At Cafe Lapin, famous for chicken salad, patrons call for casseroles

Chicken salad varieties at Cafe Lapin include (clockwise from top left) curry and almond, jalapeno, tarragon, apricot and walnut (middle). CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS

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Chicken salad varieties at Cafe Lapin include (clockwise from top left) curry and almond, jalapeno, tarragon, apricot and walnut (middle). CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS

For 17 years, Mattie Hines has comforted Atlanta with his luscious chicken salad and famous mandarin orange souffle. Some of his Cafe Lapin customers marvel that his classic French quiches have the flakiest, butteriest crust in town. Others find it impossible to leave without submitting to at least one temptation from the show-stopping pastry table: Grand Marnier-soaked pound cake with high-gloss chocolate ganache; strawberry cake with cream-cheese frosting; caramel and coconut layer cake; blueberry pie; ultra-thin chocolate-chip cookies.

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Cafe Lapin in Buckhead had a loyal following long before the pandemic. CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK

Cafe Lapin in Buckhead had a loyal following long before the pandemic. CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK

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Cafe Lapin in Buckhead had a loyal following long before the pandemic. CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK

When the coronavirus pandemic set in, the phones started ringing at Cafe Lapin, tucked in the corner of Peachtree Battle Shopping Center. Regulars wanted to know if they could get a pan of chicken tetrazzini, a French toast breakfast casserole, or Hines’ latest concoction: French Onion and Beef With Egg Noodles Casserole.

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A trio of quiche slices from Cafe Lapin: (clockwise from upper left) ham and asparagus; mushroom and leek; tomato, spinach and goat cheese. CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK

A trio of quiche slices from Cafe Lapin: (clockwise from upper left) ham and asparagus; mushroom and leek; tomato, spinach and goat cheese. CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK

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A trio of quiche slices from Cafe Lapin: (clockwise from upper left) ham and asparagus; mushroom and leek; tomato, spinach and goat cheese. CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK

“People would call and say, ‘What do you have for dinner tonight?’” Hines said in a phone interview. “And we would tell them, and they would come in and pick it up.” To earn extra cash, his servers would sometimes deliver the food.

While many Atlanta restaurants created family-style takeout menus after the COVID-19 outbreak caused them to suspend service, Cafe Lapin has been sending out weekly casserole menus for years. (As I searched my inbox for Cafe Lapin, I found one from 2010.) Hines credits his casserole clientele with helping the restaurant weather recent financial challenges.

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Apricot chicken salad at Cafe Lapin. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS

Apricot chicken salad at Cafe Lapin. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS

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Apricot chicken salad at Cafe Lapin. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS

“Our customers have been extremely generous and kind,” he said. “People didn’t want to see us close down.”

Hines did not plan a career in food. “I’ve never been to culinary school and previously had never worked in a restaurant, so I am self-taught,” he said. An art-history major with a flair for baking, he signed on to run the lunch counter at the Interiors Market on Bennett Street in 2003 and later was recruited by the Portman family to operate the Cafe at ADAC. In 2009, Hines and his husband, retired stockbroker James Mosher, inked the lease on Cafe Lapin.

The restaurant's top-drawer chicken salad has made it a popular lunchtime destination. There's walnut, tarragon, curry with almonds, apricot (made with apricot preserves and grapes) and jalapeno. You may enjoy it on sampler plates, tucked into sandwiches, or paired with soup or sides (beets and oranges; carrot salad; fresh corn salad with cucumber; tomato and mozzarella, Caesar, etc.). Walnut is the bestseller. I'm crazy about the tarragon.

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Cafe Lapin’s mandarin orange souffle with a scoop of tarragon chicken salad. The plate comes with banana bread, sliced baguette and green salad. CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK

Cafe Lapin’s mandarin orange souffle with a scoop of tarragon chicken salad. The plate comes with banana bread, sliced baguette and green salad. CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK

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Cafe Lapin’s mandarin orange souffle with a scoop of tarragon chicken salad. The plate comes with banana bread, sliced baguette and green salad. CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK

The restaurant, which serves breakfast and lunch daily and dinner Tuesdays-Saturdays, reinstated table service April 28. So far, business has been slow. Some patrons gravitate to the sidewalk patio. Others “come in to pick up a to-go order for dinner and have a glass of wine real quick while they are waiting,” Hines chuckles.

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Cafe Lapin’s shrimp salad on French baguette with a side of beets and oranges. CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK

Cafe Lapin’s shrimp salad on French baguette with a side of beets and oranges. CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK

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Cafe Lapin’s shrimp salad on French baguette with a side of beets and oranges. CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK

As owners of a classic mom-and-pop, Hines and Mosher treat their staff like family. Thanks to a Payroll Protection Program loan, they’ve been able to bring all 15 employees back. “However, it was not a tremendous amount of money,” Hines said, and now that it’s been used up, the restaurant will have to sustain itself.

“That’s very difficult to juggle,” he said, almost sighing at the thought of all the chicken salad yet to make.

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CAFE LAPIN

Menu: Breakfast, lunch and dinner menus feature old-school comfort food (chicken divan, meatloaf, crabcakes), a variety of chicken salads, sandwiches, quiches and pastries.

Alcohol: Wine and beer available to go.

What I ordered: A salad sampler with walnut chicken, capered egg, and tuna. Mandarin orange souffle with a scoop of tarragon chicken salad. Shrimp salad on French baguette with side of beets and oranges. Slice of three quiches: mushroom and leek; ham and asparagus; tomato, spinach and goat cheese. The food was fresh, beautiful and even more delicious than I recall. Some nice touches: The mandarin orange souffle comes with wonderful banana bread. The precisely chopped shrimp salad with cilantro, red onion, red pepper and jalapeno evokes a Mexican ceviche. Quiches sit on textbook-perfect crusts; the fillings — especially the ham and asparagus and the tomato, spinach and goat cheese — were stellar.

Service options: Order by phone or email (cafelapin@aol.com). Curbside pickup or dine in-house. Delivery available via Grubhub, Postmates, DoorDash.

Safety protocols: Follows all CDC and state guidelines.

Address, phone: 2341 Peachtree Road, Atlanta. 404-812-9171

Hours: 7 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturdays; 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Sundays; 7 a.m.-4 p.m. Mondays

Website:cafelelapin.com