Summarize Atlanta’s 2016 dining scene in 1,000 words. That’s a tricky task, considering the chef change-ups, restaurant openings and closings, and scuttlebutt that marks the typical 12-month cycle of any big city. We’ve seen all those developments — and more.
Here’s my take, starting with the positive moments.
Staplehouse experienced a fairy tale year, as accolades poured in from around the country. But those honors should be viewed not only as accomplishments for chef Ryan Smith and the teams at the front and back of the house at that innovative New American concept, but also as victories for Atlanta as a whole, and as points of pride for anyone who has supported this Old Fourth Ward restaurant and its main players, past and present, from its infancy.
When I think about other Atlanta names with breakout years, the person who comes to mind first is Jarrett Steiber, an unassuming guy with a pop-up restaurant who got a James Beard Foundation award nomination as a rising chef. Get thee to Eat Me Speak Me in Candler Park to see how Steiber offers an escape from uppity dining. Likewise, to Porch Light Latin Kitchen in Smyrna for the zesty pan-Latin fare that Andre Gomez is whipping up in a casual, cantina-like atmosphere.
This year also got me excited for a couple of chefs who are reflecting on who they are and the culinary voice they want to share — whether on paper or plates — with the rest of us. They are Asha Gomez of Spice to Table, with her new cookbook “My Two Souths,” and Shaun Doty, back in the kitchen, having turned his Midtown location of Bantam + Biddy into the Federal. The day-to-day restaurant grind oftentimes can pull talented cooks away from the spark that started their personal food journey. Gomez, with her new book, and Doty, once again feeling the heat of the kitchen at the Federal, inspire my joy for home cooking and eating out alike.
Trendwise, it is worth mentioning the increase in ethnic cuisine that can be had within a more upscale setting. By that, I mean a place that serves ethnic food, and that pays attention to the food, but not only the food. It’s a place where eye is given to the entire dining experience — presentation of food, beverages, interior design, service. We saw it with Char (Korean) and Amara (Indian), both in Inman Quarter, and Brush Sushi Izakaya (Japanese) in Decatur, to name a few.
Oh-nos and nostalgia: That might categorize the closing of some spots — Alfredo’s, Famous Pub, 4th & Swift — and even the start of new ones, like a renovated Manuel’s Tavern, or the upcoming relocations of Bacchanalia and Petite Auberge.
While The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s dining team kept up with the daily reporting of who, what and where, I sought to fulfill my personal agenda for 2016: to learn. Last January, I had called Atlanta home for only four months. There was — and still is — a lot to get up to speed on, from the elementary, such as correctly pronouncing place names or referencing geographic areas (thanks to you, gentle readers, I will never again write Virginia-Highland as Virginia-Highlands or designate the Olde Blind Dog Irish Pub in Brookhaven as having an Atlanta address) to the essential, such as dining at beloved, longstanding institutions.
Get out there. To every county. That has been a priority for me. And it has opened my eyes to the diversity of dining options we have in greater Atlanta.
This year, communities outside the Perimeter welcomed highly anticipated eateries, like Noble Fin and Ba Bellies in Peachtree Corners or Spring and Drift Oyster Bar in Marietta. There are reasons why each of those chef-owners settled on real estate in those cities rather than intown, but the takeaway is that OTP isn’t just a land of Applebee’s and McD’s. I hope that the AJC’s first ever county-specific online dining guide, which focused on Gwinnett, piqued your curiosity about restaurants and bars to check out in that growing sector.
Openings, closings, “best of” roundups. Those might be fodder for dining die-hards, but in 2016, we also broached substantive issues. Earlier this year, I wrote a special report on black chefs in Atlanta that was triggered by calls for diversity in the film industry during the Hollywood awards season. The Oscars equivalent in the restaurant industry is the James Beard Foundation awards. In 2016, of the more than 425 James Beard nominees, only two chefs were black.
Some of you were annoyed by the story, telling us that every industry experiences diversity issues. True, but my beat is food and dining, so that’s the lens through which I can frame this subject. What we learned is that, while Atlanta’s restaurant industry is diverse, people of color are underrepresented when it comes to kitchen leadership positions, and recognition continues to elude them. Maybe that’s not surprising, but it is distressing.
Then, there was the bombshell investigative report by Tampa Bay Times dining critic Laura Reiley about the farm-to-table fiction in that city. The exposé, arguably the best work in food journalism this year, revealed the extent to which Tampa Bay restaurants who promised locally sourced ingredients lied and misrepresented the products they served.
We trust restaurants to tell us the truth about the food they are serving us, the food we are paying for. That trust has been eroded. That’s troubling in and of itself, but also because it undermines the chefs and restaurants who are forthright and transparent about their sourcing practices. And, it exposes the vulnerability of unwitting farmers and other food producers.
Where to go from here? We can “police” restaurants — ask questions about sourcing, assume nothing, and blow the whistle on false or misleading advertising. But, in tandem with that, there is another approach, one that nonprofit Georgia Organics is discussing. It is to acknowledge restaurants that demonstrate high standards of sourcing through an annual award or some type of “local” designation. “We are trying to form something that is more about celebrating,” said James Carr, Georgia Organics communications coordinator.
I’m all for celebrating.
Let’s hope that 2017 brings not just another robust dining period for Atlanta, but forward progress on the restaurant industry’s most pressing issues.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.