I hadn’t been to the Colonnade in four years.
Hoping to right this wrong, I emailed two friends and asked them to go with me for martinis and fried chicken on a Wednesday night. My last visit to the iconic Atlanta restaurant located on Cheshire Bridge Road was a year before they rocked the city with big news — the Colonnade would begin accepting credit cards.
An ATM had held a prominent spot for years in the glass-encased front entrance. There was always a small line at the machine, usually consisting of the 45-and-under crowd who had forgotten to hit the bank. The Colonnade had been cash-only for 87 years. That all changed in December 2014 when the restaurant decided to dip its big toe into the 21st century.
Despite going on a Wednesday evening, my husband and I still had to stalk the parking lot for a spot. The minute the restaurant opens at 5 p.m., there’s a line of early birds waiting to get in for their $13 dinner special. We were lucky — circling the crowded lot only once before we spotted a car pulling out of a space.Walking up to the glass-encased entrance, I noticed the ATM missing from the area where four years prior I had stood with my fellow Gen X’ers and 20-something millennials to procure cash for the bill.
I began to worry. What if this lost relic was the catalyst for other big changes? What if the fried chicken wasn’t as good as I remember or the martinis not as strong?I’d hyped up the Atlanta icon to my husband and friends. Everyone was excited. Of the four of us, I was the only person who had eaten (and sipped cocktails) at the Colonnade. This would be my fifth time since moving to Atlanta after college 22 years ago.
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We agreed to meet at the bar at 7 p.m. There’s always a wait for a table. This would afford us ample time to order martinis and catch up before dinner.
We put our name on the list and were corralled into the “Library,” so named for the bookshelf wallpaper that surrounds the nonworking, decorative fireplace. The room was full of boomers sipping wine and cocktails on button back, red leather couches, at four tops seated on Windsor-style chairs, and lounging on lived-in loveseats upholstered in a familiar 1980s stripe. The solid oak, seven-seater bar was occupied by white-haired gentlemen in khakis and polos. Beer, whiskey and yes, a martini were spied along the bartop.
My husband chuckled, “It looks like a cruise ship bar.”This is the Colonnade’s holding pen. The room in which the famously strong martinis and venerable classics like their high-octane Old Fashioned are birthed behind the bar by a middle-aged blonde with whom you don’t mess.
We walked to the ordering station to the far right of the bar.
“What can I get you?” she asked with a polite but mothering tone.
We dutifully placed our martini orders.
The martini is a very personal cocktail. Everyone has their version. Some like it wet, some bone dry, some dirty, some garnished with an olive, some with a twist of lemon, others a lime. There’s the question of which gin you prefer or vodka if you’re of that camp. This seemingly simple cocktail of four parts spirit and one part vermouth is complicated.
I like my martinis strong and classic: London dry gin like Beefeater, dry (a splash of vermouth), ice cold and stirred, served up with a twist of lemon — or lime, if I’m feeling fresh.
Tonight was not the night or the bar to order that martini.
The Colonnade is an old-school bar like those found in a 1980s steakhouse during cocktail’s lost decades — a strange time between the “Mad Men” era of the 1960s and the early-aughts. Drinks were loose versions of classics, strong and to the point. These were the drinks Gen X remembers their parents sipping after dinner at the Ground Round or the drinks many of us cut our cocktail teeth on after college at Bennigan’s.
I ordered my martini up with Beefeater and a lemon twist. My husband, who is squarely in camp vodka, ordered his much the same but with an olive. While we waited for our drinks, I glanced around the room. There were others enjoying Colonnade martinis. A few were left orphaned on tables; possibly abandoned after the call to dinner.
Our two friends had arrived. One lives less than 2 miles away. He’s a native Atlantan. The fact he had never been to the Colonnade seemed strange. He told me it always felt like “such a commitment.” My martini was also his preferred version. Our other friend had come straight from work. Harried, she ordered a dirty martini, up with two olives. “I like my martinis to come with a snack,” she said, smiling.
Our orders in, the bartender glanced over her shoulder like a school teacher at the long line forming behind us. She grabbed the Beefeater from the back bar and went to work. I watched as she tossed an unknown number of ounces into a tin shaker filled with ice, then shook the hell out of it and equally divided (to the rim) the contents between two martini glasses. A lemon twist was added. No one saw vermouth during all of this tossing, shaking and pouring.
My husband’s vodka martini was created in the same fashion. Precisely poured to the rim. An olive plopped in at the end. Was she waving vermouth into the glasses unseen? Perhaps in the bar well below. We watched intently the making of the dirty martini.
“Did you see the vermouth this time?” I asked.
“No. But I said dirty,” my harried friend replied. “I don’t think there is any olive juice.” There were two olives, however.
Upon first sip, it was confirmed, our martinis were indeed ice cold glasses of gin. It was kind of glorious.
No one complained.
These drinks were the strong, loose interpretations I remembered from my previous visits to the Colonnade. Those cocktails I cut my teeth on in my early 20s during happy hour at Houlihan’s after work. They weren’t crafted with small batch gin made from California conifers and artisan vermouth with notes of elderflower from Oregon. Sometimes it’s OK to just drink a cold glass of expertly shaken, perfectly iced, precisely poured, cold-as-hell gin with a twist of lemon.
Not bad for $8.50 on a Wednesday night after work.
1879 Cheshire Bridge Road, Atlanta. 404-874-5642, colonnadeatlanta.com.