Atlanta Classics: Canoe celebrates 27 years on the Chattahoochee River

Credit: James Camp

Credit: James Camp

Garden setting overlooking Chattahoochee River is part of restaurant’s charm

Canoe, one of Atlanta’s most beloved and beautiful dining destinations, celebrates 27 years in business this month.

Chances are you have attended a wedding or celebrated a birthday among the natural beauty at the restaurant, located in Vinings, footsteps from the banks of the Chattahoochee River, and surrounded by colorful gardens.

Atlanta restaurant pioneers Gerry Klaskala, George McKerrow and Ron San Martin opened Canoe in 1995, bringing their experiences at Buckhead Diner and LongHorn Steakhouse to the project.

General Manager Vincent Palermo, who has worked at Canoe since 1997, has witnessed decades of changes at the restaurant, and even knows a bit about some of the places that preceded Canoe.

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

“Right before this, it was called Patio On the River,” Palermo said. “Prior to that, it was a place called Paces River Crossing that closed in the early ‘80s. It originated as Robinson’s Tropical Gardens, which was a dance hall back in the ‘50s. At that point, this was considered the country.”

Klaskala, McKerrow and San Martin made it a priority to incorporate the outdoors in their concept, Palermo said.

“It was farm-to-table before farm-to-table, and kind of an Alice Waters-inspired menu,” he explained. “It was significantly more casual when it first opened. It’s moved in more of a fine dining direction since then. But not old-school fine dining. All of the niceties that come along with fine dining are there, without the pretense. We wanted to make this Atlanta’s private club on the river, without having to pay the dues.”

While the Chattahoochee is what makes Canoe so special, the river has troubled the restaurant many times, including closing it down for two months in 2009.

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

“We’ve always had some flooding, and it takes over the grounds from time to time at various depths, which we’re able to recover from quickly,” Palermo noted. ”But 2009 was a different story. The water was five feet deep in the restaurant. It looked like someone filled the building with water and shook it up. The river left a silt that was on everything. But we were back open in 60 days.”

Remarkably, Canoe has employed just three executive chefs in its 27 years — Gary Mennie, Carvel Grant Gould, and currently, Matthew Basford.

“Gary’s food was very much rooted in culinary traditions in that he was classically trained at the Culinary Institute of America,” Palermo remembered. “He worked with Wolfgang Puck in California, so he brought sort of an Asian feel to a lot of what he did.”

Grant Gould was executive chef from 2005-2013, and brought her local roots to Canoe’s menu.

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

“Carvel worked for so many years with Gerry (Klaskala) at Buckhead Diner and Gary (Mennie) here, so she was sort of an amalgam of those two styles,” Palermo said. “But Carvel was very much Southern-rooted and self-taught. And she was a third generation Atlantan, so she really wanted to bring Atlanta and the South to her food. That was important to her.”

Basford cooked with Grant Gould, beginning in 2005, and was promoted to executive chef in 2013.

“Matthew was born in Australia, and he kind of cut his teeth in New Orleans,” Palermo said. “With the Australian background you kind of get more of the Pacific Rim influences. And then also some of that New Orleans influence plays in there, as well. It’s an interesting combination.”

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Working in the kitchen for nearly a decade, Basford has adopted Canoe’s sense of community and hospitality.

“The restaurant is built on approachability, and I learned that it can’t be my way or the highway,” he said. “You’ve got to observe and see the guests’ experiences and feedback. It can be difficult but it keeps your mind active, which is the best thing for me.”

Asked about dishes that have stood the test of time, Basford described the smoked salmon as “a hit since day one,” and the arugula salad as a close second. “The rabbit in some variation has been on since the start, too,” he added. “The popcorn sundae is a classic, and the duck and beef burger has taken on a life of its own.”

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

As for drinks, Palermo said there’s always been “breadth and depth” in the wine program. “We’ve always said we want wine that’s ready to drink now and we want it to be very food-friendly. Our beverage director, Kevin Cornish, is really good at expressing that in the current wine list. We have 30 or more selections by the glass, and always have. But beer and craft cocktails have stolen the show at the bar.”

Looking back on his 25 years at Canoe, Palermo said there have been many changes, but it was “evolution not revolution.”

“You have to change the paradigm every once in a while” he allowed. “But our demographic changed as the neighborhood grew, which is great. It became much more of an everyman’s restaurant.”

As for the future, “I think Canoe is going to outlive all of us,” Palermo declared. “It has that kind of staying power.”

Canoe. 4199 Paces Ferry Road SE, Atlanta. 770-432-2663,


Canoe will celebrate its 27th anniversary 6:30-9 p.m. Aug. 25 with a whole hog roast and buffet-style menu prepared by chef Matthew Basford. Wonderbird Spirits and Creature Comforts will offer libations in the gardens. Tickets, $85, are available at

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