Atlanta Orders In: Prix-fixe takeout menu marks new phase for Staplehouse

“If you are a business owner, and not thinking of how you are adapting for the times, you’re not setting yourself up for success,” said chef Ryan Smith, who operates Staplehouse with wife Kara Hidinger.

The couple have modified operations at the Old Fourth Ward restaurant multiple times during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the initial period of the public health crisis, they converted the nationally acclaimed fine-dining restaurant into a soup kitchen to feed unemployed food-service workers. It was a 10-week initiative, conducted in partnership with Giving Kitchen, the restaurant’s nonprofit parent organization, which provides support to those in the industry facing unexpected hardship.

“We didn’t feel it was right to make an immediate shift to to-go food,” Smith said. “It’s about providing. For us, it made sense to shift to the soup kitchen idea.”

Ultimately, Smith and Hidinger turned off the lights and furloughed their 25-person staff. As the pandemic raged through the state, the couple hunkered down at home with their two young daughters.

“I had a lot of time to reflect on what is really important in life,” Smith said. “What do I want back, when and if things are comfortable again? What don’t I want back?”

Asking himself those questions, he said, helped him “to not make rash decisions out of necessity.”

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Credit: Ligaya Figueras

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

Last week, Staplehouse reopened for takeout. The menu: smoked beef brisket with heirloom corn tortillas and salsa matcha; a tomato-cucumber salad with a walnut XO sauce; and crispy black rice tossed with oyster mushrooms and roasted eggplant.

The $25 prix-fixe menu — with a focus on smoked meats; vegetables that get no-waste, thoughtful treatment; and tortillas prepared from artisanal masa — offers a semblance of the old Staplehouse, but this menu is not a temporary Band-Aid. The tasting menu is not coming back. The move is part of a reconceptualizing of Staplehouse that, when complete, will be “a pretty radical change,” Smith said.

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In Staplehouse’s next chapter, Smith is interested in exploring barbecue, tortilla-making and root-stem cookery. The menu will be “very smoked meat-centric, with tortillas and vegetable-heavy sides,” he said. “We’ll make the vegetables in the same vein that we have been. We are not opening a barbecue restaurant; we are using barbecue as a cooking technique, and applying it in our own way. Same thing with tortillas: We’re not opening a taqueria, but we are offering tortillas, because we are obsessed with them and think they are the perfect vessel to eat food with.”

To explore the technique of nixtamalization, Smith is working with Masienda, a California-based company that partners with farmers to grow heirloom corn destined for tortillas, and assists restaurants in developing kernel-to-masa programs.

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Credit: Ligaya Figueras

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

The takeout model also will stay for the foreseeable future.

“There is too much risk for our space to try to get back to what we were. With the amount of interaction we have to have with our guests, to offer that type of dining is not safe,” he said. “Hopefully, 18 months down the road, with a vaccine in place, if we want to work as a dine-in restaurant, we can do it at that time.”

“We feel confident in our ability to adapt and make it work,” Smith said of the restaurant’s new direction.

No one can predict the twists and turns a restaurant will take, and that’s certainly been the case with Staplehouse. It was supposed to be chef Ryan Hidinger, Kara’s brother, cooking. It was his idea, along with his wife, Jennifer — one the couple set into motion as a pop-up that they held in their home.

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Credit: Ligaya Figueras

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

But, cancer took Ryan Hidinger’s life. His premature death tugged at the heartstrings of Atlanta’s food community, leading to an outpouring of support that changed the direction of the dining concept, inspiring the founding of Giving Kitchen, with Staplehouse as its for-profit arm.

So, perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Staplehouse is changing again. The restaurant is synonymous with transition; it always has rolled with the punches.

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Menu: $25/person prix fixe menu changes weekly, and includes a smoked meat, corn tortillas and multiple vegetable-heavy sides; vegetarian meal available upon request

Alcohol: beer, wine and batched cocktails

Service options: takeout; order and pre-pay online; no walk-ins; no delivery; curbside coming soon

Safety protocols: follows all CDC COVID-19 safety protocols; entrance is through front door with contact-free pickup at bar; all patrons must wear masks, which are available, along with hand sanitizer, at entrance; designated pickup times are staggered in 15-minute increments to limit number of customers inside

Address, phone: 541 Edgewood Ave. SE, Atlanta; 404-524-5005

Hours: 4-6 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays