Food Issue - The making of Kimball House
Miles Macquarrie shares a firsthand account of how Kimball House came to be
Long before we opened Kimball House, me and my business partners — Bryan Rackley, Matthew Christison, Jesse Smith — were passionate about working in the restaurant business. But the plot for the four of us to eventually open our dream restaurant started about eight years ago.
Matt and I grew up as best friends in Daytona Beach, Fla. Bryan and Jesse met in 1997 when Bryan ended up booking Jesse's band at the time, at a club in Valdosta, Ga. The two hit it off and have been friends ever since. The four of us crossed paths while we were all working at the Brick Store Pub nearly a decade ago. There we learned the art of genuine hospitality and about giving quality beverage service that still felt casual. We shared the same interests: rock 'n' roll, craft beer, and a true love for the restaurant business.
One night in 2006, over beers after work, it hit us. Since we'd all decided to go ahead and make careers out of working in bars, why not set the goal of having our own place one day? Soon we were meeting weekly to discuss what kind of bar/restaurant we wanted to open. As time went by our palates evolved, and we got older and obtained 25 years of collective work in the service industry.
In 2008, my life changed forever. T the four of us were having a meeting with the three owners of the Brick Store: Michael Gallagher, Tom Moore, and Dave Blanchard (all partners at Kimball House). They told us that if we really wanted to open our own place, one of us would need to experience the opening of a new restaurant. At the time they were planning to open a new place that was going to be called Leon's Full Service. I said I'd do it, not knowing how this choice would change everything for me. I was told that there would be a cocktail menu at Leon's. Luckily for me, back then the Brick Store had an employee exchange program set up with another restaurant in town, a cocktail-driven spot that had opened six months earlier called Holeman & Finch Public House.
I spent a total of five days at H&F, where Greg Best, Andy Minchow, and Reagan Smith taught me the importance of fresh citrus, accurate measurements, and keeping a clean station. At the end of my first night at there, Greg made me my first-ever Sazerac. It was an enlightening experience. Tasting something with that much flavor and such a rich history behind it sold me on the art of making classic (and modern) cocktails. I still keep a Sazerac on my cocktail menu to this day.
I opened Leon's as the bar manager in February 2009, and I was given the opportunity to hone my craft as a cocktail bartender. We changed our menu seasonally, which taught me to think about flavors as the temperature changed and different seasonal produce became available. I quickly became obsessed with cocktails, started collecting old cocktail books, bar tools, and trying to keep up with what was going on in the cocktail scene in other major cities. Throughout this whole period, I was still meeting weekly with my three best friends to discuss our future business venture. I would constantly make them drinks and show them new things that I was working on. Our concept was slowly changing from a rock 'n' roll beer bar to something entirely different.
One thing I noticed as time went by was that a lot of the places in Atlanta that served classically styled cocktails had more of a modern aesthetic. The four of us knew that we wanted to present something that seemed different, something older; somewhere that when you walked in the door you would be transported somewhere else. We collected vintage glassware for years, and it's now an important part of how we present our cocktails. When coming up for a name for our concept, we did a lot of research on old Atlanta, trying to find just the right name for our dream restaurant.
The name Kimball House is inspired by the original Kimball House Hotel, a historic Atlanta landmark that covered a whole city block on the south side of Five Points, Downtown. The original Kimball House was built in 1870, burned down in 1883, and was rebuilt in 1885. It was razed in 1959 to put up a parking deck, which still stands there today. The new and improved Kimball House Hotel that opened in 1885 was larger than the first and contained 357 hotel rooms, 31 stores, and 22 public rooms. We had a hunch that a few of those public rooms had to have had bars that were shaking and stirring proper cocktails back then.
Our hunch was right. Matt was doing some research at the Atlanta History Center and found some old menus from one of the dining rooms at the Kimball House Hotel. The first course from a menu circa 1890 gave me chills when I read it: Blue Point oysters served with a Manhattan cocktail. We took it as a sign. Oysters, cocktails, and a full dining experience was the foundation of our concept, too. We knew the food and drink at Kimball House had to be symbiotic. Our chef team, Jeffrey Wall and Philip Meeker, understood the type of food we wanted to execute and were a perfect fit. Both have classic French training and can do both elegant and bar-driven dishes at the same time. Jeff said something once that I thought was the perfect way to describe the type of food we believed would pay the right homage to classic hotel fare: "Old American Cuisine." Some of our dishes, such as classic caviar service and the Kimball House steak dinner, fit this term perfectly. Jeff and I are constantly talking about flavors and ingredients for cocktails together as well. The two of us worked on the Pecan Old Fashioned, and it would not have been a success without both skill sets.
When it comes to the cocktails at Kimball House, the concept has always been to present things in a classic and elegant manner, but in many cases, to also present new and exciting flavors by using methods not previously available. Both the bar and kitchen use such things as sous vide technology and liquid nitrogen, but they are not supposed to be focal points. We work from the same garden — they add protein and vegetables; I add spirits and fortified wines
My friends and I spent years researching all the things that we think make our restaurant special. Kimball House is what happened when four guys who were super passionate about the restaurant industry got together and set out to open the type of place where we would want to spend time and money on our day off.
I have learned so much from so many people along the way. Our whole business model is greatly shaped by the lessons we learned from our partners, who own Brick Store and Leon's, and also by the collective experience and passions of four Atlanta restaurant industry lifers. I'll leave you with a recipe.
??Next: Miles Macquarrie shares the recipe for the Kimball House cocktail??
The Kimball House cocktail, our house drink, pays tribute to two famous hotel bars from the late 19th century and the early 20th century, the Waldorf Astoria and the Hoffman House. Both hotels had great bars and classic drinks that were simple variations on the quintessential American cocktail, the dry Martini. The Kimball House cocktail is clean, elegant, and meant to pair with oysters.
• 2 ounces good quality gin (I use Miller’s Westbourne Strength or Sipsmith)
• 1/2 ounce Dolin dry vermouth
• 1/2 ounce Cocchi Americano
• 2 dashes orange bitters
Stir with ice in a mixing glass. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Express a lemon peel over the surface of the cocktail. Set aside. Add 8 drops Green Chartreuse to the top of the cocktail as an aromatic garnish. Serve with a few olives and the lemon peel on the side.