the most traditional meat-and-three, and we were out the door in a startling 47 minutes. At another dinner, we sat on the pleasant covered patio and could seldom catch a server’s eye to ask what had happened to our food. (The restaurant was about equally crowded both nights.) The friendliness, the warm intentions, were always the same; the delivery was not.

Nor was the food reliably full-flavored. Tomato gravy on spiced Mississippi catfish was a big, indifferent piece of butter-sauteed fish you’d have trouble naming, with a paste of bittersweet glop on top. Wood-grilled Georgia quail was rubbery and betrayed no taste of the grill, with a honey-garlic glaze that was neither sweet nor garlicky. Mac and cheese was all cream—and I mean all cream—the mac overwhelmed and the cheese indiscernible. Hickory-smoked greens were uniformly salty even at the first dinner, but more so at the next two.

But Gillespie is capable of alchemy. The mysteriously named fatback-fried Silver Queen corn turned out to be grated fresh corn slowly simmered with rendered fatback and cream to the consistency of a porridge; the balance of dairy fat, pork fat, and almost pure sugar from the corn was ambrosial. Wood-grilled ribeye had all the char and faint smokiness the quail lacked, plus an ideal chewy texture and mineral flavor that made me want to go back and spend $30 again. Grass-fed beef and pork meatloaf wrapped in bacon tasted more like a carefully slow-baked pâté than meatloaf to me, though the French-born sous chef, Rémi Granger, pointed out that the meat is chunkier than in most pates. It’s also a large portion and, at $12, a bargain. Andreas Müller, the Swedish-born executive chef (he moved to Atlanta at 15 and later worked in Alabama, so he can claim Southernness), told me it took at least 10 tries to get the meatloaf right—and more for the chicken. They succeeded with both (and, at least with the chicken, in stunning fashion).

Pineapple upside-down cake
Pineapple upside-down cake

Photography by Johnny Autry

There is a treasury of desserts from which to choose. Toasted vanilla pound cake, even if a bit dry, had a nice buttery purity, its moistness from a not-too-sweet pineapple glaze and whipped cream. But the rest of Revival does seem Southern and heartfelt. I’m still hoping for an invitation to a Southern grandmother’s Sunday supper. I’m very glad Revival is there while I wait.

★★★★ (very good)

Good to know
Family-style service isn’t an option at the bar. (All those dishes take up too much room.)

Vital Stats
129 Church Street, Decatur

This article originally appeared in our December 2015 issue.