A note to readers:
The AJC’s restaurant review procedure is undergoing a change. Beginning in 2020, all restaurant reviews will be given starred treatment.
Until now, the AJC operated under a two-tier system, applying stars to some restaurants while leaving other restaurants unrated. This structure, internally known as “primary” and “secondary” reviews, is outdated and unfairly weighted toward fine-dining establishments or those that come with a heftier price tag.
The change reflects the mindset that neighborhood haunts, fast-casual concepts and hole-in-the-wall joints contribute as much to a dining landscape as white cloth establishments, and thereby merit full critical treatment. Indeed, it is this diversity that gives the scene character.
This change does not impact the AJC’s star rating system, which was modified from a five-star to a four-star system in 2014. (1 Star: Good. 2 Stars: Very Good. 3 Stars: Excellent. 4 Stars: Extraordinary. Restaurants that do not meet the criteria will receive no stars and be rated Fair or Unsatisfactory.)
There are many reasons why we linger at restaurants. Perhaps the food is excellent, so we slow down and savor. The wine list is explorable, the cocktails so balanced, we can’t help but indulge in one more round. There could be something about the space that holds us spellbound. Then again, maybe it’s the waitstaff, who has made us feel at home. The company around the table might have something to do with it, too. When all the above factor into a lovely evening out, there’s little reason to leave so soon.
That’s what happened the first time I visited By George, the opulent restaurant and bar inside the newly christened Candler Hotel downtown. By George, with its gray-and-white swirled Georgia marble columns, its chandeliers and expansive windows, occupies the space that was formerly home to the Central Bank & Trust. It’s part of a larger grandiose footprint created in 1906 by two Georges — architects George Murphy and George Stewart — hired by Coca-Cola magnate Asa Candler to design the 17-story Candler Building at 127 Peachtree St.
More than a century later, it is established chef and restaurateur Hugh Acheson (Empire State South and Spiller Park Coffee in Atlanta, Five & Ten and the National in Athens) who’s been tapped to design a French-inspired menu to match the Beaux Arts beauty of this restored downtown landmark.
This isn’t Acheson’s first go-round with hotel-setting dining. Achie’s, his restaurant at the Omni Hotel at The Battery, shuttered in late 2018. But when I walked out the door of the Candler Hotel that first visit, I thought: By George, I think Hugh’s got it.
The meal started with a loosely ringed mold of fresh blue crab and slivers of celery-nutty tasting celeriac tossed in remoulade, garnished with chives, and accompanied with a handful of saltines — not just any saltines but addictive buttery saltines similar to those created at the Capital City Club in the early 1970s, made famous at the Piedmont Driving Club, and copied by other private clubs around town.
It continued with cold weather dishes that interwove French technique with seasonal produce, such as a spaghetti squash gratin rich with Comté cheese and a hint of thyme. In another side dish, the less commonly seen winter root vegetable salsify is matched with a few smoked oysters. Bathing in a pool of cream and lacking any brown crust, I’d hardly label it a gratin. Still, it was satisfying.
French beef stew, known as pot-au-feu, featured tender short ribs with root vegetables. Was it really pot-au-feu? The savory broth is often served separate from a platter of meat and vegetables. Here, the two are combined, and, in my case, there was but a wee ladle of liquid in the bowl. Still, it was divine comfort food.
If we don’t harp on French names or labels, we can instead enjoy the pure pleasures coming out of this kitchen run by chef Ian Quinn, who previously worked for Linton Hopkins’ Resurgens Hospitality Group: al dente bucatini topped with cranks of black pepper and crunchy breadcrumbs; a simple shallot vinaigrette that pulls together a chicory and lettuce salad; pistachio-flecked pâté in a flaky double crust; a chunky ham and parsley terrine (that was less jellied than traditional jambon persillé) with sauce gribiche, a mayo made with hard-boiled eggs.
Small plates such as these were better executed than entrees like chewy Steak Diane or a measly portion of swordfish so charred the exterior tasted like ash. For mains, I’ll stick to that pot roast or a plate of juicy roasted half-chicken (poulet roti) that rests on a thick slice of bread, making for a double treat once le pain has soaked up le jus.
Small plates with a drink at the bar are the best pairing at By George. Cocktails are the brainchild of Acheson’s longtime beverage director Kellie Thorn. Perhaps none is more Kellie Thorn than the Two World Hero. Her now signature drink is a spin on a Vieux Carré featuring black tea-infused cognac. And considering it uses both French and American ingredients, it’s a perfect fit for a menu built from a foundation of classics.
Wine director Steven Grubbs has established himself as one of Atlanta’s top sommeliers. His picks for this predominantly French list are fun to peruse, and could well bring the same attention to the cellar at By George as those he’s curated at Empire State South and Five & Ten.
There are plenty of dining concepts in Atlanta that feel contrived or clichéd. Not so at By George, where it’s evident that plenty of thought has gone into melding the restaurant with the building’s history and transformation into a boutique Hilton on bustling Peachtree. “It’s so Atlanta,” you might say as you bite into another buttery baked saltine spread with blue crab and wash it down with a swig of the Two World Hero.
Overall rating: 2 of 4 stars (very good)
Setting: swanky hotel
Service: courteous and professional
Best dishes: Blue Crab. Pot-au-feu. Bucatini. Paté en croûte. Spaghetti Squash.
Vegetarian selections (from dinner menu): Vichyssoise. Chicory & Lettuce. Bucatini. Belgian Endive. Spaghetti Squash. Broccolini. Pommes Dauphine with Gribiche. Stewed Lentils. Chilled Leeks aux Grenobloise.
Price range: $$$-$$$$
Credit cards: all major credit cards
Hours: 6:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays; 6:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays (dinner service begins daily at 5:30 p.m.)
Children: well behaved
Parking: valet free for first three hours with validation
MARTA station: Peachtree Center
Wheelchair access: yes
Noise level: low
Takeout: not recommended
Address, phone: 127 Peachtree St., Atlanta. 470-851-2752
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