Years ago, a wise and experienced culinary adviser once explained that a club sandwich could tell you almost everything you need to know about a certain kind of restaurant. The certain kind he meant was the institutional kitchen: hotels that serve room service, chains that operate in office buildings, and other places not unlike Molly B’s, the anchor restaurant in Mercedes-Benz Stadium in downtown Atlanta. It was an odd suggestion. Why would a club sandwich matter? Aren’t they the same everywhere?
A club sandwich may seem boring, but the sandwich has a way of illustrating a kitchen’s priorities. Has the chef bothered to source good bread? Do the prep cooks care if their tomatoes are ripe? Is the bacon perfectly cooked and cut thick to impress or is it merely meeting the basic ingredient requirements of the sandwich? Was it hastily thrown together or stacked with care?
The club sandwich rule, I’ve found over the series of a few recent lunches, explains everything one needs to know about Molly B’s. The smoked turkey sandwich is served here on pretty good bread, a pleasantly soft, thick bun similar to brioche but lacking the defined crust that would make it impressive. The bacon is ever so slightly above average. The tomato is ripe. The assembly is expert: a tight, tidy fan of smoked turkey slices topped with chopped bacon and melted cheddar sitting on a bed of shredded romaine, red onion, tomato and dill aioli.
It is, in other words, a modest but solid sandwich, right down to the fact that it isn’t actually a true, three-slice-of-bread club. Molly B’s isn’t the sort of place you go for a showy three-tier sandwich. It isn’t that ambitious, but it is a place where you can trust what they put between a bun.
The thing that a club sandwich can’t tell you, though, is what it is like to eat in a room meant for 70,000. The relative modesty of the Molly B’s kitchen is in absolute contrast to the ostentatious setting of Mercedes-Benz Stadium. By the final tally, the building cost $1.6 billion to construct. From a table at Molly B’s, you can, as they say, see every dollar. Every surface has been finished and joined with the finest polish. There is a circular video screen (apparently built to world-record size) surrounding a giant retractable roof. There is an unusual bird’s-nest-like quality to the industrial design that suggests the shimmering, giant steel falcon perched outside the stadium could have somehow built it.
During the roaring ruckus of an Atlanta United match, one might not have the time to calmly contemplate the lavishness of this setting. Thankfully, Molly B’s is open not just during events, but also for lunch on any non-event day. As opposed to the rowdy atmosphere of game day, I’ve found eating a weekday lunch at Molly B’s to be calm and rather convenient. Parking in the silver deck is ample and free with validation. There is a short stroll through security at Gate 2, past the glimmering, polished falcon, and into the vast edifice of the stadium.
The dining room is less a room and more of a plateau perched at an ideal vantage, from which the full expanse of the field can be observed, like a valley in a canyon. The customers tend to be mostly of the business-casual type, buttoned up and typing away on a laptop with a drink or sorting out details with colleagues over a lunch meeting. In any case, it is this setting that is the main appeal of Molly B’s. The calm quiet of the place is not unlike dining in a park or some other imitation of the vastness of nature.
During my recent lunches, I often found myself looking for a way to drag out the meal, lingering over the menu, slowly grazing appetizers, sipping iced tea, and letting my mind wander. Perhaps the most distinct dish on offer is a plate of pimento cheese hush puppies drizzled in green chile jam. These dark brown balls look an awful lot like hush puppies, but the dough has been replaced by a molten ball of creamy pimento cheese encased in the thinnest layer of fried coating possible. The effect is almost too much: too cheesy, too fried, too salty, too sweet. Maybe so, but I still found myself savoring every indulgent bite.
I was a little less impressed with the calamari, which comes dressed in a cloying combination of drizzled honey and dollops of aioli. It is a generous portion, much more than I and a dining companion could put away during a long lunch, and the batter is fried to an impressive crisp. Unfortunately, there’s also about twice as much batter as squid in every bite, so much so that, at times, I couldn’t seem to find the squid hiding in the batter.
Those avoiding fried plates may be satisfied by the salads on offer, though they tend toward familiar, if not outright boring combinations: romaine Caesar, mixed greens with candied pecans and blue cheese. I was interested in trying the lobster roll mentioned on the menu, but every day I visited, it happened to be unavailable.
Another option for whiling away the afternoon would be to sit at the bar and explore the extensive drinks list, which offers a rather long selection of wine, classic cocktails and familiar beers. There’s nothing too surprising behind the bar here, but it is a well-executed operation.
In fact, the only unwelcome surprise I came across during my meals at Molly B’s was an unannounced private party that had booked out the entire restaurant on a Friday lunch. This isn’t the sort of thing a regular downtown restaurant, which knows that Fridays are a famously good day for business lunches, would ever do. But, of course, Molly B’s is not a regular downtown restaurant.
The best option, I believe, is a plate of fried chicken accompanied by bowls of collard greens and macaroni and cheese. The serving is a half chicken — leg, thigh and breast with wing — fried in a delicately thin cornmeal dusting. The meat is juicy and tender enough. The sides are simple, adequate renditions, salty greens and macaroni doused in creamy sauce. The result is much like that club sandwich: modest and properly executed. The real appeal of the dish, at least as it is served here, is that it takes some time to eat.
While I crunched through each piece of fried chicken and picked at my bowl of greens, I watched a maintenance crew fiddle with repairs on the field. A group of summer camp kids were given a tour of the building. Light filtered in from the retractable roof. I’ve had some fried chicken better than what is served at Molly B’s and plenty worse. On the other hand, I’ve never dined in a room quite like this.
Overall rating: 2 of 4 stars (very good)
Food: casual American
Service: helpful and polite
Best dishes: fried chicken, pimento cheese hush puppies, smoked turkey sandwich
Vegetarian selections: salads
Price range: $-$$
Credit cards: all major credit cards
Hours: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. on non-event days
Parking: validated parking in Silver Deck
MARTA station: Five Points
Reservations: available with membership
Wheelchair access: yes
Noise level: low
Address, phone: 1414 Andrew Young International Blvd., Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta, Ga. 30303 . 470-341-5050