Atlanta Orders In: Empire State South betting on customers to adapt to outdoor dining

Empire State South’s pimento cheese with bacon marmalade never gets old; enjoy it with toast or an added side of crudités. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Empire State South’s pimento cheese with bacon marmalade never gets old; enjoy it with toast or an added side of crudités. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

Hugh Acheson became a food celebrity first by cooking well, then by using his exceptional talent to exploit all the media at his disposal. In the 20 years since founding Five & Ten in Athens, the Canadian-born Southern food champion has authored cookbooks, appeared regularly on TV, and reveled in being a social-media gadfly.

In these pandemic times, he believes it’s time for restaurants to turn back the calendar — way back.

“If you are going to go out to for dinner right now, it needs to be back to what restaurants really were like 400 years ago,” said Acheson, 48, who also owns Atlanta’s Empire State South and partners with the Candler Hotel to operate By George restaurant downtown. “They were places of respite. Literally, it’s a restaurant. It’s a place to go and rest.” (By George has yet to reopen.)

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This Empire State South takeout order includes a pork chop with green beans; pimento cheese with bacon marmalade and toast, plus a side of crudités; and catfish with rice and field peas. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
This Empire State South takeout order includes a pork chop with green beans; pimento cheese with bacon marmalade and toast, plus a side of crudités; and catfish with rice and field peas. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

After a stinging Washington Post op-ed in which he bluntly rebuffed Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s decision to reopen restaurants in April, Acheson has charged his team with creating safe spaces where customers can escape “the strife and fires and storms and pandemics and job loss and unemployment."

At Five & 10, you may spy the man himself — shucking oysters, pouring Chablis, and hawking “craveworthy food that people want to come back for.” One night, that might be a hot dog with chowchow, mustard and fried leeks; the next night, grilled lobster with lemon-chile-tarragon butter and potato salad.

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Empire State South offers a bone-in pork chop with black garlic barbecue sauce and a side of green beans with dill Mornay. An appetizer of crudités, which pairs nicely with the pimento cheese, is at upper left. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Empire State South offers a bone-in pork chop with black garlic barbecue sauce and a side of green beans with dill Mornay. An appetizer of crudités, which pairs nicely with the pimento cheese, is at upper left. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

But, even the mighty Acheson can’t be in two places at once, so he entrusts Empire State chef Kory DePaola with creating “food that pulls at the heartstrings and just makes sense to people.” (Think catfish with hoppin' John and tomato broth; barbecue pork chop with green beans; shrimp and grits.)

Meanwhile, wine director Steven Grubbs operates a virtual bottle shop, with some terrific finds and thoughtfully curated themed six packs, while lead prep cook Alberto Castillo has started his own line of prepared foods, Papi Chapi Provisions, selling house favorites, such as field-pea hummus and smoked trout dip, alongside his own chilaquiles and hot sauces.

That’s the fun stuff.

On the financial side, challenges remain, especially at Empire State. Located in an office building, the rent is high, and many regulars now work from home. “I’d say business is about 30% of what it used to be,” Acheson said. The staff’s down from 60 to 22.

Hugh Acheson's Empire State South in Midtown has a courtyard. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Hugh Acheson's Empire State South in Midtown has a courtyard. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

Both restaurants have beefed up their exterior presence, and Acheson wants to ride Georgia’s mild climate as long as he can. He may be in luck: He’s observed that COVID-19-conscious diners are more heat tolerant; he hopes they’ll be more amenable to colder temps, too.

“I can probably see going into almost early December outside,” he said. “Hopefully, people will be willing to dine in 45-degree weather; whereas, before, if it wasn’t 70, they didn’t want to sit outside.”

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EMPIRE STATE SOUTH

Menu: upscale Southern

Alcohol: available to go

What I ordered: pimento cheese, crudités, pork chop, catfish. The pimento cheese with toast was fantastic, and I really loved the field peas and rice that accompanied the catfish. Alas, both proteins were a tad on the dry side. The big thrill was my six-pack of wines from the Loire Valley. It’s the second time I’ve bought mystery wine boxes from ESS. Sommelier Steven Grubbs' selections, and his tasting notes, never disappoint.

Service options: takeout; dine in; or sit by the commodious courtyard

Safety protocols: follows all CDC guidelines; serious mask protocol

Address, phone: 999 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta; 404-541-1105

Hours: 3-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays.

Website: empirestatesouth.com

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