The dining world is changing. What’s driving restaurant growth in every county in greater Atlanta is not big buck, fine dining. That’s taken a back seat to eateries of a more casual sort. These are joints with a more affordable price point that still strive to serve a menu from the mind of a chef and to offer some sort of “experience.”
One of the latest examples is Coalition Food and Beverage in downtown Alpharetta. Open since late June, it’s the newest concept from young restaurateur Ryan Pernice, whose RO Hospitality Group also operates proven Roswell restaurants Table & Main and Osteria Mattone.
Coalition contends with numerous neighbors for dining dollars. Clustered within a few short blocks on Main and Canton streets are standbys like South Main Kitchen, Butcher & Brew and Truck & Tap. Newbies Restaurant Holmes and Citizen Soul are both part of Alpharetta City Center, the 26-acre mixed-use district that will soon see the addition of Shade Street Food and Bar, plus a handful of other eateries.
With this much action in Alpharetta, the question becomes: Why choose Coalition?
The easy answer is the grilled chicken wings, among the best tasting and most thoughtfully presented I’ve been served in my three years in Atlanta. What might be the star coming out of Coalition’s wood-fired grill, these wings are delightfully meaty and juicy. Chile and honey combine for a glaze with sweet heat, offset by the crunch and tang of a celery salad with crumbles of blue cheese.
Between an order of chicken wings and a glass of the Goserita — a margarita topped with a gose-style ale from Second Self, I’d be content to sit solo at this bar watching Atlanta United make its playoff run.
As with the Five Stripes, the energy here is palpable. It emanates from a pleasant, responsive staff, from an open kitchen with its action-filled wood-fired grill and from glass-on-metal panes that break the industrial space into comfortable nooks and crannies while simultaneously buffering noise from the busy bar.
Exec chef Woolery Back’s menu is a manageable lineup of mostly familiar apps, sandwiches, salads, entrees and sides that are as retro as the pair of boombox prints that hang on the wall.
Fish and chips may sound basic, but they stand out because they are executed so well. The fillets emerge from the fryer shatteringly crisp and golden. After a few minutes, I set down my fork and began pulling off flaky bits and pieces, dunking them into the house tartar sauce, then licking my oil-slicked fingers clean.
The other half of that order was just as satisfying. You could sub out the chips for a side like jalapeño creamed corn or honey lemon carrots, but the corn is a disappointment if you’re looking for the heat of chiles, and the carrots are a dud if you like yours even remotely cooked instead of raw. But why would you sub? Like the fish, these hand-cut fries are fried and salted to perfection. No ketchup or mayo necessary. (The accompanying tiny ramekin of shredded cabbage is dressed with such austerity it doesn’t pass for coleslaw.)
The Reuben isn’t perfection, but it has the potential to be. Thin slices of house-smoked pastrami are piled generously with melted Gruyere on toasted rye bread. A great Reuben is well proportioned. Here, the stack of meat is almost too much. The briny flavor of sauerkraut barely registers. Same with the Thousand Island dressing.
Compared to a tough, chewy hanger steak that needed more time marinating, pork loin medallions were plump from a sage brine, and brought to seasonal life with an apple walnut chutney and sides of mashed chipotle sweet potatoes and stalks of broccolini.
Coalition isn’t breaking new ground with its American menu, but that’s not the goal. “We want the food to be familiar, elevated diner cuisine in an easygoing environment,” Pernice told me.
He and his team are largely succeeding. Familiar food is elevated, often because of the precise execution. Farm-raised Atlantic grilled salmon is memorable because a stellar pan-sear finish leaves the fish with an elegant, golden sheen. There are mashed potatoes, but when you order the 8-ounce filet mignon, you’ll encounter Coalition’s smooth, garlic-laced mashed taters that are double comfort when dabbed into the whiskey peppercorn sauce.
Other dishes have a ways to go. A crispy crabcake was dry and didn’t explode with $22 worth of fresh crab flavor. A seasonal vegetable plate was a dreary mess of mealy sauteed veggies atop a bed of bland Beluga lentils. An apple crisp was soggy and tasted mainly of sugar, with barely a whiff of baking spices. Compared to the rest of the menu, desserts fall flat.
The environment certainly doesn’t. The place was hopping on a recent Saturday night. And the vibe is easygoing enough that a first round becomes a leisurely second whether you’re sipping a local craft beer, exploring wine options or putting your cocktail order in the hands of a capable bar.
At times, I wished for a bit more sophistication than what this neighborhood place offers, like serving spoons for appetizers, salads and other dishes that the table was clearly sharing, or getting the table wiped down once mains were cleared to make way for dessert. But that won’t stop me from coming back to Coalition.
There are plenty of spots on Canton and Main in downtown Alpharetta, but the wings at Coalition are calling my name.
COALITION FOOD AND BEVERAGE
Overall rating: 2 of 4 stars (very good)
Service: friendly and attentive
Best dishes: grilled chicken wings, the Reuben, fish and (chips?), pork loin, Certified Angus filet, Greek and house salads
Vegetarian selections: warm local goat cheese appetizer; various soups and salads; seasonal vegetable plate; beet, barley and black bean burger
Price range: $$$
Credit cards: all major credit cards
Hours: lunch: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; dinner: 4:30-9:30 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays, 4:30-10:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays
Parking: free street parking
MARTA station: none
Reservations: available online
Wheelchair access: yes
Noise level: low
Address, phone: 50 Canton St., Alpharetta. 470-839-6725