How now, high-end cow? Alongside Atlanta’s old-school grand master steakhouses – Bone’s, Chops, Taurus – an entirely new herd of upscale chains has stampeded into town, including New York Prime, Flemings and perhaps the flashiest of all, the Capital Grille, on a sixth-floor perch at the intersection of Buckhead and money.
How much you like the place might depend on what you’re looking for. Scenesters crowd in. But if you don’t know the velvet ropes, you may find yourself shunted to the side. And if the food is your top priority, you may leave dissatisfied.
On my first visit, a busy Saturday night, we were swiftly deposited at a table – in a half-empty room, with a view of a cell phone tower and limp imitations of European masterpieces. Returning to the host station, I peered past the busy bar, where couples were being seated in a dining room with a view of a glittering city skyline and the electricity of a great party.
“I wish we’d been seated here,” I told the host, who replied coolly, “Next time, you should ask for it.”
I wondered why we hadn’t been offered the option – we were well-dressed and arrived on time for our reservation. (Was it our over-50 demographic?)
Because I don’t like to read others’ reviews before writing one, I didn’t know to request such a reservation – and apparently neither did the few forlorn others sitting around us.
Small affronts continued to mount: The wait staff was attentive enough, but unfailingly suggested the most expensive options on the wine list and menu – and you’ll have to ask to find out the prices of some of these, such as the lobster, at nearly $70 for the small two-pounder, and a jumbo lump crab appetizer, at $34.
Our entrees, however, were capital: An outstanding dry-aged, porcini-rubbed Delmonico steak with aged balsamic bled with rich red juices, its craggy edges beautifully charred ($38, and worth it). The sesame-seared tuna was similarly awe-inspiring, with slightly sweet gingered rice and three subtly surprising sauces.
But I was surprised to find extras like the Lyonnaise potatoes dried out, and the creamed spinach goopily flat. The wait staff praised the coconut pie to high heaven; we found it less inspired than what you’d find in a suburban chain. The tab: with wine, appetizers, tax and tip, $284.
Determined to give the place a fair chance, I went back for lunch, and despite a frustratingly evasive phone conversation with a manager when I tried to be assured of reserving a table with a good view, was escorted to one quickly.
There, surrounded by power-lunchers (and original oil portraits of significant Atlantans), looking over the hazy city, the experience was completely different. Our waiter tipped us to the oily but fabulous fried calamari with cherry peppers, grilled halibut over fresh butterbeans and gently charred salmon over tossed greens. The Bloody Mary was noteworthy, the horseradish suspended like particles in amber.
It went a long way toward compensating for our first, unimpressive dinner. Still, I would probably return to the Capital Grille only for drinks.
If a steakhouse is a city’s most vibrant illustration of capitalism, the Capital Grille represents the form I like least: conspicuous consumption, based not on merit, but connections.