Longtime Atlanta favorite Sage Woodfire Tavern recently opened its fourth location in the former Morton’s Steak House space next to the Mandarin Oriental near Lenox Square in Buckhead.
Since the original Sage Alpharetta from owner James Liakakos opened nearly two decades ago, two more locations — Sage Perimeter and the new Sage Windy Hill, which opened near SunTrust Park in October 2017 — have followed.
But landing a spot in Buckhead has always been a dream for Liakakos, whose Greek-American family started out in the restaurant business in Brooklyn. At some 11,000 square feet, with 300 seats, and an investment of close to $3 million, it’s the biggest and most ambitious space Liakakos has undertaken.
Besides personally overseeing the redesign, which includes two bars, a patio and the addition of a second floor that will be used for parties, private events and business meetings, Liakakos hired a corporate chef who will be based in Buckhead.
Louisiana native Michelle Matlock is a veteran of kitchens in New Orleans, Los Angeles and Atlanta. At Sage, she’ll be tasked with bringing fresh ideas to the menu, while keeping an eye on the quality of the signature wood-fire grilled steaks, seafood and other dishes that keep the regulars coming back.
Last week, Liakakos and Matlock sat down at Sage Buckhead to talk about the challenges of making a popular concept more relevant.
“We opened the first Sage in 1998,” Liakakos said. “I’ve dedicated my entire life to this business. But I enjoy what I do. I don’t even consider it work. I like to entertain guests, and take care of people. I started with my father when I was 14 years old, and I haven’t stopped since.”
Asked about opening two new Sage locations six months apart, Liakakos explained that it wasn’t exactly part of a master plan.
“It just so happened that the opportunities for the two spaces came at the same time,” he said. “I didn’t want to say no to SunTrust Park at the old Houston’s location there on Windy Hill and Powers Ferry. And then how could I ever say no to Buckhead?
“I’ve been waiting all my life to get here. I’ve been in Atlanta since 1994. So you could say I worked 24 years to get here. And this was a whole new venture in terms of decor and design and financing. It sounds pretentious, but 99.9 percent of everything you see in here is me and my design for 2018.”
But while the location and design may be new, the concept and menu remain only slightly changed.
“The next step is to take care of my guests and take care of staff, and make sure all of the other restaurants are all in tip-top shape,” Liakakos said. “I’m very excited to have hired chef Michelle Matlock. It’s a different kind of style. She’s worked in Buckhead, and I’m making her a corporate chef for all the restaurants, where she’ll help us fine-tune the brand.
“The core recipes come from my family, going back over 40 years, and chef Michelle understands that. She’s going to maintain the principles of the classics and the structure of the menu, and then she’s going to fine-tune it with a few creative, updated elements.”
Speaking of all that, Matlock explained her role and what she’s doing with the menu.
“I consider the cuisine here very classic, and when I did my tasting for the family about seven months ago, I fell in love with their classics,” Matlock said. “So I wanted to honor those things, but put in some things that are a little more current. The brand has been built on recipes that have been in the family for three generations. Being able to take that and make sure we’re using fresh-cut fish, and doing our own butchering in-house with very high-end meats. That was very important to me.
“It was also very important to me to honor some of the dietary restrictions that we’re encountering now. I looked at the menu and I loved it. But if I was a vegan, I had no home, so I wanted to make sure that we took care of that demographic. I even keep firm tofu on-hand, because there’s nothing more beautiful than a piece of wood-fired tofu.”
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