What does a diner mean to you?
To me, a diner means counter stools that spin, and vinyl booths easily wiped of sticky stuff, grease and grime. It means unlimited refills of mediocre coffee poured into sturdy, brown mugs. It means a short-order cook who commands the flat-top, flipping burgers and cracking eggs, when not lifting baskets of fries out of hot oil.
All that and more awaits at Wonderkid, a new diner in Reynoldstown. The location is playfully described on its postcard as “just a jaunt, or 53 paces, or a 32-second scooter ride from the edge of the Beltline Eastside Trail.” Wonderkid joins the Dairies Coffeehouse and Cold Brew Bar as a tenant in the Atlanta Dairies complex, one of numerous urban renewal projects transforming Memorial Drive in south Atlanta.
The diner is a whimsical venture from Darren Carr and Eric Simpkins, the partners behind Big Citizen Creative Group (Bon Ton, the Lawrence), and brothers Nick and Steven Carse of King of Pops. Through the space and the menu, its owners capture the essence of diners from decades past, but reimagine it for a 2020 audience.
The step-up counter stools that swivel, the row of vinyl booths, the brown, burnt orange and olive color palette, and even the wood paneling on a back wall offer 1970s flashbacks. Lounge seating is wholly unexpected for a diner, but feels at home in this comfy hangout. So does the ice cream counter at the entrance, where King of Pops has expanded its frozen sundry lineup to include soft-serve (make it a swirl!).
Like the interior design, the food is a retro-modern marriage. A placemat-sized menu in a clear plastic cover divides dishes into three categories: Just the A.M. (8-11 a.m.), Basically All Day (11 a.m.-10 p.m.), and Always Wonderful (all day). On this cheeky carte, developed by executive chef Justin Dixon (the Shed, Bully Boy), are diner classics like a burger, steak and eggs, and egg-meat-toast combinations. But many get a modern makeover.
Try the falafel waffle. This creative version is made with chickpea batter and gets topped with tabbouleh, a scattering of locally grown microgreens and a roasted eggplant dressing. Although it didn’t deliver the crispy edges I wish for in a typical waffle, it delivered plenty of falafel flavor and the clean eats that my body seems to crave these days.
The falafel waffle is just one of many dishes that fit a New Age lifestyle bill — or that can fit with a simple omission or substitution. There’s veggie hash, which I’d be more apt to recommend if the advertised “bunch of veggies” mixed with the hash browns wasn’t just a piddly quantity of diced butternut squash. There’s a side of house-made veggie sausage patties, but these thin disks lack spice and umami, and are unconvincing as meat substitutes.
The cooks working across the counter executed cheery sunny side up eggs, over easy ones with the yolk still runny, jammy poached eggs for an order of eggs Benedict and fried ones with lacy, crispy edges on a highly recommendable plate of fried catfish over grits with spears of pickled okra.
If the term “diner” holds more meaning to you for lunch, Wonderkid has the always changing but always vegetarian Yesterday’s Soup. Mine was a thick puree of broccoli cheese, flavorful, except that each bite delivered too much of an acidic hit on the back end. The garnish of white cheddar popcorn did nothing except to align with the teasing character of this place that also offers a paradoxical Fancy Green Salad. That simple mix of red and green leaf lettuce with some microgreens thrown in for good measure was actually fancy, dressed in a delicious vinaigrette whose surprise ingredient is truffle juice, the slightly briny liquid from jarred truffles.
The Wonder Burger, loaded with melty, cheesy “Wonderwhiz” that spills over the sides of a thick, juicy patty, would be wonderful if the dry-aged ground beef wasn’t so unevenly seasoned with salt.
Chef’s Red Chili was solid: meaty, tomatoey and with pimento cheese because chef Dixon is from Georgia, and sourdough crackers because those qualify as “fancy.” The Meatloaf Melt ciabatta sandwich was outstanding: a thick slice of hot meatloaf – plus pimento cheese and bacon jam because Dixon is from Georgia, and mixed greens because they, too, qualify as “fancy.”
Roasted Chicken Pot Pie, with its oversized, flaky top crust, is a healthy portion, but the filling lacked creaminess and most of the poultry pieces aren’t exactly bite-sized.
Does a retro-modern diner need alcohol on the menu? Well, why not? You’re an adult now and perhaps you want a real drink.
Cheers to Wonderkid’s full bar and its well-balanced cocktails. The batched Old-Fashioned with Rittenhouse rye is potent, but on-point. The clearness of the Atlanta Dairies Punch is quizzical until you realize the drink is made with clarified milk. Clever. These two are among a handful of drinks dubbed “Greatest Hits.” The cocktails in the “Now Playing” section are all named in homage to “Pulp Fiction.”
Desserts by Simpkins’ wife, Sarah, who also prepares desserts for Big Citizen sister restaurants the Lawrence and Bon Ton, are simply wonderful. Caramel layer cake and pineapple Bundt cake were notably moist and fresh. And King of Pops’ creamy soft-serve, including dairy-free raspberry and pineapple flavors, that you can deck out with toppings in a big waffle cone is just plain fun (remember: make it a swirl!).
Wonderkid offers a great deal of fun: a lively vibe, a cheery waitstaff, and service as fast as Jimmy John’s. It offers a “fancy” diner menu that meat and plant eaters alike can consume. At times, that food comes with fancy prices (The chicken and vegetable pot pies clock in at $18, fish and grits is $17, the burger and mussels are each $14.), but it is gussied-up diner food, and most of the time, it’s worth the price.
If you’re looking for a diner experience like you’ve never had before in Atlanta, don’t wonder too long. When other Atlanta Dairies tenants open doors, including the Eastern, a live music venue with a rooftop bar, and the Three Taverns Imaginarium experimental brewery and tasting room, the gate at the currently free parking deck at Atlanta Dairies will come down and make you buck up. Plus, when the weather improves, everyone will be on the Beltline, willing to walk 53 paces to Wonderkid’s front door. Don’t be at the back of the line.
Overall rating: 2 of 4 stars (very good)
Food: Elevated takes on diner classics
Service: Enthusiastic and speedy
Setting: Retro diner
Best dishes: Falafel Waffle. Chef’s Red Chili. Meatloaf Melt. And If You Like Fish and Grits. The Mac N’ Cheese. Caramel Layer Cake. Triple Pineapple Bundt Cake. Various King of Pops soft-serve ice cream, including dairy-free options.
Vegetarian selections: Milk and Cereal. Veggie Hash. Yesterday’s Soup. Chopped Salad. Falafel Waffle. Roasted Vegetable Pot Pie. “Classy Broad” Omelette. Eggs in Hell. The Mac N’ Cheese. Numerous side dishes. Additional menu items can be made vegetarian (through ingredient omission or substitution) upon request.
Alcohol: Full bar with quality cocktails (try Atlanta Dairies Punch or American “Rie”) and numerous zero-proof cocktails
Price range: $$-$$$
Credit cards: All major credit cards
Hours: 8 a.m.-11 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays; 8 a.m.-midnight Fridays-Saturdays
Parking: Adjoining multi-deck garage (free when gate is up)
MARTA station: King Memorial
Wheelchair access: Yes
Noise level: Average
Address, phone: 777 Memorial Drive SE, Atlanta. 404-331-0909
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