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Food Issue - The allure of old-school upscale

A tour of some of the city's swanky throwback restaurants

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JOEFF DAVIS

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There’s an indefinable, but nonetheless distinct, point at which an upscale restaurant, if it sticks around long enough, crosses the threshold from fancy to schmancy. When the gracious formality of yesteryear can assume an air of pretentiousness. When a menu once considered traditional has segued into simply being old-fashioned. When the first thing you wonder when you walk in the door isn’t, “What’s the special tonight?” but, “In what decade was this place last redecorated?” Once a restaurant has reached this point, it would take a restraining order to keep me away. (Pictured above: the dining room at McKinnon's Louisiane)?
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?Everyone loves checking out the latest thing and the bragging rights that come from being the first to visit a hot new eatery. Certainly that’s exciting, but, for me, the thrill of the trendy can’t compare to the lure of the old-school and the promise of faded grandeur. And, to be clear, I’m not talking about retro joints winkingly designed to evoke a bygone era — although that can be enjoyable, too — but rather, genuinely old places whose once-ritzy décor, menu, and atmosphere are wildly, unironically out of step with current times. It’s like the difference between visiting the France Pavilion at Epcot and actually being in Paris. (Pictured below: a detail from the Shepherd Room at Petite Auberge)

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JOEFF DAVIS

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When I first arrived to Atlanta in the late ’80s, a number of these classy holdovers were still scattered across town: super-posh joints such as Hedgerose Heights and Pano's & Paul’s in Buckhead; seafood havens like Jim White’s Half Shell at Peachtree Battle; and fusty Continental eateries like South of France next to the Tara theater and Maximillian’s in Smyrna, which specialized in wild game. Anthony’s, which resembled an old plantation house right on Piedmont Road, was so well established as a highfalutin dining establishment that it was tapped to secretly replace its regular coffee with “mountain grown Folger’s crystals” for a TV commercial.?
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?Sadly, only a handful of these swanky throwbacks remain in Atlanta, a city notorious for bulldozing its history in the name of progress. None of these survivors date back much earlier than the ’70s. And, no surprise, most are on the Street That Time Forgot, Cheshire Bridge Road.?
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?Unquestionably, there are better meals to be had in Atlanta than at its battery of old-school restaurants, with more innovative food. But a more enjoyable experience than wallowing in culinary nostalgia, antiquated surroundings? I’ll have to order another Old Fashioned and think that over.

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ALFREDO’S?{DIV(align="left")}?

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JOEFF DAVIS

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Beyond the entrance’s fading burgundy awning, dozens of framed clippings and reviews offer evidence that this place has been around for a while (it celebrated its 40th birthday this year). The heavy scent of garlic bread suggests you’re not in Sotto Sotto anymore, and the lengthy menu reads like a list of Italian-American standards, from chicken cacciatore to a full 10 veal dishes.?

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JOEFF DAVIS

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Alfredo's (1989 Cheshire Bridge Road, 404-876-1380, alfredosatlanta.com) cramped, busy dining room, the low drop ceiling, the vintage paneling, the small aquarium behind the bar all suggest a shabbiness that stands in contrast to the white tablecloths and elderly waiters hurrying about in matching burgundy vests.

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JOEFF DAVIS

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The bar at Alfredo's.

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JOEFF DAVIS

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But it’s Alfredo’s “art” on the walls that really ties the room together. Each unmatched print, bas-relief, and filigreed mirror was clearly hung at different times over a number of years for reasons probably long forgotten.

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?57TH FIGHTER GROUP?{DIV(align="left")}?

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JOEFF DAVIS

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?In the last century, it was common for upscale restaurants to have not just a specific cuisine and décor, but an actual theme. The late, much-lamented Dante’s Down the Hatch was a ship where you could cross an actual gangplank and eat dinner on the main deck — to the stylings of a live jazz combo, of course. At the Abbey, which occupied a former Methodist church on Ponce de Leon, the waiters wore monks’ robes while a harpist played in the choir loft.???The 57th Fighter Group (3829 Clairmont Road, 770-234-0057, www.the57threstaurant.com), next to DeKalb Peachtree Airport, is especially high-concept, resembling a white stucco French farmhouse that’s been commandeered as the temporary headquarters of an American flying squadron during WWII. Got that? (Just for the record, the website describes it as “Atlanta’s favorite World War II aviation theme restaurant,” which is inarguably true.)

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JOEFF DAVIS

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Did customers snicker as they walked through the sandbag-lined entryway when the restaurant originally opened its doors 30-some years ago? I couldn’t tell you, but my reaction when I first visited was to wonder why people don’t build cool, gimmicky shit like this anymore.?

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JOEFF DAVIS

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JOEFF DAVIS

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An original Nazi flag is among the World World War II memorabilia at the restaurant.

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JOEFF DAVIS

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The dining room at 57th Fighter Group looks onto the runway at DeKalb Peachtree Airport.

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?TRADER VIC’S?{DIV(align="left")}?

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JOEFF DAVIS

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?Of course, the granddaddy of concept restaurants is the 80-year-old Tiki chain, Trader Vic's. (255 Courtland St., 404-221-6339, www.tradervicsatl.com). It bears repeating — if not the offering of a Pu Pu platter to thank the Tiki gods — that Atlanta is somehow lucky enough to have one of only three full-service Trader Vic’s left in the U.S., and the only franchise not on the West Coast.

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JOEFF DAVIS

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It’s no secret that Trader Vic’s is savvy to its rep and has chosen to embrace the kitsch with live bands and special promotions in order to appeal to hipsters and Tiki nerds like this writer.

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JOEFF DAVIS

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But, self-awareness aside, the bamboo-and-blowfish décor of the expansive basement space remains largely unchanged from the chain’s 1950s heyday (though the Atlanta location didn’t open until the mid-’70s). ?

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JOEFF DAVIS

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?The menu still offers the signature Crab Rangoon and “Polynesian” spare ribs cooked in giant Chinese wood-fired ovens. The Trader’s trademark Mai Tai, Samoan Fog Cutter, Scorpion Bowl, and other rummy concoctions remain thankfully unmolested.

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?PETITE AUBERGE?
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JOEFF DAVIS

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?Atlanta’s king of upscale old school is undoubtedly Petite Auberge (2935 N. Druid Hills Road, 404-634-6268, www.petiteauberge.com), the Toco Hills time capsule that has clung to tradition with white knuckles. Unlike swanky brethren like Nikolai’s Roof that have made efforts to update an outdated atmosphere, this restaurant soldiers on, oblivious to trends and modern advances in the preparation of side vegetables.?

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JOEFF DAVIS

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?From the fussy interior decoration that includes crystal chandeliers and gilt mirrors, to a Continental menu that rescues from near-extinction such hoary delights as Beef Wellington and Chicken Cordon Bleu, Petite Auberge serves up a blue-hair’s vision of fine dining without a dollop of irony.

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JOEFF DAVIS

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?It even offers that most ostentatious of fancy-pants entrées, Chateaubriand (née beef tenderloin), cut, grilled, and sauced tableside by a black-vested waiter.

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JOEFF DAVIS

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The door handles to the entrance to Petite Auberge and a gilded mirror in the Shepherd Room.

??MCKINNON’S LOUISIANE?{DIV(align="left")}?

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JOEFF DAVIS

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?Buckhead’s venerable McKinnon’s Louisiane (3209 Maple Drive, 404-237-1313, www.mckinnons.com) — which originally opened in 1972 on Cheshire Bridge before a mid-’80s relocation — comes by its French accent naturally since it aims to offer traditional New Orleans dining, complete with a battery of creamy sauces.?

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JOEFF DAVIS

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While visibly old school, McKinnon’s would seem to have a fairly low cheese factor — unless you come on a weekend evening, when the restaurant’s backroom piano bar is packed with apparent members of the Greatest Generation taking turns at the mic to belt out tunes made famous when your parents were kids. (OK, my parents.)

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JOEFF DAVIS

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In a snarkier moment, I dubbed it geri-oke, but it’s an irresistible tradition that adds greatly to the time-warp effect.

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JOEFF DAVIS

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