Renovation brings new faces to The Palm

Talk about a face lift.

The Palm restaurant, in the Westin Buckhead Atlanta, has been closed since mid-July for renovation. When the curtain rises in early September it’ll have additional seating capacity, a more spacious feel and the bar will open into the lobby.

And the iconic sea of portraits is getting refreshed.

Philadelphia artist Zack Bird, who has been painting for The Palm restaurant group since 1994, provided about 300 famous faces when the Atlanta location opened in 1995. By the time the renovation launched, there were thousands. In preparation for the reopening, Bird was back in town last week working on a mural of Atlanta landmarks and a few new portraits. Bravo’s Andy Cohen, maestro of “The Real Housewives of Atlanta,” has a nifty new likeness on one wall.

Who’s joining him? We’ll have to wait and see.

“Our plan is not to fill these walls with wall to wall portraits,” Bird said. “We’re doing vignettes, collages of portraits.”

Rest assured, everyone who ends up on the wall will look his or her best.

“We take out the crow’s feet, the double chins, we add some hair to the bald heads. We do more facial reconstruction than the best L.A. surgeons,” he quipped. “And we never get any returns.”

Atlanta’s is one of two dozen Palm restaurants. The original opened in 1926 in New York. John Ganzi and Pio Bozzi, natives of Parma, Italy, meant to name it after their hometown.

“When they went to register their business, a New York City clerk misunderstood their Italian accents and issued a license for ‘The Palm’,” according to the restaurant group’s archives. The portrait trend launched when artists with more talent than cash offered to paint, rather than sing, for their supper.

If you dream of gazing upon your painted visage while enjoying a succulent lobster and steak dinner, you needn’t be famous (although that doesn’t hurt). The restaurant also wants to reward loyal customers with a shot at immortality.

Or as immortal as a restaurant wall gets. The day we visited to watch Bird in action, a number of local notables including Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle (rendered years ago, while a state senator), Atlanta Hawks star Dominique Wilkins and longtime Atlanta radio host Mara Davis’ were still there. Other Atlantans, whom we won’t name, appeared to have lost their heads.

“The Palm always makes me think of the late, great Willy Celluci who was a gem,” Davis said. “I love and miss him.”

When the courtly Celluci died in 2013 after battling cancer, mourners gathered after his memorial service at the Palm (where else?) to toast his cherished memory with a Willy’s Pinky, the cocktail he created. Bird was especially proud to add Celluci’s portrait to the newly renovated Palm.

“I took a lot of joy in doing Willy,” he said. “I’m sad he’s not here any more.”

Andrei Caciula is the current general manager. He sounded like a kid counting down the days to Christmas morning when discussing the big reveal.

“I wake up at 6 o’clock in the morning and I think, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t wait to see it,” he said. “It’s going to be beautiful. It’ll look sleek and sexy and it’ll feel like a big, huge party.”

The one mug you’ll never see on the wall is Bird’s.

“I sign my name, but I have no interest in being on the wall,” he said. “I only want to be on the wall on the ladder.”

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