First Look: Rize

The new fast-casual concept's flagship location brings high-tech service to Poncey-Highland

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If you’ve passed through the intersection of Ponce de Leon and North Highland avenues lately, you’ve probably noticed the new mixed-use development that popped up seemingly overnight. Dwarfing the 1920s-era architecture of its immediate neighbors, the blocky five-story edifice sits just behind the historic Druid Hills Baptist Church.The development’s first tenant, Rize Artisan Pizza + Salads, which opened on Election Day, is a tech-enabled fast-casual flagship that founder and CEO John Smith hopes to take national. Smith recently moved to Atlanta, his mother’s hometown, after several years as mid-north region president for Caesar’s Entertainment, and has plenty of experience with large concepts and chains.Enter the restaurant and an enthusiastic staff member with an iPad greets you immediately, ready to take your order. After making your selection, you’re given a small pager device and sent to choose a table in the high-ceilinged, industrial-chic dining room. There, the pager automatically links up with an RFID chip inside the table, which connects to waitstaff’s iPads. Rize makes much of efficiency and teamwork, noting that unlike the clunky restaurant model of yesteryear, the system doesn’t tie you to any one server. There’s even a Rize app for paying your bill by smartphone and earning points toward future meals.

A month in, Rize is still working out some glitches. The technology feels more elaborate than efficient, and the app kept trying to get me to pay another table’s bill. I was left with the rather unnerving feeling of being dragged into someone else’s vision of “the future,” much like the time I tried to force my 85-year-old grandpa to set up a Facebook account (still sorry, Grandpa). However, Smith hopes the high-tech accouterments will take a backseat to Rize’s commitment to quality. “The restaurant business is notorious for not taking care of its workers,” he says. “We wanted to build a different kind of restaurant company. The whole mission is to bring people together to craft their best life.”
No value assignedThe menu is a collaboration between Smith, his corporate team, and director of culinary operations Eddie Russell, whose chef credentials include Argosy, Parish, and a supper club formerly known as Four Coursemen he co-founded in Athens. Choose from globally influenced small plates, salads, pastas, sandwiches (available only from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily), flatbreads, and pizzas that make use of local ingredients. There’s a kids’ menu for those 10 and younger, and a sleek row of beer taps for the older set, with eight craft brews, wine, and house-made sangria.

Growing up with a father in the Air Force, Smith has lived in Spain, Italy, and 15 different states, fueling a serious pizza habit along the way. “In training, we take our team through all different types of pizza, from New York to St. Louis to various types of Neapolitan,” he tells me. At Rize, he believes he’s created “the perfect crust.” Each pie is baked 3.5 minutes in their stone hearth oven for a crisp golden brown exterior and soft, chewy inside.Many of the dishes I tasted lacked balance. “This could use about 90 percent less balsamic,” said my dining companion of Rize’s signature Waverly pizza ($13.50) — prosciutto, Gorgonzola, and a heavy-handed spiral of sugary balsamic reduction. Next time I’d choose a simpler, more traditional option, like the Delphi ($12) with kalamata olives and roasted artichoke or a Margherita ($9.50). From the pasta menu, fennel sausage and kale ($10) was a standout — orecchiette mixed with crumbled sausage, wilted baby kale, fresh mozzarella, and fire roasted cherry tomatoes tossed in a tangy white wine sauce with red pepper flakes.

Despite impressive-sounding descriptions, the small plates ($7 each) need work. The powerful flavor of nutty sesame oil dominated a dish of cold charred cauliflower dotted with pomegranate seeds. A mound of overdressed veggies and chickpeas weighted down the limp pile of lettuce that made up the vegetable salad. Beautifully presented with tri-colored carrots, watermelon radish, and crunchy lavash, the Lebanese-style hummus was silky smooth but too sweet.
No value assignedStuffed peppadews were our table’s favorite — the smoky heat balanced out by creamy whipped feta and fragrant fennel sausage. Chicken wings, which Smith says he taste-tested for months before approving, are charbroiled in a combi oven rather than fried, creating a nice crisp texture that’s juicy without being oily. The menu’s affinity for sweetness continues with a dipping sauce of ginger, honey, and pear chutney.

While the kitchen seems yet to find its groove execution-wise, Smith’s dedication to his employees and passion for food is encouraging. The techy, clean-shaven ethos feels out of place in quirky, grungy Poncey-Highland (though maybe not for long, given the current direction of development). For Smith, the flagship location is only a start, and a strategic one at that. “We’re actually this very crafted concept — no freezers, fryers, or microwaves,” he says. “So we thought, let’s make sure we’re in a market that appreciates that. We’ll allow the customers to pull us to the suburbs.”

Only time will tell whether the choice pans out, but it’s clear that Rize already has its eyes on a much bigger prize. A second location in Sandy Springs is set to open next month, and a third undisclosed intown location is planned for spring. To hear Smith tell it, going national is only a matter of time.675 North Highland Ave. N.E. 404-334-0500. rizeartisanpizza.com

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