You know it’s coming, so let’s get the “Mad Men” reference out there.
Imagine not that you are in a boardroom looking at a presentation of a carousel, but instead you are on the carousel. As you spin, the 1960s boardroom drifts past you, as if in a dream, until you are back where you started. It floats by — at the limit of your sight lines and edge of your consciousness — with its Danish modern lines, cherry-wood stain, low credenzas and boldly-striped carpet. Yesteryear’s swellegance. That’s what dining at Polaris feels like.
Ten years after shuttering it, the Hyatt Regency downtown has reopened the revolving restaurant in its landmark blue dome. Designed by Atlanta architect John Portman, Polaris first lit up the sky in 1967. Old-time Atlantans remember the day when Polaris dominated the skyline. Now, it hides within — a blue beacon, a relic from a bygone era.
But everything old is new again, and the city’s grand hotel-top restaurants have been making a bid to re-attract diners to the clouds.
Nikolai’s Roof, atop the Hilton Atlanta, unveiled a new look and menu earlier this year. Management hopes the city will forget that the sky-high view long served as a metaphor for the Czarist-themed dining room’s equally stratospheric prices. They hope to lure diners back with a $39 three-course early bird special.
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Last year, the Sun Dial restaurant in the Westin, which rotates 723 feet above street level, underwent its own massive renovation and introduced a locally sourced farm-to-table menu.
Polaris may be a little late to the party but, really, it is the party. The powers that be here understand that a trip up in that whooshing glass elevator is a trip back to Tomorrowland, when design tingled with that feeling that a new age was upon us. They also fathom that locals may not drive downtown to Dine with a capital “D,” but rather to take a spin, consume a little something, and act like tourists in their own town.
Atlanta’s Johnson Studio has been charged with setting the stage. It has, admirably, by sectioning the circumference and creating distinct environments. Guests may have a meal at a window-side table and watch the rooftop garden of the Hyatt’s other tower come into view every 45 minutes. Or they may opt for a barrel-aged Manhattan in a furnished nook that suggests a penthouse apartment, circa 1968. Whatever they choose, they’ll need to check in with a hostess in the hotel lobby; seating is first come, first served.
Chef Rodney Ashley cooks in a sleek open kitchen that looks like an exhibit from a World’s Fair past. He knows that the dishes on his trim menu must serve as props, colorful in their retro-modern dishware and easy to pass and share. In his hands, baby beets arrive standing upright on plates, their denuded stems curving like those of Arco floor lamps.
There are some nice ticky-tacky bites to be had — small fillets of scamp grouper topping colorful vegetable filigrees, or brioche toast holding juicy fried oysters and zippy remoulade. A mushroom tart on a stiff grits cake with “three distinct eggplants” on the plate offers a busy plate of good things.
Steak Oscar arrives under swirls of béarnaise and bordelaise with thick lumps of crab. It shares a grooved three-compartment dish with purple potatoes, green and white asparagus, and a Johnny Jump Up or two for garnish. It looks like a psychedelic airplane meal and tastes pretty good, too.
I don’t expect chef Ashley to show much culinary personality here, but one dish does raise my curiosity. He serves a hot, coarsely pureed green tomato soup thickened with corn masa that tastes grounded in his New Mexican upbringing. It’s an excellent dish, and I could see it serving as a memorable first course at dinner.
The thing is, I wouldn’t go here expecting the satiety of a full meal. Think instead of enjoying a beverage from a thoughtful craft cocktail list (or a glass of wine from a perfunctory hotel selection), and then supplementing it with enough food not to starve.
You might end up with three colorful gazpachos in three tiny tankards that are as precious as all get out, if a little too sweet. You might have another cocktail and some fried oysters, then a lovely dessert of honey parfait with grapefruit segments, or a rich chocolate tart festooned with a chocolate doodad imprinted with the Polaris logo. It’s all in good fun, as flashy as it needs to be.
If your evening ends up with a bowl of cereal eaten in front of the “Tonight” show, so be it. You’ve had fun spinning up there, high above the city. Just admit it: It’s hip to rotate.