What an interesting year this has been for Atlanta dining. A few major openings. Lot of chefs moving around. Some memorable national news. Time to say goodbye to a few spots.
Let’s take a moderately opinionated look at 2012:
Most notable openings
1. The Optimist: Ford Fry and chef Adam Evans got the tone exactly right for their Westside seafood restaurant. They call it a “fish camp” — which, of course, it isn’t. It’s an expensive urban dining destination, but it still manages to evoke the spirit of lusty fun at a shoreline spot. Peel-and-eat shrimp as fat and velvet-smooth as shrimp cocktail make for a fine start, as do clam rolls with kimchi vinegar and the terrific chowders and gumbos, all served with wonderful sides. Then come simple, clean entrees that pack the surprise wallop of understatement. This is the best kind of restaurant — one that keeps getting better.
2. The Spence: Richard Blais travels the country as a brand ambassador for his one-man brand. But now he has a solid mothership in this playful, intriguing restaurant on the edge of the Georgia Tech campus. The food has been all over the board — punny and kind of silly, creative in ways that don’t totally work, and then sophisticated and brilliant. Don’t get your nose bent out of shape, just keep ordering and get manager Justin Amick to walk you through his terrific wine list.
3. Watershed: The move from Decatur to just south of Buckhead has given this restaurant its mojo back. Chef Joe Truex lets more of his Louisiana heritage and international tastes come out on a completely revamped menu. You can count on the fine fried chicken from the previous Watershed, but that’s about it.
4. Cardamom Hill: Asha Gomez interprets the cuisine of her native Kerala in southern India at this pretty, spa-like restaurant on the Westside. Lush seasonings, and a fried chicken entree that has legions of fans.
5. Lure: A superlative patio, a terrific selection of cocktails and wine, and an appealing (if somewhat uneven) seafood menu combine for good times in Midtown. The small plates have bested the entrees in my opinion.
6. Little Alley Steak: Expensive, but you knew that going in. There’s a great choice of steaks — certified Angus to prime, and both wet-aged and dry-aged — as well as a full menu of seafood and poultry entrees. Whiskey drinkers will be in heaven here.
7. STG Trattoria: Pizzas from a fancy oven and lots of delectable small plates are the drawing cards at this unusual Italian restaurant. The kitchen uses fine ingredients and lets them shine on the plate. Try the terrific roasted shrimp with calamari over polenta in a squid ink vinaigrette. And order great wine off a completely annoying iPad.
8. Antebellum: Chef Nicholas St. Clair puts care and thought into each of the dishes served at this restaurant set in a converted Flowery Branch bungalow. He’s a young chef to drive for — and one to watch.
Most interesting late-2011 restaurants we got to know in 2012
Restaurants have a habit of opening at the end of the year, just in time for holiday and New Year’s Eve parties. Said restaurants tend to slip through the gap between year-end lists. Herewith the four that made for happy January discoveries:
1. Seed Kitchen & Bar: A high level of polish and urban energy made this East Cobb restaurant a draw from its first days. Chef-owner Doug Turbush was one of the first clever local cooks to take the Southern farm-to-table format and marry it to a more globally influenced style. A smart, smart selection of wines, beers and cocktails add to the festivities.
2. Barcelona: This Inman Park branch of a Northeast chain is a likable, robust tapas bar with a great Spanish wine program. The food is good rather than great, but it’s what it needs to be. The large number of vegetarian tapas are a draw.
3. Alma Cocina: This atmospheric modern Mexican restaurant brings an oasis of warm style, smooth cocktails and classy fare to the downtown Atlanta dining desert. Order small plates to pass for the best experience.
4. Tomo Japanese Restaurant: This restaurant lost some of its cozy charm when it relocated from Vinings to Buckhead and greatly expanded its space. All the same, owner Tomohiro Naito continues to source some of the best fish in the Southeast, and he’s as ever a charming host. The hot food menu has improved greatly since the restaurant’s opening. But you’re here to splurge on top-quality sushi.
Most interesting chef moves
This may be remembered as the year of the musical-chair chef. Here are five chefs bringing new spirits to popular restaurants:
1. Jonathan St. Hilaire: Most recently the owner of Bakeshop, but a veteran of many top Atlanta Kitchens, St. Hilaire has landed at the Lawrence, taking the helm from opening chef Shane Devereux. I haven’t had a chance to try his food yet, but the menu looks more classically grounded and less experimental.
2. Tyler Williams: He gave Abattoir a splash of much needed boisterous fun to the proceedings at Abattoir. Williams lavishes Korean bulgogi over fries for a new take on poutine, and outfits shrimp and grits with a rich, thrumming-with-spice tomato curry that works wonders. He takes over from Joshua Hopkins, who left to open STG Trattoria.
3. Todd Immel: Though he has been making sausages and pâtés most recently for Star Provisions, Immel has done great work as a chef — most memorably at Oscar’s in College Park. Now he brings his distinctive touch to Floataway Cafe.
4. Todd Richards: The former top toque at the Cafe at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead brings his classical training to The Shed in Glenwood Park. Creamy chicken liver mousse topped with gelée and a beautiful lineup of scallops over cauliflower gratin signal a new spirit in the kitchen.
5. Adam Waller: The ex-Sotto Sotto chef puts a healthier spin on the Bocado menu, but assures us the restaurant’s burger stack — conceived by opening chef Todd Ginsberg — isn’t going anywhere.
Most interesting restaurant news items
1. Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport awarded contracts for new concessions, and a lot of well-known Atlanta restaurateurs made the list. Among the local favorites opening branches in the airport, look for Varasano’s Pizzeria, Ecco and the Varsity. What’ll ya’ have?
2. Peter Chang, the Chinese chef who has become an object of national fascination, has decamped from Atlanta yet again for points north. The word “peripatetic” will show up a lot less often on food blogs.
3. Andrew Capron of Boners BBQ near Turner Field made national news after he took to social media outlets to flame a customer after claiming she didn’t leave a tip and then left a negative online review. He posted her Facebook profile picture, hurled a few epithets…and then apologized profusely once the barbecue smoke hit the fan.
4. Bon Rappetite, the joke website started by a pair of Atlantans, went viral and — of course — became a cookbook. Wu-Tang clams and Lil’ Kimchi figure among the recipes.
5. Linton Hopkins and Hugh Acheson — after facing off against each other for several years — shared the award for Best Chef Southeast at the James Beard Awards.
Nine (or is it 10?) food venues we lost
1. MF Buckhead: The Kinjo brothers have decamped to Houston, where they’ll delight a new city with their bespoke design taste and fine sushi.
2. Super Pan Latino Sandwich Shop: Hector Santiago hopes to reopen in a larger space. Meanwhile, you can always sample his cooking at Pura Vida Tapas.
3. Justin’s: Back when Diddy was Puffy, his Peachtree Road restaurant was a sensation and a celebrity magnet.
4. The Atlanta Nosh: This gathering of food vendors thrived as the Atlanta Underground Market. But once it poked above ground at Atlantic Station, it had a hard time keeping the paying crowds.
5. Feast: A sweet neighborhood restaurant that used to not have much competition in Decatur.
6. Straits: Not a good year for music moguls in the Atlanta restaurant world. Ludacris’ Singaporean restaurant quietly shuttered despite some good national press.
7. The Chick-fil-A in South Dekalb Mall: After more than 40 years, it assembled its last sandwich.
8. Latitude Food and Drink: A bistro in Phipps Plaza that offered a lower-key alternative to the glitzier mall restaurants nearby.
9./10. Burger Tap/Waffold: The owners really couldn’t make this Morningside space work, moving from a world-burger concept to a waffle shop in a few quick months, but not succeeding with either.
Most anticipated restaurant of 2013
Gunshow: Kevin Gillespie, late of Woodfire Grill and “Top Chef,” will open this intriguingly named place in Glenwood Park in early 2013. Look for an intriguing floor plan that blurs the distinction between dining room and kitchen, and a dim-sum style of service, with prepared food coming from the kitchen for your consideration. But can you get a .22-caliber Beretta there? We’ll have to see in the new year.
Join the discussion on John Kessler’s blog: ajc.com/go/foodandmore. Or email John: email@example.com.