Near the host stand in Tom Tom is a portrait of Ernest Hemingway. It is a large painting, mostly black and white, and Hemingway is old. His eyes are a little troubled. They show that he’s seen a lot and isn’t sure what’s next. Looking at that painting and sipping a margarita at the bar, I found it hard not to think of Tom Catherall.
Catherall was once one of Atlanta’s restaurant kings. His restaurant group, Here to Serve, had 14 locations. He had plenty of customers and gobs of money. He posed for magazine spreads next to his Jaguar coupe, the vanity plate reading “PO B 4.” He bragged about his rags-to-riches success.
In the past year or so, he lost Here to Serve in a divorce, shortly before the whole chain suddenly went bankrupt, leaving hundreds of restaurant workers without a paycheck. The event became a saga in the pages of this newspaper, one revelation of bankruptcy, outstanding debt, back rent and divorce squabbles after another. This isn’t a young man’s moment for reinvention. Catherall is 66 years old.
Hemingway sometimes wrote about men in situations like this: having everything taken from them, forced to desperate measures, questioning the worth of one’s life in the final act. Put lightly, his stories often don’t have happy endings.
But, judging by my recent meals, Catherall is not ready to give up. He doesn’t want the sad ending. He has opened his first new restaurant since the divorce in a space formerly occupied by Noche, and named it after one of the first restaurants to put him on Atlanta’s dining map, Tom Tom. Life has dealt him limes, and so Catherall is making more margaritas.
They’re pretty good margaritas, too. Catherall’s restaurant legacy long has been a boozy one. Here to Serve’s mark in Atlanta was all about small plates and big drinks, places where the crowd and the cocktails were maybe a little more important than the culinary prowess.
The drink list here has a few fruity variations that involve tequila, lime and simple syrup. There is the My Sharona, which adds muddled watermelon, basil and a touch of jalapeno heat to the equation. The Soprano margarita stirs in grapefruit liqueur and Aperol instead. The house margarita, classic and simple, is fine, too. Keep your eyes on the chalkboard specials — I’d already bought a couple of $12 tequila cocktails one night before I realized the house margarita was on special for $5.
The menu pairs well with these drinks, focusing mostly on small plates of seafood that draw from a mix of influences. Any meal should include a plate of the tuna poke, a Hawaiian version of tuna tartare marinated in soy sauce and sesame oil. The dots of Sriracha on the plate give it a nice kick.
You’d do just as well with a plate of Florida shrimp, bathed in a bowl of garlicy buerre blanc sauce and served with a chunk of crusty bread perfect for soaking up that butter.
Perhaps the most accomplished dish is the grilled octopus, a plate of charred, tender tentacles that rest atop a salty, herbaceous white bean ragout. It is a rich, savory dish, worth eating slowly.
The tacos are OK, mostly served on flour tortillas with fine, if unremarkable, ingredients. The Nashville Taco is at least amusing: It’s a slice of white bread topped with fried chicken, pickles and iceberg lettuce.
This is a long menu. As a general rule, I’d avoid anything pricey, like the tough, bland Maine lobster salad, or anything goofy, like the tuna pizza, an ice-cold combo of ahi tuna, tomato slices and wasabi mayo on a tortilla that seems like a bad memory of ’90s fusion cuisine. Stick with familiar dishes — watermelon-feta salad, calamari fritti, yellowtail sashimi — and you’ll get consistent results.
It’s no accident that Catherall named his former restaurant group Here to Serve. His aim has always been enthusiastic crowd pleasing. The staff here wears all black, form-fitting clothes, perfect for hurrying between tables with platters full of drinks. The crowd, which will be familiar to you if you’ve spent time in any of Virginia-Highland’s boozier establishments, is just as fun to watch.
The best seats are probably on the back patio, an open-air balcony shared with the neighbors at Fontaine’s Oyster Bar, or at the bar near the front window, where you can look across the whole restaurant. Either place is a nice spot to sit and savor a drink. If you ask for a Hemingway daiquiri, they’ll make it as it should be: bittersweet.
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