Restaurant Review - The search for the perfect Midtown hangout
Finding the right 'barstaurant'Tuesday January 24, 2012 12:00 pm EST
It was the Tex-Mex place that sent me over the edge. The Tweet from WhatNowAtlanta.com came over the transom explaining that a Tex-Mex restaurant was scheduled to open near Seventh and Peachtree streets, two blocks from my apartment and smack-dab in the middle of Midtown. "Thank goodness," I thought. I had visions of Javier's in Dallas, a neighborhood eatery with a sterling bar, a cigar lounge, top-notch service, and, oh yeah, fantastic Tex-Mex staples. Nothing chef-y, nothing precious, just great food, drinks, service, and atmosphere. The very combination Midtown seems incapable of offering.
Then I saw the name: Señor Patrón. Oh, no. Basically, "Mister Mister." The "chain" has one restaurant — in the Tex-Mex hotbed of Ohio. Then I saw the website. If Mike Judge were ever to remake Office Space and needed a Tex-Mex joint to replace Chotchkie's, this would be it. It's a parody of Tex-Mex, right down to the names of the dishes, including, but not limited to, the "Speedy Gonzales."
What the hell is wrong with Midtown? Since moving here in October, I've spent a good deal of my time trying to find "my place": a bar or restaurant with a bar that has those four qualities previously mentioned. I'm picky, but not elitist. In Dallas, "my place" was an Irish pub, but it had some of the best bar food you'll find (artisan cheeses, outstanding mussels and frites, etc.). But my secondary home away from home was a high-end steakhouse, with big pours, friendly bartenders, and the city's high-end hookers waiting for the city's high-profile athletes to stop by. In other words, a truly great neighborhood hang can be high- or low-end, specialize in $2 Pabst or $12 for three fingers of Booker's, a well-charred burger or sublime charcuterie.
And the entire spectrum between those categories can offer up disappointments, too. That's mostly what I've been fed in my search. Whether it's snotty service burger joints, over-hyped Southern foodie locales, trendy paeans to douche culture, inferior branches of places that do it better across town, or (most often) just plain average-to-bad food, Midtown struggles to offer anything that approaches a must-visit neighborhood joint.
Perhaps that's why there's such turnover. Already, places like Ludacris' Straits have closed. (That place could not be considered great by any means, as the pricey food was not much better than chain steakhouse quality, but the drinks were stiff and I did have fun wandering in there in the wee hours to what seemed always to be a private party for a DJ and his friends hanging out, hoping Luda would make an appearance.) And there are other places I've visited either for this story or in the past whose eventual shuttering is an inevitability.
Because of a series of such disappointments, some of my favorite places in Midtown are the simple chain-like spots that have little ambition other than to do one or two things well. Hudson Grille, for example, just wants to be a better-than-average sports bar, and it is that, with surprises like a flavorful Parmesan-and-herb-filled turkey burger and a sinfully decadent Sunday brunch menu. Joe's on Juniper (same owners, turns out) just wants to flaunt its great location, patio, and the gay male sex jokes on its menu, and it does all those things well, which covers for the sad state of the actual menu items.
I have hope the worm will turn and this often-mocked area of town — I love when I tell folks I live in Midtown, and the cool kids all make that condescending "oh, that's interesting" face — can find its groove as a place with real neighborhood offerings. To that end, I'm pretty excited about some upcoming places such as the Lawrence, the Juniper Street restaurant from the Top Flr/Sound Table guys. In fact, I crashed the soft-opening invite-only dinner last Friday evening, all but challenging the staff to act all haughty and throw me out. (Would have been completely deserved.) Instead, the bar/wine manager (didn't catch his name; I'm not what you call an excellent "reporter") asked me if I lived nearby ("457 steps; I just counted!"), told me about the vision behind the place (translated: "be kick-ass"), and whetted my appetite.
Because, here's the deal, and I'm sorry for burying the lead: To me, any great neighborhood restaurant has to also be a great bar, or the bar has to have restaurant-quality food. I always eat at the bar, because that's what you do in a place where you feel comfortable. It's where you get to know the staff and the regulars. And the Lawrence's bar looked promising, if a bit too much a part of the dining room for my taste. (To me, you have to be able to sit at the bar without feeling as though you're intruding on people's dinner.)
Other places to which I'm looking forward include Richard Blais' new spot, the Spence, in that Georgia Tech area off Fifth Street (pretty much everything in that Tech Square area leaves something to be desired right now), because he says he's going to make simple good food and I'm actually a fan of the bar at HD1. (My red haute dog — brisket chili, pimento Jack cheese, and Vidalia onions — was a spot-on match to my bluegrass sunset cocktail of Bulleit bourbon, ginger ale, basil, and orange peel.) Also, the new Italian joint Campagnolo going in off 10th Street and Piedmont Avenue sounds promising, although I have yet to find a place that doesn't make Italian feel like a Sunday-dinner-only excursion.
This isn't to say there aren't worthy places in Midtown. There are. They just all seem to be lacking, for me, an essential quality that makes it the perfect neighborhood joint. Some are just a product of their concept or location — I really love the bar and bartenders at the shotgun space downstairs at Publik Draft House, for instance. And the menu isn't bad and is fairly bar-ambitious, with highlights like crab and sweet corn fritters drizzled with a paprika mayo, and the house favorite spicy lamb burger. But being next to the Fox Theatre, it's too much of an event space on show nights, not that that's its fault. And the Independent is a pretty damn solid dive bar, but it's located in the back end of a huge grocery-store anchored strip center. Can't do it.
My preferred places are all pretty obvious, then, but I'm hoping listing my persnickety concerns can help them become closer to the neighborhood landing spot I think people are still seeking in Midtown:
Ecco: Many things to love about this European-inspired bistro. It works much better as a neighborhood hangout than its Fifth Group Midtown cousin South City Kitchen. Even though it's pricey and upscale (as are all these places, at least pricey-ish), there's nothing snooty about it. I walk in with my ridiculous backpack and no one blinks when I take it to the bar. The bartenders are fantastic: friendly, knowledgeable, and efficient. The pours are a little stingy, but the bucket of frites and delicate pile of mussels make up for (some of) that. And it comes the closest of any place I've visited to being a neighborhood barstraurant. On a Friday night at 8, it feels like half of Midtown is in there, usually looking to hook up with the other half. The cocktail menu is solid and occasionally ambitious. There is not much there, though, if you want to just visit and make a cheaper evening out of it, which keeps you from coming back regularly. No daily drink specials of note, no hidden-gem dishes that regulars know they can make into a meal for less than 10 bucks. That's nitpicking, though, and this is the closest thing I have to a Midtown favorite.
Top Flr: This was the second place I was taken to when I arrived in Atlanta, and I can still see why. The bar on the north end of the restaurant is my favorite, cut off from the dining area across from it or upstairs. It's cool, sophisticated, and approachable. The bartenders are sometimes aloof and occasionally on the slow side, but always knowledgeable and friendly. (Especially that time my debit card "didn't work." Um, sorry about that, still.) But I think the food has hits and misses — I don't understand the slobbering over its mac and cheese, for starters, but I warmly embrace the Spanish chorizo flatbread with pickled shallots and jalapeños. I also feel as though there are almost too many chefs in the cocktail kitchen. The drink menu changes often, and although I admire its range (the Carl Sagan — Tito's vodka, Aperol, Cointreau, grapefruit, orange bitters — is an aperitif keeper), a great bar needs some basics you can go back to and learn to love. Which is why I prefer ordering an Old-Fashioned off its classics cocktail menu. Not perfect, but it's where I go if I want to read a book, not be bothered, and feel cooler than I am.
Escorpion: This place has had several challenges lately keeping a chef, and it shows in the consistency of the food. Some nights, the pork tamale is one of the best I've ever had, and some days it really ain't so much. The shrimp cocktail is too precious, if elegant, but I'm a big fan of the "seta" tacos, filled with huitlacoche, corn, poblano peppers, and portobellos. I think the owners are aware of the inconsistency and are trying to work through such issues, so let me tell you all the other things Escorpion does right. First, the bartenders are simply outstanding. During a Friday or Saturday night crush, they absolutely kill it. The bar may have 30 to 40 people surrounding it, plus another level of irritable drunk Georgia Tech students lined up behind them, and they somehow manage to keep my glass filled with tequila and mescal cocktails that show sophistication and care. They're friendly but not overly so, ruthlessly efficient, and they never mind if you linger to watch a ball game or just stare at the beautiful people. And although it's smoky and powerful, I'm in love with their 30-30 cocktail, a sinus-clearing mescal-based Old-Fashioned finished with a swath of grapefruit peel. I'm hopeful that the recent crowds mean they're aware of past kitchen concerns and are in the midst of addressing them. I'll be there in the meantime to see it through.
Empire State South: I know this place is a foodie (and CL staff) darling. It has star chefs and bartenders, and its high quality is apparent in many menu elements. The food is consistently stunning, able to take simple dishes like toast and jam or steak and eggs and make them seem like revelations. All true. But as a place that you want to return to night after night — sigh. There are just some basic problems that are difficult to overcome. Yes, it makes the best Sazerac in the city, but that doesn't matter if you can't serve people in a timely fashion. I understand the whole "people will wait for good cocktails and good food" concept. I really do. But I have yet to be there when I didn't hear another patron comment on how long it takes to get his or her food. That's during brunch or dinner, doesn't matter. It simply must be addressed if it's ever going to be the place where folks from the neighborhood come back consistently. Me, it doesn't bother. I have nowhere to go. It's not like I've found my place yet.