Buckhead Diner: Power Point
Art of the Meal
Landmark restaurants like the Buckhead Diner always prompt happy memories of previous visits. Like a young star who achieves fame with his first movie, the place crackled with excitement from the day it opened in 1987. Back then, dinner at the Buckhead Diner was such an event that your out-of-town guests would mention it every time they saw you for years afterward. In that heady era, you might brush past R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe or watch Elton John regale a table of cohorts.
But celebrities didn’t make the Buckhead Diner: It was the mix of innovative food, sharp service and the ambitious, creative crowd who liked that backdrop. Despite the casual dress code, a friend remembers always feeling underdressed and overweight when she faced the host’s station. And because reservations weren’t accepted, you could spend quite a long time in the foyer, watching the beautiful people. That, too, became part of the draw.
If a restaurant’s cooking and service are on target, its ambiance can be as intoxicating as a stiff Cosmopolitan, feeding the thrill of a new discovery. After a recent renovation, the Diner’s interior looks sleeker than ever. Chrome outside and Deco-accented mahogany and marble within, the place looks less like an upscale diner than an oil potentate’s custom Pullman car.
The menu, too, has been overhauled, by Kevin Rathbun, the chef who brought both crowds and respect to siblings Bluepointe and Nava, offspring of the Diner’s parent company, Buckhead Life Restaurants. Two recent visits indicate that like Cyndi Lauper, however, Rathbun is having trouble breaking the “80s icon” mold.
Lunch — perhaps especially for the business crowd — retains much of the old pop. At its heart the Buckhead Diner is a Power Point presentation, but it still seems to want to dress in the giant shoulderpads and clear lip gloss of two decades ago. The food that attracted that unique mix of Buckhead Boys and the avant-garde was somehow both witty and very Southern: Fried green tomatoes, giant slices of veal meat loaf, homemade potato chips dripping with blue cheese. You kept expecting Brett Butler to take your order.
The current menu seems less clearly defined, and at times, presentation and service slip. For our money, the old standbys remain the best, even if, like the ’80s, they often suffer from excess. The big plate of warm, crisp potato chips with Maytag blue cheese is still impossible to resist, but a little oilier than they should be. The veal and wild mushroom meat loaf with celery mashed potatoes and creamy gravy is an aromatherapy bath of comfort. The creamy tomato-cheddar soup is a marvel, with its popcorn “croutons.” The catapulting white chocolate banana cream pie is as delicious a bit of showbiz as Siegfried & Roy’s snowy tigers.
One lunch special, greasy fried soft-shell crabs with ill-conceived cilantro mashed potatoes, is a signal of trouble to come. So are the bland fried green tomatoes, the dirty glass and our very chatty waiter, who too often disappears.
At dinner, the place is still full, but there’s not much of a wait. The crowd is dressed in jeans and Hawaiian shirts and halter tops. And one dish after another has us scratching our heads: Among the small plates, excellent “Duck Trap” smoked salmon from Maine is piled in a giant heap on a bagel chip, beside deviled eggs that bear no discernable trace of their advertised white truffle oil. The $14 Caesar salad with cornmeal-jacketed George’s Bank scallops and dill shallot mayonnaise featured rusty-edged Romaine leaves, bland dressing and oddly flavorless breading on the excellent scallops.
The rosemary and ricotta-stuffed chicken with wilted mustard greens and pinot grigio jus flopped on nearly every level: The chicken’s top half-inch was overbroiled to leathery dryness; the greens were tough; the ricotta clotted and clashed in the jus. The “lemony-lemon” icebox cake was strangely rubbery, under buttermilk ice cream; the chocolate cake simply… unmemorable. In the end, that may be the biggest lapse of all.
Krista Reese is Georgia Trend’s restaurant critic.
From recent Georgia Trend reviews
Five & Ten:
Your waiter in this eclectically decorated space is likely to be a sweet young UGA student who hasn’t a clue about the intriguing wine list, or what half the menu tastes like. He’s simply there to do the bidding of chef/owner Hugh Acheson, this year named as one of Food & Wine magazine’s 10 Best New Chefs in the nation. Fortunately, Acheson knows exactly what he wants this experience to be about: Freshness and discovery, above a personal signature. We love the grilled flatbread with salmon gravlax, with bits of preserved lemon, fresh dill and little pot of creme fraiche, and the eccentric dessert cheeses. Among the hand-chosen beverages, you’ll find house-made lemonade, IBC root beer, and Illy espresso alongside the wines. All in all, no nickel-and-dime effort. 1653 S. Lumpkin St., Athens. 706-546-7300. (May ’02)
Greek for “wave,” Kyma illustrates how Pano Karatassos matches his quest for great food with diners’ unfulfilled wishes. The back-to-the-future Greek menu is both elemental and exotic, high-quality and sanely priced. Specializing in grilled fish, much of it flown in from the Mediterranean, Kyma’s sense of drama begins at the column-flanked front door, where an expanse of marble tiles leads to a glittering pantheon of iced fresh fish. For all Kyma’s popularity, this straightforward and basic cuisine, so dependent on freshness, at times leaves us just slightly underwhelmed. But a restaurant is best judged by its own goals, and by those standards, Kyma is a great success. 3085 Piedmont Road, Atlanta. 404-262-0702. (April ’02)
Atlanta’s Russian-and-French-inspired skyport is for hard-nosed business types and romantic softies. Prices can be stratospheric in the 30th-floor aerie of the Atlanta Hilton, where the theme is Czarist Russia and the service is nearly as decadent. Chef Johannes Klapdohr’s Continental dishes are as seductive as an Old World lover. Nikolai’s signature infused vodkas, served in tiny, iced mugs, are good companions for the Caspian Sea caviar with all the usual trimmings. Allow sommelier Christophe Orlarlei to guide you through the list of more than 500 wines. 255 Courtland St. (in the Hilton Hotel), Atlanta. 404-221-6362. (February ’02)
Nino’s Cucina Italiana:
Dark and comforting as a womb, the old-fashioned, authentic neighborhood trattoria is a cinematic stereotype. This isn’t Pricci, or even Veni Vidi Vici, where your shoes are as important as the veal. The owner (or his brother Giuseppe) roams the small dining room in a smartly tailored suit, the wait staff is uniformed and thoroughly knowledgeable, and the regulars speak softly, as if in a kind of church. That’s understandable when even small touches inspire reverence, as in the little teepee of baby arugula with bresaola, the veal gorgonzola (understated and satisfying) and the simple nirvana of pasta with fresh porcini mushrooms. The incongruous location on pockmarked Cheshire Bridge Road adds to your sense of discovery. 1931 Cheshire Bridge Road NE, Atlanta. 404-874-6505. (July ’02)
The city’s best restaurant, and Atlanta’s only Mobil five-star, isn’t for everyone. No one touches chef Guenter Seeger for creative audacity, simultaneously thrilling us with the shock of the new, and comforting our deepest food longings. If your tastes run to huge, well-done steak, or if a contemporary, understated environment feels cold to you, you’re not going to like Seeger’s. But you will be ecstatic if you enjoy fresh food, in every sense of the term. The menu changes daily, and we recommend putting yourself in the chef’s able hands for the tasting menu, available with matching wines. A few examples of our recent favorites: Trout tartare with horseradish ice cream, sprinkled with microgreens; venison with glazed endive, apple chutney and chive crepe; grapefruit terrine in sugar syrup with black pepper ice cream. Seeger’s, 111 West Paces Ferry Road (at East Andrews Drive), Atlanta. 404-846-9779. (March ’02)
Augusta’s refurbished and brick-lined Riverwalk is just a few blocks from Broad Street. At this narrow downtown restaurant serving dinner only a few nights a week, chef/owner John Beck lures natives with “an eclectic mix of Southern and Asian.” His small, well-focused menu includes Southern crowd-pleasers like cornmeal-crusted fried oysters and catfish, along with Eastern influences like Asian duck with a plummy ‘honey barbecue’ sauce. The wait staff is learning, but most details shine. 1032 Broad St., Augusta. 706-303-2469 (CHOW). (June ’02)