If these walls could speak
Have you ever been into a restaurant, saw something kind of weird on the wall, and thought to yourself: What the hell is that thing? But then stopped caring because you were starving and your ramen just hit the table? Well, as it turns out, there are some really interesting stories behind Atlanta's culinary ephemera items that often hold deep meaning for the chefs and restaurateurs putting in 60-70 hour weeks in their restaurants, which become much like second homes.
With this in mind, we went into eight of the city's most popular eateries and got the scoop on some of their strangest decor decisions. Trust this you may never look at a random cheese grater hanging on the wall the same way again.
Going to Kevin Gillespie's Revival is like visiting your grandma for Sunday supper. The Victorian house in downtown Decatur is divided into homey dining rooms lined with photos and family relics. In the yellow room, on top of the mantle, sits something truly tweet-worthy from chef Gillespie. "It belonged to my late grandmother," he says. "It's a gold and sparkly bird you know, the kind of thing in an old lady's menagerie. I can remember seeing it on her bureau when I was a little kid. I wanted to touch it but wasn't allowed to." Gillespie says his mother inherited the little figurine and passed it down to him when he opened the restaurant. "I love having this item that my grandmother cherished around me while I work," he says. 129 Church St, Decatur. 470-225-6770. www.revivaldecatur.com.
Fox Bros Bar-B-Q
Everything is bigger in Texas, and since 2007, Fox brothers Jonathan and Justin have served up their hearty smoked BBQ with Southern influence and Lone Star roots. To go along with the Frito pie and the Texas wood used for smoking is a large framed Texas flag hung up on a wall of the restaurant. But this is not just a simple show of Texas pride; this flag was flown over the capitol in Austin on March 2, 2011 which is the brothers' birthday and also Texas Independence Day. "That particular day happened to be the 175th anniversary of Texas," Jonathan says. "The flag was given to us by our dad shortly before he passed away. When you are a twin, you are often given a gift that you have to share, but he gave us both one." The other one used to hang at shuttered sister restaurant Big Tex in Decatur but the Foxes say it may come out of storage soon. 1238 DeKalb Ave. N.E. 404-577-4030. www.foxbrosbbq.com.
Andrew Thomas Lee
When you are lucky enough to snag a seat at Staplehouse, look up. The restaurant that grew out of tragedy, perseverance and community fuels local charity the Giving Kitchen and has a lot of memories tacked up on its walls. But if you ask restaurateurs Ryan Smith, Kara Hidinger and Jen Hidinger about their favorite memento on the exposed brick walls, they don't hesitate. It's a quote from their beloved Ryan Hidinger, painted by William Mitchell, the same artist responsible for their John Candy "Sorry Folks, park's closed" mural painted on the garage doors than roll down when Staplehouse is closed. "Anything long lasting or worthwhile takes time and complete surrender," the quote says, painted near the kitchen the late chef dreamed up. His yearlong battle with cancer inspired and united the city's culinary community to care for one another through the birth of nonprofit the Giving Kitchen. Hidinger said those words during a talk he gave at the international monthly lecture series Creative Mornings back in 2013, six months before he died. "It's powerful and a constant reminder to stay true to oneself," says his wife and co-founder Jen. 541 Edgewood Ave. S.E. 404-524-5005. www.staplehouse.com.
At this sleek Midtown gastropub, you may come face to face with an oversized bright red resin beaver statue. In the spirit of whimsy, it gets moved around the space. Sometimes, when it is positioned next to a stag mounted on the wall, the staff refers to the duo as "Beavers and Buckhead." Most of the time, they call it "Pat," as in pat the beaver on the way out. Owner Bob Amick says his friend and interior designer John Oetgen found it one day (no one can seem to remember where) and both knew it needed to become part of the space. Today, the thing is so beloved it gets hauled to off-site events and was once the star of missing posters when playfully stolen by employees of Shout, the restaurant that used to be across the street. The Shout staff took photos of the beaver all over Atlanta, even white water rafting, until TAP finally stole it back. Sounds like a challenge for the Shout space's current occupant, 5Church, no? 1180 Peachtree St. N.E. 404-347-2220. www.tapat1180.com.
Empire State South
Down-home Southern tradition is not only on Hugh Acheson's menu at Empire State South it surrounds you the moment you step in the door. Flooring designer Doug Booher, who obtained and installed the beautifully repurposed heart pine that lines the restaurant's floors and walls, says the wood came from the oldest house in Duluth, which had served in different eras as a home, a church and a dental office. Made from a cypress tree growing in south Georgia's swamps near the Flint River, the tree is estimated to have been as old as 1,000 years when it was chopped down in the 1800s. The wood "reflects a very core desire that Hugh and I have always had for things around here to be authentic," says Empire State South's wine director, Steven Grubbs. "We want our staff to be actual human people. We want the ingredients to be real, Southern-grown elements, not remotely farmed. And it's kind of a reassuring asset that all the physical things we work around are real materials with a deep history of their own. They contribute their own DNA to the sensation of the place, which hopefully is some kind of true, living experience." 999 Peachtree St. NE #140. 404-541-1105. www.empirestatesouth.com.
Ticonderoga Club's captain's chair just might be the best seat in all of Atlanta: a comfy motorboat throne that swivels beside the bar. But for the restaurant's co-owner, Regan Smith, the chair is steeped in nostalgia. "Growing up fishing in the family was our thing," she says. "We fished for bass in Tucson, Arizona. Like the movie Big Fish, my dad always wanted the big one and was obsessed with the hunt. He liked to taxidermy them, because they were so pretty." She laughs. "The dining room table was always covered in fish guts and eyeballs. That was his workstation. Man, I wish I had one of those." Now she has Ticonderoga, racking up accolades for its snapper ceviche and catches of the day. "I wanted something to look at every time I was in the bar that reminded me of him," says Smith of her late father. "So, one derelict boat chair was the choice. He would've loved it." 99 Krog St. N.E. 404-458-4534. www.ticonderogaclub.com.
Andrew Thomas Lee
When friends and business partners Matt Christison, Miles Macquarrie, Bryan Rackley and Jesse Smith opened Kimball House, they wanted to put pieces of their personality onto the shelves of the former railroad station in Decatur. Today, the shelves are lined with mementos: bottles, books, toys and even a small child's drum set. There's a stuffed bobcat shot by Macquarrie's father-in-law and a Freddie Freeman bobblehead gifted by the late Ryan Hidinger. But two items stand out: a pair of soldier statues holding lamps and standing guard in the window. Also embossed on the daily changing menu, the soldiers were a gift from Louise Grant, the granddaughter-in-law of the last owner of the original Kimball House, an Atlanta hotel built in 1870 near Five Points. The hotel burned in 1883, was rebuilt in 1885, and was finally razed in 1959, but the restaurant carries on its legacy. "Grant saw that we had named our restaurant after the hotel and wanted to donate them to us," says Smith. "She said they were special but had no use in modern decor. Bryan went to go pick them up and she grabbed one of the statues by the nose and said 'You're going home.'" He laughs. "I love them! I call them my fancy men due to their attire." 303 E. Howard Ave., Decatur. 404-378-3502. www.kimball-house.com.
Chef Nick Melvin opened Venkman's with Nick Niespodziani and Peter Olson of Yacht Rock Revue fame to bring together music and food. Niespodziani's dad built the stage and sound booth, and Melvin hung his family heirlooms on the wall: most notably, a grater and a knife that belonged to Melvin's grandfather, Richard Boosey, who owned a BBQ restaurant in Little Rock. His restaurant was one of the first to serve African Americans and whites, so those utensils prepared some of the first integrated meals in Arkansas. Though Melvin has since left Venkman's and taken his heirlooms with him, he knows they'll come along to wherever he ends up next. "It's a constant reminder that no matter what happens, cooking is in my blood," he says. "It's what I am supposed to be doing." 40 Ralph McGill Blvd N.E. 470-225-6162. www.venkmans.com.