Restaurant review: Campfire cooking never tasted so good

Ladybird Grove and Mess Hall
684 John Wesley Dobbs Ave., Atlanta
2 of 4 stars (very good)
 
Al fresco dining on the Beltline at Ladybird Grove & Mess Hall (all photos by Becky Stein)

The two couples sitting next to us had eaten brunch, downed a few glasses of wine and — with the conversation good and the warmth of the late afternoon sun on their arms and faces even better — decided to camp out at their patio table.

Nothing too unusual here, except that lunchtime had given way to the dinner hour, and still they stayed. As Beltline joggers huffed by and newcomers filled the tables around them, they found themselves hungry and ordered their second meal.

I get it, and you will get it. Ladybird Grove and Mess Hall — the restaurant constructed not as an incidental to the Beltline but rather as a celebration of it — has a patio built for epic lingering.

That name: right? It sounds like a ’70s hair band. But first-time restaurateur Michael Lennox explains that it’s a call-out to that patron saint of outdoor beautification, Lady Bird Johnson.

The indoor “mess hall,” dim and rough hewn, with communal tables and screened windows, evokes the cafeteria in a national park, if not the dining room of a summer camp. It’s a poignant stage set that nearly aches with the nostalgia of a long-ago family trip or your first day at Camp Firewood. (Thank heavens the one outlier is a bar.)

That said, you’ll want to snag a spot on that catbird seat patio, which sits up high and snug along mile marker 9.5 on the Beltline. If you’re looking for a bike-up restaurant where you can reward yourself for a moderately strenuous ride with never-ending beers and salami, this is it.

A hazelnut butter fluffernutter: Yes, folks, this is an appetizer

The menu plays up the campfire cooking theme in ways grand, small and occasionally a little corny. It also casts about so broadly for ideas that a meal can feel disjointed. For instance, if you go the small plates route, you might find yourselves passing around bony and beady-eyed oil-poached sardines followed by a triple-decker fluffernutter sandwich served as an appetizer in a paper bag. Both are delicious, but if you eat them together you might need to call your mom crying, to say you can’t stay at camp any longer.

That caveat noted, I do kind of love this menu. The prices are fair. The food has more going on than first meets the eye. The theme doesn’t grow tiresome. Much to the contrary, it seems free of the affectations that beset more serious restaurants. How grand to crack open a shiny foil packet of “silver turtle braised goat” and eat the steamy shred-apart meat on rusks of grilled bread with pickled eggplant and minted yogurt.

Lennox and his chef, Kyle Schmidt (a longtime employee of Ford Fry’s Rocket Farm restaurant group), know that people have had enough pimento cheese and propose welcome alternatives in the nibble department. I feel an instant surge of happiness when a crock of bubbly crab imperial, cheesy and sweet with leeks, comes to the table with (not quite enough) bread to slather it on. Add in a platter of cornmeal-fried smelts to dip in remoulade sauce. This food is gutsy but not weird, familiar but not done to death.

This food also invites drinking, and you’ve got a little cheap wine, a little not so cheap wine and cocktails that sound good but seem a little too mixology-bar fussy for the great (or at least pretty good) outdoors. Get a beer. The citrusy Tropicália from Athens’ Creature Comforts brewery is on tap, and you’ll be happy with your pint.

These guys also know to stay away from entrees that look too carefully plated. So there’s a cast iron pan filled with creamy, bubbly chicken and bite-size dumplings, the latter crisp-topped and buttery like your mom’s Bisquick version, but with the pillowy weightlessness of gnocchi.

They serve a beef-bacon burger that tastes more dry and ordinary than you’d hope for, and a shellfish pan roast that is better than you thought it would be, thanks to its top-quality shrimp and spiced lamb sausage.

Ladybird Grove's spatchcocked chicken: the hot new bird in town

But, alas, none of this matters, because what you want now and forevermore is the whole spatchcocked chicken. Priced at $38, it arrives on a slab of wood as large as a palanquin, with grilled onions, chiles, cactus strips and a stack of hot tortillas. Two salsas, a pan of roasted potatoes and a bowl of slaw come on the side. This is dinner for four patio-lingering souls. All the various vegetable components are good enough, but that hacked-up chicken is a stellar beast, with crisp skin, tender meat and bones you want to pick clean. New-classic alert.

Some dishes are stodgier than they need be. Everyone wants to order the rice croquettes in a cranberry mostarda glaze, but I’ve found them to be hard balls of nothing special on two visits. Mole baked beans are pasty on the tongue and sweet on the palate, without any of the kazillion-ingredient mole magic. A skillet of roasted mushrooms comes to the table with an egg coddling in their juices, and as much as you want to love it, you can only think of better roasted mushroom from meals past. Who remembers the ‘shrooms at Pura Vida Tapas?

These dishes may need work, but they point out how surprising and sophisticated the rest of it can be. You are helpless against the peanut butter s’mores pie, a seemingly haphazard but balanced stack of buttery, crumbly graham cracker crust, dark chocolate custard and marshmallow fluff. It’s a perfectly gourmet sugar rush.

I might also move the fluffernutter sandwich from the “trail snacks” portion of the menu to dessert. Made with hazelnut rather than peanut butter, it says everything you want to know about this slightly silly, but canny and thoughtful, newcomer to Camp Atlanta.

*********************************
Ladybird Grove and Mess Hall
Overall rating: 2 of 4 stars
Food: Casual, easygoing fare with a camp-out theme
Service: Very attentive, but the bar seems to back up at peak hours
Best dishes: spatchcocked chicken, crab imperial, fluffernutter sandwich
Vegetarian selections: yes
Price range: $$-$$$
Credit cards: all major credit cards
Hours: 5 p.m.-midnight, Tuesdays-Thursdays and Sundays; 5 p.m.-2 a.m., Fridays, 11 a.m.-2 a.m., Saturdays.
Children: fine, but the crowd gets raucous later on
Parking: self-parking in a quick-to-crowd side lot (there are 35 spaces per their lease, 50 bicycle parking spaces)
Takeout: yes
Address, phone: 684 John Wesley Dobbs Ave., Atlanta, 404-458-6838.
Website: www.ladybirdatlanta.com

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About the Author

John Kessler
John is a former AJC dining columnist
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