Southern comfort and coastal chic in east Cobb

Many online shoppers are familiar with Zappos, a website that got its start selling shoes and has since expanded to carry lines of accessories and home products. In the business world, Zappos is known for translating corporate philosophy into customer experience.

Operating on the belief that your culture is your brand, Zappos cultivated a corporate atmosphere that values relationships and enriches customers’ experiences.

In Atlanta there are a few restaurants operating with a Zappos-esque approach, including Muss & Turner’s and Local Three.

And that is also true of their new sister restaurant, Common Quarter, where owners Todd Mussman, Ryan Turner, Chris Hall and new partner Chris Talley have worked to develop a culture that values people (both customers and employees), authenticity and honesty.

Common Quarter’s brand of Southern hospitality infuses each facet of the dining experience — from the relaxed decor to the young staff in logo T-shirts and ball caps. Even the food, which may challenge expectations of Southern fare, has an honesty. The risks that chef Jeffrey Gardner takes stem from intellectual curiosity rather than a desire to drive sales with shock value.

And while his inspirations and re-creations may not be for some, the pull of this restaurant will ensure that you return to try another dish.

Common Quarter hopes to make you forget the restaurant is snuggled into a bustling east Cobb strip mall by offering you a respite reminiscent of beach trips or travels through the low country. They want you to indulge in the whiskey selection, sip an icy dark rum cherry bohemian cocktail ($10), or grab an Allagash white ale ($6.50) while enjoying the coastal (but not kitschy) decor.

Design features embrace the company’s aim to keep the restaurant casual but smart. An oversized map of St. Simons Island papers one wall, while Bahama shutters flank the bar and gas lamps grace the entryway. The most inviting spot in the house is the covered patio, complete with a stacked stone fireplace and rocking chairs.

The coastal theme carries over into the kitchen, which seeks out items grown, raised or produced in the South. Gardner noted that Common Quarter doesn’t stand out in that regard since many chefs are sourcing locally. “We all play in the same sandbox,” he said. Instead, he honors those ingredients and Southern cooking techniques by serving dishes that require reflection on preconceived notions of our region’s down-home comfort faves.

Take the hearty purloo ($16.50), a low country staple. Here, the rice-based dish isn’t made with the traditional shrimp but with veggies only. The mixture of my favorite smudgy-but-firm Carolina Plantation rice with the meatless winter vegetable mixture of kale, cubes of squash, chewy bits of mushroom and strips of browned okra achieved a surprising depth of flavor. The tart specks of dried cranberry added a nice pop of color.

The chicken and dumplings ($18.25) also may have you questioning what this humble comfort dish should be. Grandma might shun the airline chicken breast with perfectly blistered skin surrounded by red-hued tasso gravy and pillowy, gnocchi-style white-cheddar dumplings. But truth be told, I much prefer this to a vat of pasty peppered dumplings in overly thickened broth. Don’t tell Grandma.

Similarly, items like the homey farro mac and cheese ($5.50) made me wonder why we ever used limp noodles. And why haven’t we made a habit of serving meatballs ($11.50) with sharp tomato sauce and pecan pesto over grits like they do at Common Quarter? The pecan pesto adds variation in texture and delays the inevitable tomato monotony.

You also might like this restaurant’s take on Nashville hot chicken breast ($11), with its dark crunches of batter, spiced but not painfully so. The open-faced sandwich comes with a sloppy cole slaw topping and melted white cheddar over a perfectly toasty H&F Bread Co. slice.

The kitchen has a little fun with a dish called I’ll Huff and I’ll Puff … ($20.75). Little piggies are presented three ways: as a fat pork chop, long strips of crispy belly and curled medallions of toasted pepperoni. I wondered why our table neighbors sent it back for an alternative — until we got ours. Accompanied by a spicy tomato sauce, it was like a breadless porky pizza. Cute, but no.

By comparison, the Coca-Cola-braised lamb shoulder ($24.25) was rather tame. And I got more game than Coke on that one. Move over, lamb. Just give me the mac and cheese.

And maybe, instead of dessert, get another helping of mac? The desserts, which are made at Local Three, are short on both personality and flavor. The cream-fest that is the peanut butter pie ($6.25) left me searching for my dose of nut butter. Likewise, I poked all around in my Mason jar banana pudding ($6.75) before rooting out the lone banana slice.

Sometimes, you have to go with your gut reaction to a restaurant. I think that’s the case at Common Quarter, which adds up to more than the sum of its parts. It’s a place where I can just be.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.