“It was like having a Saturn booster rocket strapped onto your back,” Klaskala said about how his stint at the diner influenced the trajectory of his culinary career. “The Buckhead Diner was such a transcendental restaurant, not only here in Atlanta, but across the country. It was the busiest restaurant per square foot in the nation. When you walked in, you knew you were at the party. Somehow, glancing over and seeing [R.E.M.’s] Michael Stipe sitting at the counter having lunch became normal. It was always busy, but then it got even busier, which was the crazy part.”
Assisted by word of mouth generated by Elton John, when the freshly sober global pop star moved here in the early 1990s, the Buckhead Diner became a magnet for celebrities over the years, with the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Jordan, Mick Jagger, Cuba Gooding Jr., Jennifer Aniston, Regina King, John Travolta, Tom Cruise, Robert Downey Jr., Ryan Gosling, Jennifer Holiday, Robert Duval, Justin Bieber, members of One Direction and Philip Seymour Hoffman all angling for a cushy booth, perhaps next to yours.
In 1991, when Klaskala got word that Sir Elton was on his way to the diner for the first time, he sent a waiter out for three different kinds of whole-wheat bread, the singer’s preferred variety. The diner ended up fueling the Rocket Man on many other occasions through the years, as he created the music for future Broadway hits “The Lion King” and “Aida,” and his “Peachtree Road” album, recorded here. John felt so at home in the diner that, in 1992, the formerly balding piano man debuted his luxurious new hair (a transplant estimated to cost $27,000) while dining there in a black and white jumpsuit and black ankle boots.
“It would take less time to list the celebrities who didn’t eat at the diner over the years,” Klaskala said. “One night, Michael Jordan was having dinner with Moses Malone and, on another night, ZZ Top would be there. Every year, Food & Wine brought the Best New Chefs in for a meal. Elton John was on a first-name basis with our entire management team. If you were coming to Atlanta, you were going to the Buckhead Diner. It was quite the scene.”
In 1988, when the diner was selected as the best full-service restaurant in the International Restaurant and Hotel Design competition, designer Kuleto remarked, “I wanted to make the Buckhead Diner the most luxurious diner in the world.”
By 1990, according to Restaurants & Institutions magazine’s annual ranking of the country’s 100 top-grossing restaurants, the Buckhead Diner was bringing in more than $5 million in sales yearly.
As the ultimate power lunch spot (and one that traditionally did not take reservations), regulars developed intricate strategies for scoring a table.
“I always made sure I was there before 11:10 am,” Locke recalled. “If you got there before the valets set up for lunch, you could park yourself and go right in. If you got there after 11:20, forget it. It was just wall-to-wall people.”
“I always ordered the same thing,” remembered former Atlanta Journal-Constitution Fashion Editor Marylin Johnson, joking that she felt a longtime affinity with the space, since the address was the former home of a stand-alone Gap clothing store. “I always had the four-cheese grilled cheese and tomato soup, and I took half the sandwich home with me, so I could order the white chocolate banana cream pie for dessert. I didn’t take any of that home with me. There was never any left.”
Klaskala still remembers the origin of that famed grilled cheese sandwich. He was staying with Karatassos in 1987, as they wracked their brains to come up with the diner’s menu, when Pano came home late one night, hungry. “He went into the kitchen and made us those grilled cheese sandwiches,” Klaskala recalled. “It was so great, I told him we had to add it to the menu.”
And, it turned out, another menu favorite, the veal meatloaf, doubled as diet food. “When I took over the Buckhead Diner kitchen in the early 2000s, I lost 130 pounds in eight months,” said Kevin Rathbun, nowadays the chef-owner of Rathbun Steak. “I ate that veal meatloaf every day.”
Rathbun believes it was the variety of the diner’s food, coupled with impeccable service and affordable prices, that kept people coming back.
“You could be the richest guy in Atlanta, or an average Joe, and you could still afford to go there,” he said.
Added Klaskala: “It had a great look, with those marble floors, all that beautiful mahogany wood and those light fixtures. It captured your imagination when you walked in. It demanded that you stare at it. It was just transformational. Every restaurateur I knew came in to check it out.”
Rathbun and Klaskala agree that one of the driving forces behind the restaurant’s three decade-plus run was its attention to service.
“From the beginning, the diner was going to be a casual restaurant, but the service wasn’t going to be,” Klaskala said. “There weren’t going to be any gum-snapping waitresses from a TV sitcom. We were hellbent on doing things well.”
For Rathbun, consistency in the kitchen, and in the front of the house, were two keys to the diner’s longevity. “Pano and the team were tried and true to their staff,” he said. “You had kitchen staff and servers who had been there for decades. People were treated well. That’s the reason restaurants stand the test of time.”
While Klaskala said the announcement of the restaurant’s closure in August was disheartening, he is hoping it’s not the end of the line for the train car-shaped eatery.
“I keep hoping that the developer who gets his hands on it has an idea about what the Buckhead Diner means to people,” he said. “It’s like when your grandfather gives you that classic car. Are you the guy who says, ‘I don’t want that,’ or do you see the value?”
Richard L. Eldredge contributed to the AJC’s Peach Buzz from 1993 to 1996, and was head writer of the daily column from 1996 to 2009. Buckhead Diner celebrity sightings were an almost daily occurrence in the column. Since 2015, Eldredge has served as founder and editor-in-chief of the digital arts magazine Eldredge ATL.
By the numbers
the year Buckhead Diner opened
number of seats in the diner
the year Elton John first visited the diner
number of cheeses inside the famous grilled cheese sandwich
the year Buckhead Diner was selected as the best full-service restaurant in the International Restaurant and Hotel Design competition
Veal meatloaf, white chocolate banana cream pie and Maytag blue cheese potato chips were Buckhead Diner menu favorites, among celebrities and locals alike, during the restaurant’s more than three-decade run.
Buckhead Diner Veal Meatloaf, Lone Star Gravy and Celery Root Mashed Potatoes
Chef Gerry Klaskala recalls longtime Atlanta food writer Jane Garvey interviewing him when the diner was about to open, “and she said, ‘Gerry, this is supposed to be a diner, but there’s no meatloaf on the menu.’ Off the cuff, I said, ‘Well, I’m working on one and this is what it is.’ I completely bluffed my way through it, and then had to go into the kitchen and create it.”
White Chocolate Banana Cream Pie
“We were in the dessert phase of the menu, and I was wracking my brain for a pie,” Gerry Klaskala remembered. “I had the ingredients in my head, and just went into the kitchen and made it. When I served it to [diner designer] Patrick Kuleto, he said, ‘This is it.’”
Credit: SARA HANNA PHOTOGRAPHY
Credit: SARA HANNA PHOTOGRAPHY
Potato Chips with Maytag Blue Cheese
“If you looked across the restaurant, it was the appetizer on every table,” recalled former Star 94 morning co-host Vikki Locke. “I would always say I was only going to have two. I’m not sure it was humanly possible to only eat two of those things. They were instantly addictive.”
Note: Maytag blue cheese is available at some specialty markets and supermarkets with well-stocked cheese shops. It also can be ordered online at maytagdairyfarms.com.
Credit: Adrienne Harris/Special
Credit: Adrienne Harris/Special
These crab cakes were on the menu at the Buckhead Diner for many years, and they’re a collaborative creation of many. Chef Charlie Schwab suggests you use a Chardonnay when you’re preparing the mustard sauce. He also suggests that if you’d like a gluten-free version, you reduce the amount of the lemon juice/spice mixture and eliminate the bread crumbs or panko.
You may not use all the base when mixing up the cakes. Leftover base would make a great dressing for a potato salad.
These crab cakes are served for both lunch and dinner. At lunch, a serving has one crab cake. At dinner, two.
Serve with the crab cakes for an indulgent, savory treat.
This perennial customer favorite was often offered as a special. It’s the creation of Chef Charlie Schwab. In our photo, the grits and mahi mahi are sitting on a bed of fire-roasted tomato salsa.
Butternut Squash Soup
Chef Charlie Schwab created this recipe while working on seasonal additions for the menu. He experimented and came up with this version, which he then tried on the restaurant’s ultimate taste tester, Buckhead Life Restaurant Group chief executive officer Pano Karatassos.
The recipe produces a beautifully colored soup with a creamy texture and no cream. Fresno peppers are hot, significantly hotter than jalapenos. We adjusted the number of peppers down from the original. Try the soup after it has simmered 30 minutes, and add another pepper if it’s not hot enough for your taste. The recipe makes a gracious plenty. Whatever you don’t eat right away will freeze perfectly.
At the restaurant, the soup was topped with crème fraiche garnished with cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice.
This is one recipe where the right ingredients really make a difference in the final flavors. Use Chef Charlie Schwab’s favorites, Cattleman’s mesquite-flavored barbecue sauce and A-1 steak sauce, if you want to match what was served at the Buckhead Diner.
Yellow Corn Muffins
Chef Matt Harris was happy to share the recipe for this signature item. He serves these tasty miniature corn muffins nestled next to herb breadsticks in the bread baskets. Dotted with kernels of fresh corn, jalapeno and green onion, the muffins get their unique flavor from buttermilk. The following recipe uses a more readily available regular-size muffin tin, but you can make them in mini-tins; simply reduce the cooking time by 5 to 10 minutes. The yield will be about three times as much.
Fried Calamari with Pepper Jelly
Chef Tony Pope added his own twist to this ever-popular appetizer. Deep-fried calamari is tossed with a sweet jelly with flecks of red bell pepper and spicy jalapeno or small, spicy, red Thai chiles for a bit of heat. The jelly coats it with flavor but doesn’t weigh it down.
Rocky Road Creme Brulee
Chef Kevin Rathbun said this recipe was developed by sous-chef Cameron Thompson during a brainstorming session. They were thinking of new ideas for the menu and thought of combining a favorite ice cream flavor into a more sophisticated dessert.
Rathbun explains the importance of tempering the egg yolks. Slowly adding hot cream to the eggs prevents their cooking too fast when added back into the custard. Rathbun uses 6 1/2-ounce ramekins, but you can use what you have; just adjust the cooking time accordingly.
Zinfandel Braised Short Ribs
The Buckhead Diner served its ribs with Portobello Mascarpone Rice, butter-braised carrots and spinach. Be sure to cover the pan very tightly with foil to keep liquid from evaporating. Check midway through cooking and add additional broth if necessary. If veal stock isn’t available, use all chicken stock.