Driven by down-home graciousness and authentically local flavors, Atlanta’s dining scene is turning the city into a national culinary destination.Destination 2016: Charleston
it seems like an easy formula for a chef: create a restaurant you would want to eat in, and watch the culinary scene grow around it. To hear Atlantans tell the story of their city’s rise in foodie circles, you’d think that’s all it takes. But where many cities have tried that Field of Dreams approach with mixed results, Atlanta possesses other factors—community engagement, a drive to champion the region’s farmers and a touch of competitiveness to keep pushing boundaries—that have made its dining scene flourish, feeding an impressive 50 million visitors annually.
The chef community nationally has taken notice: Over the last five years, chefs in Atlanta earned 56 nominations for the James Beard Awards, the “Oscars” of cooking that celebrate both artistry and technique. Atlanta’s endemic culinary style—a mix of Southern and Appalachian that draws on the traditions of the working-class Scottish immigrants and African American slaves who historically made up much of the population—is being elevated to haute cuisine standards by technically proficient chefs. Fried chicken, potlikker, greens and beans, and buttermilk biscuits with sausage gravy are all routinely reimagined, providing diners both the cultural authenticity they seek and the gourmet experience they crave. Meanwhile newer immigrant communities—Vietnamese, Latino, Korean and Bangladeshi among them—are bringing fresh influences to local dishes.
Salmon at chef Gerry Klaskala’s Aria © Jeff Moore; One Flew South © James Camp; Chef Duane Nutter © Tom Griscom; Chef Christopher Grossman’s restaurant © Brian Gassel; Chef Ford Fry’s restaurant © Andrew Thomas Lee
In 1992, after cutting her teeth in New York, Quatrano moved to her mother’s 60-acre farm in Cartersville, 42 miles northwest of Atlanta, with her husband and business partner, Clifford Harrison, to open their first restaurant. Bacchanalia ignored all conventions when it opened in 1993 in a small cottage in the Buckhead neighborhood: no valet parking, an all-American wine list and a prix-fixe menu. “We were different from everyone else,” Quatrano says. “We just wanted to cook locally grown, interesting food.” This was long before “locally grown” became a ubiquitous marketing term. Prior to Bacchanalia, a few large restaurant groups dominated in Atlanta, but fine dining was confined to fancy hotels. The unpredictability of local produce didn’t fit with large restaurants that served a predetermined menu with no room for seasonal fluctuations. Instead of fine dining for the business set, Quatrano catered to Atlantans, drawing mainly locals to a 50-seat restaurant where meals were served on her grandmother’s antique china. The gamble was a successful one—diners took notice of the unfussy experience and exceptional food.
When the Olympics boosted tourism to record levels three years later, Quatrano seized the opportunity to open a second restaurant. Floataway Cafe debuted in 1998 in a renovated warehouse near the gentrifying Emory Village in northeast Atlanta, further expanding where great food could be served. Another ambitious pioneer who used the Olympics to his advantage was Guenter Seeger, a German émigré who enjoyed widespread prestige as chef at the Dining Room in the Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead. In 1997, he branched out on his own. His eponymous Seeger’s in Buckhead also capitalized on locally grown ingredients. Earning critical raves from magazines such Esquire and GQ, Seeger’s helped Atlanta begin to get national notice.
The sophistication of Atlanta’s restaurants has grown rapidly, but an attitude of old-fashioned hospitality remains, and that helps explain one of the area’s biggest culinary draws: The food experience in Atlanta feels authentic to the city and its culture. “People ask us: Why are you so nice?” says Duane Nutter, executive chef at One Flew South, the first upscale dining restaurant at Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International, the world’s busiest airport. The restaurant was a James Beard Award semifinalist for best service in 2014 and 2015. With more than 100 million travelers passing through the airport each year, impeccable service is no easy feat. But Nutter attributes his guests’ reaction to good service to their perceptions of Atlanta’s glitzy skyline and trendy appearance. “On the surface, there’s a city snootiness about us,” he explains. “Within that, though, there’s a ‘come on over and have some cornbread’ attitude.”
Beyond hospitality, Atlanta’s success stories don’t pander to passing trends. Locals have a nose for the genuine, and restaurants that don’t pass that test don’t survive. Notably, chefs and restaurant groups from outside Atlanta including Emeril Lagasse and Tom Colicchio have often tried and failed to open eateries here. With decades of experience cooking in Atlanta and several restaurants under his belt, Gerry Klaskala, the chef/owner of Aria, knows what Atlantans want. “A restaurant must be genuine. Not for show. Gracious,” he says. “It’s such a simple idea but can be hard to achieve: to make the customer feel welcome.”
Groundbreaking chefs like Quatrano and Klaskala also helped shape Atlanta dining by mentoring young talent. Chefs behind the next wave of great restaurants came up through kitchens with high standards of excellence, and were welcomed into a close-knit community. After working with Klaskala for several years at Aria, Christopher Grossman, now the executive chef at Atlas in the St. Regis hotel, worked in California’s renowned restaurant, the French Laundry. But Grossman felt the city’s pull and returned. Atlanta’s laid-back lifestyle and affordable homes—the median home price is $187,000—were also part of the appeal.
Among their many talents, chefs in Atlanta know how to answer one important question: What do customers want? Perhaps the best example is chef Ford Fry, the big personality behind eight of Atlanta’s buzziest restaurants, from oyster bar The Optimist to Marcel, a classic steakhouse, plus outposts in Alpharetta and Decatur, Ga. “Once I have a location, I ask myself: What does the neighborhood really want or need?” says Fry. “Or sometimes, it’s just the kind of place I would really want to go.” Fry also notes that today’s customer is willing to go off the beaten path. “We are now in an age of destination dining. People want more than just great food; they want an experience, too.”
So where should travelers look for the best bites in town? Todd Richards, executive chef of White Oak Kitchen & Cocktails, advises, “Invest time in the neighborhoods.” In addition to downtown dining, he points visitors to the Buford Highway, Old Fourth Ward and Decatur. Choose a restaurant, and it becomes a gateway to a neighborhood.
With restaurants ranging from Caribbean to Chinese, one of Atlanta’s strengths is its diversity. “There is no fear of being different,” Richards says. “For a time, there was a period of sameness—everyone was serving classic shrimp and grits—but now, chefs are fearless about expanding the definition of Southern food.”
This article originally appeared in the 2016 June/July issue of Worth.
An incubator for food entrepreneurs, this organization offers grants to small food businesses to strengthen the Atlanta metro community’s support of the region’s foodways. 970 Jefferson St. NW, Bobbi de Winter, executive director, firstname.lastname@example.org, foodwellalliance.org
This nonprofit supports Georgia farmers by promoting sustainable eating with a variety of initiatives such as farm-to-school programs. 200-A Ottley Drive NE, Alice Rolls, executive director, email@example.com, 404.481.5001, georgiaorganics.org
This political action committee advocates for Georgia restaurants at the local government level. 3520 Piedmont Road, Suite 360, Karen Bremer, CEO, firstname.lastname@example.org, 404.467.9000, garestaurants.org
Just steps away from Piedmont Park, this is the premier luxury property in Midtown near the business, shopping and cultural attractions. The hotel’s Bar Margot is a lovely nightspot for small-batch cocktails. 75 14th St. NE, Yvette Thomas-Henry, general manager, 404.881.989, fourseasons.com/atlanta
This historic downtown property, now part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection, is next to all the major sports arenas and the business district. 110 Marietta St. NW, Wayne Cannon, general manager, 404.521.2250, glennhotel.com
A boutique hotel with a java bar and techno touches like room key–controlled lights and digital shower thermostats. 1808 West End Ave., 615.340.9333, huttonhotel.com
Elegant but not stuffy, this relatively new addition to the St. Regis hotel in Buckhead showcases a light, fresh New American menu and an impressive wine list. 88 W. Paces Ferry Road NW, 404.600.6471, atlasrestaurant.com
Named after an historic Atlanta hotel, this destination restaurant in an old railroad depot just outside the city has received national accolades for its seasonal craft cocktail program, oysters and farm-to-table menu. 303 E. Howard Ave., Decatur, 404.378.3502, kimball-house.com
Longtime Atlanta chef Fuyuhiko Ito created the city’s hottest modern Japanese restaurant. Umi offers inventive sushi, an omakase menu and, surprisingly, delicious desserts such as green tea soufflé and yuzu cake. 3050 Peachtree Road NW, 404.841.0040, umiatlanta.com
This is the eighth year that chef Ford Fry has organized this tomato-centric food and music festival, scheduled at Park Tavern on July 17, to draw support for local farmers. 500 10th St. NE, killertomatofest.com
This institution’s program-ming focuses on learning via interactive play, and its Fundamentally Food exhibit lets kids take on various roles in the food industry, from farmer to grocery purveyor. 275 Centennial Olympic Park Drive NW, Jane Turner, executive director, 404.659.5437, childrensmuseumatlanta.org
Atlanta’s largest park hosts this annual two-day showcase for local emerging artists and artisans, from painters and sculptors to jewelers and metal-workers. The event on August 13 and 14 also offers live music and plenty of food. 1215 Piedmont Ave., Randall Fox, email@example.com, 404.873.1222, piedmontparkartsfestival.com