First Look: Nic & Norman'sThursday August 4, 2016 04:58 pm EDT
“You have arrived at your destination,” proclaims Betty White, my GPS-challenged 2005 Prius. We are on an empty street beside a rusty silo that looks like something out of a horror film. Old Betty has once again led us astray, but a fictional horror set is exactly where we are: the Esco Feed Mill complex from season three of "The Walking Dead."
We drive a few more miles through rolling farmlands, forests of skinny pine, and a discount gas station called Hit N Run. Then, we pass over some train tracks and the landscape changes. There’s a fudge shop, a shaved ice stand, and a gazebo, all suffused with the kind of small-town charm that makes you nostalgic for experiences you’ve never even had. This is our destination: downtown Senoia, a tiny hamlet 50 miles south of Atlanta.
Senoia has served as a picture-perfect Hollywood backlot for everything from Driving Miss Daisy to Fried Green Tomatoes, but is most known for its recurring role as the fictional town of Woodbury in "Walking Dead." In June, walker-slayer Norman Reedus and producer/director/makeup artist Greg Nicotero teamed up with Raleigh Studios president Scott Tigchelaar, several executive producers, and a local developer to open Nic & Norman’s, a family-friendly bar and restaurant located smack in the middle of Main Street.
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The space (formerly occupied by musician Zac Brown’s Southern Ground Social Club, which closed last year) is zombie-free. Instead, there’s a speakeasy theme: exposed brick walls, cozy wood-and-leather booths, crystal chandeliers, and a grand-looking central bar with a mirrored backsplash framed by flat-screen TVs.
“We never wanted to zombify the place,” says Nicotero. “Who wants to eat a steak with a severed walker head on a spike right next to them? Actually, I would but...”
Nic & Norman’s draws a mix of local families and "The Walking Dead" fanatics, who come to Senoia from all corners of the earth to stand in the random field or back alley where their favorite character got devoured.
“Seeing the fans and taking photos and signing for people is fine,” adds Nicotero, noting that the restaurant has also become a fast favorite for cast and crew. “That was part of our original intent…to have a place we could hang out and call our own.” No value assigned
Hordes of tourists, however, have made it tough to snag a table at Nic & Norman's. Some Yelp reviewers complain of waits up to five hours. To make a reservation, one must download an app called Nowait, which assigns an estimated wait time (56-76 minutes on a recent Sunday evening) and texts you when your table is ready. In a rare feat of precision, I myself managed to time it so perfectly that my phone buzzed the second we pulled into a convenient street parking space in front of the restaurant.
Once seated and greeted by friendly waitstaff, we ordered a pair of specialty cocktails. I ordered the N&N Special, which is an intriguing blend of tequila, grapefruit, lime, simple syrup, Campari, and bitters served in a fancy goblet. My dining companion opted for the the Devil’s Cut, a glorified Moscow Mule made with Jim Beam.
Nic & Norman's menu features a hodgepodge of American fare with appetizers ranging from crab cakes to Philly cheesesteak fries. There are several flatbreads to choose from. The undercooked Caprese flatbread was a bit bland, but the large fresh kale salad on the other hand was a hit. Its zingy lemon dressing complemented the cubes of earthy butternut squash and goat cheese. No value assigned
Mains range from a vegetarian pot pie ($10) to a New York strip ($24), but burgers are the lynchpin of the whole operation. In fact, all other entrees are listed as “Not-A-Burger.” There are 10 burgers to choose from, including two signatures created by Nic & Norman: Greg’s Pick is a blend of chuck, short rib, brisket, and bleu cheese; Norman’s involves a bison patty, beetroot, spinach, onions, fried egg, and mustard. The menu recommends it served on an “un-bun,” which turned out to be a pile of iceberg lettuce. Unfortunately, the medium-rare bison burger we ordered arrived well-done, and the ground patty on the “seared” tuna burger was rather dry.
As for sides, skip the Brussels sprouts (nearly too tough to chew) and opt instead for the crispy, spiral-shaped sidewinder fries. For dessert, the rich and velvety flourless chocolate torte is a winner.
Ultimately, Nic & Norman’s may not be worth the drive from Atlanta on the strength of its food and execution alone, but that’s not really the point. Rather, the eatery acts as a tribute to both fans of the show and the patient residents of Senoia.
“We have put these people out by shooting on their streets, explosions, zombies rummaging around their backyards,” Reedus says. “So why not give ‘em a burger and invest something back into the community that is a personal reflection of who we are…apart from 'The Walking Dead.'"