My heart always beats faster in a restaurant when I see something I have never seen before. It isn’t as if I’ve never spotted a chef expediting his own food at the kitchen pass, checking that everything on each plate is how and where it should be, moving a little sprig of greenery by a sixteenth of an inch or calling for his crew to redo an entire dish. But a chef, let alone one who is the size of a giant, standing in the dining room at a long table and quietly fixing all that needs fixing in plain view of his customers is pretty much new to me.
Southern National opened this summer in trendy Summerhill, where it joins Little Bear, Talat Market, and other influential independent establishments. The restaurant announces itself from the get-go as an ambitious showcase. As a young Black chef fresh out of culinary school on the West Coast, Duane Nutter was a disciple of Darryl Evans, Atlanta’s most famous Black chef of the 1980s and 1990s, who hired him for what is now the Four Seasons. Nutter then toiled in the kitchens of Villa Christina and other local restaurants. In 2008, the city and its many visitors became familiar with him and current business partner Reginald Washington, also Black, when Nutter became executive chef at One Flew South in Concourse E of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Born in Louisiana, raised in Seattle, Nutter broke all the rules when he put fancy sushi, elevated Southern cuisine, and craft cocktails on the menu of an airport restaurant.
Nutter and Washington departed Atlanta in 2016 to start a restaurant they called Southern National in Mobile, Alabama, Washington’s hometown. The place attracted a lot of attention, down to making the short list of finalists for a regional James Beard Restaurant Award, but eventually closed. Now relocated to Atlanta, the restaurant cuts an even more cosmopolitan figure.
There is something of the showman in Nutter, who has done stand-up comedy and improv on and off throughout his career. Speaking in a voice surprisingly gentle for a man of his size, he refers to Southern National as “a compilation of [his] greatest hits.” Asked about his style, he answers, “I cook my life,” with a blend of innocence and pride. He thinks nothing of depositing shiny black mussels, shiitake mushrooms, and bacon in a thicket of glossy Southern greens or plating tradition-breaking berbere-spiced fried boneless chicken thighs on tender maque choux.
The bread service—all-around-crisp sheet-pan biscuits with pepper jelly and jalapeño johnnycakes with cane sugar syrup butter—lets you know that you are in a South that is evolving beyond tradition. A smoked-turkey-and-corn soup with big-pearl couscous and bright green Southern chimichurri sauce, a perky salad of grilled okra and shishito peppers, and an exuberant vegetable plate spiced with za’atar win you over instantaneously thanks to their originality. But there is more: a frequent special of pimento cheese set with pickled goodies against a giant bouquet of homemade crackers, grilled pork chop rubbed with coffee in red wine mustard sauce, sassy baked rigatoni with “lamb burger helper.” Complex and exciting, a finely textured, boozy pecan Old Fashioned float feels like a cocktail and a dessert in one.
The opulent bar mixes clean, well-balanced concoctions such as the Coconut Negroni, the Punch Royal (cognac, champagne, pineapple juice, and lemon), the Prado (blanco tequila, lime, maraschino, egg white, and a fancy cherry impaled on a stick), and the On the Nose (bourbon, lime, ginger soda, with a little dark rum on the top), all created by Greg Best and Paul Calvert, the stars behind Ticonderoga Club, who have cooperated with Southern National since its Mobile days. There is a lot to love about a wine list that roams from Spain’s Basque region to Italy’s Puglia with well-priced, timely selections. The usual suave, calculated neutrality of Smith Hanes’s decor, art by renowned Black artists, and the educated but unobtrusive servers in fancy aprons allow the food to shine in all its colorful glory.
You won’t regret entering Nutter’s world. Instead of looking over his shoulder at what others are doing, he has fun on a path of his own. His head is full of ideas about how to celebrate the South without resorting to cliches. Aesthetically and emotionally satisfying, Southern National tells you that Atlanta is a global city that is changing for the better.
This article appears in our November 2023 issue.