Five years ago when the passionate American boycott of all things French began as response to the French attitude towards 9-11, it seemed the American dining scene would be forever altered. Although we began searching for the American culinary identity long before the self-imposed embargo on Freedom Fries, the very idea of stuffy French restaurants had never felt so foreign. In the aftermath of 9-11 and in the search for true American dining, we experimented with what felt comfortable and seem to have finally firmly established our own version of fine dining: the casual chic restaurant.
The comfort food craze of the past few years may have finally settled down, but it seems that during the reclamation of American food culture, many chefs have embraced rustic cooking and managed to successfully bring about the casual chic restaurant: high-end food with high-end prices in stylish but comfortable settings. During our recent editorial trip down South to explore Atlanta’s dining scene, we discovered a repeat of the theme we’ve been witnessing around the country these past few years. Fine dining in America, as we traditionally think about it, has completely evolved to suit our taste. The white tablecloths and trolleys, the old-fashioned décor, and the intimidating front-of-house staff dressed in three piece suits have, for the most part, vanished.
In Atlanta the diners packing these new restaurants every night are 25-35 year olds who don’t cook at home and have disposable income to burn. This new wave of American fine diners seeks out good food in modern restaurants that are as trendy as they are. The dishes themselves might still be rustically prepared—think hearty braised meats and charcuterie—but the plating is always high concept and the portions are trimmed down to suit the atmosphere. At Table1280, the ultra-modern, almost futuristic cafeteria, Chef Todd Immel serves cured meats and game with subtle nuances and beautifully updated presentations. There’s no sommelier but a wine savvy wait-staff helps guide the young crowd while making them feel at home.
With comfort being as important as good food, these young diners also like to crowd more casual places with upscale food like Ecco, a hip small-plates restaurant with a lounge atmosphere where Chef Micah Willix served 450 covers on a recent Friday night. The food is both elegant and rustic with an old and new world wine list to match. Sommelier Vajra Stratigos shares his passionate quest for wine knowledge with every guest that orders wine, handing them paper-thin cedar cards printed with the full name and some notes regarding every glass or bottle they order. The latest big opening in Atlanta is Trois, an elegant, stylish setting with approachable food from StarChefs’ Rising Star of Le Cirque Jeremy Lieb. In their very first week open Trois was packed and doing at least 350 covers a night. With crowds flocking to these new young restaurants, Atlanta’s old fine dining is getting left behind.
Rumours are flying that Guenter Seeger’s well-established fine dining restaurant Seeger’s is closing but that’s not to say that in Atlanta there isn’t still a place for the expensive, super service-oriented restaurant, and Restaurant Eugene is just that. The restaurant succeeds because its atmosphere is sophisticated rather than stuffy and its mood is retro: a bartender in a pinstripe vest and black horn-rimmed glasses serves a return to classic cocktails. Southern classics are on Chef Linton Hopkins’ menu but they’re updated and playful, and gone are the huge portions and heavy sauces of stereotypical Southern food.
At Repast, which isn’t fine dining in the traditional sense but still pushes the envelope, husband and wife Joe Truex and Mihoko Obunai compose delicate, Japanese-inspired cuisine in a hip loft-like setting. The food is truly forward thinking, with restructured and reinvented Japanese classics in unexpected forms like a Macrobiotic Composition in 3 Stages. Chef Drew Belline of Floataway Café serves modern American food in an industrial chic space, making it clear with complex but balanced dishes like his Black Grouper Crudo with Cranberries that trendy restaurants don’t have to compromise the quality and taste of their food.
It seems like Atlanta has finally found a culinary identity with restaurants that feel very much like a true product of their place. And in a city not generally associated with the vanguard of culinary trend chefs and diners have definitely entered the new era of casual chic. While these restaurants are decidedly not haute cuisine, they present their elegant, re-invented culinary variety in a wide range of relaxed modern restaurants with fine dining dishes that you want to finish every bite of—in style!