Spice capades: Buckhead Diner revamp needs to be re-thought
The Mercedes and Lexuses begin pulling up to the front door of Buckhead Diner at 11 a.m. on the dot. Valet parkers sprint to claim them, stacking them in tight diagonals in the parking lot. Meanwhile, the cars' drivers are stacked up in the restaurant's small foyer, far too many people in relation to the curved padded bench provided. The hostess will be happy to take your name and note the number in your party, but you will not be seated until everyone is present. No, management will not be swayed by your protests that you could all be ordering extra appetizers and drinks while waiting if you had a table.
Some things never change. Among those things is the 15-year-old diner's warm, clubby interior. Every edge that could appear hard has been softened by the sheer beauty of the materials. The curvaceous silver metal, for example, juxtaposed with chocolate-stained wood. The gentle glow from the retro lighting fixtures thrown onto the burgundy carpet, and the seats of the straight-back booths covered in rich taupe cloth.
Buckhead Diner resembles a traditional diner only in its quotations: the booths that slink around the perimeter and march down the middle of the mid-sized dining room, for instance. Booths also separate the bar from the open kitchen. (Too bad cigarette smoke from the bar drifts into the dining room.) After all these years, my favorite diner detail here is still the coat hooks attached to the booths.
Try to remember how dull restaurant food was when Buckhead Diner burst to life. (On second thought, don't; the memory will only depress you.) The restaurant's initial concept was straightforward: glamorize traditional diner food. Thus, macaroni and cheese -- real cheese, not processed food product -- bubbled forth out of the kitchen furnishing both glorious color and hearty flavor. Then there was the Buckhead Diner version of the BLT, this one with fresh grilled salmon, hailed for both its novel approach and for the quality of the fish. But a decade-and-a-half after Buckhead Diner threw open the doors of its metal-sheathed, practically aerodynamic, Art Deco-ish diner, the gastronomic innovations it introduced have become the norm. More troublesome, the kitchen's attention to the food has seemed to recede as the diner's see-and-be-seen reputation has grown. The recent renovation, then, was overdue.
What is a chef to do as a makeover? In this case, it seems that Kevin Rathbun (from stints at Bluepointe and Nava) has decided to throw in as many spices as he can find into every dish. Flavors run hither and yon with disappointing results. Not even a recent filet mignon blue plate special escaped unscathed, blackened as it was with hot ground spices, apparently an attempt to meld Southwestern cuisine with Cajun. What a terrible idea.
For those of you worried about how much the original Buckhead Diner menu has been ravaged, let me put your minds at ease. Partially. The veal and wild mushroom meatloaf -- now billed as "our 'famous' veal and wild mushroom meatloaf with celery mashed potatoes" ($15) -- has survived the cut, as has the "Grilled Buffalo, N.Y., 'Barker's Famous'" hot dog with ($9) or without ($8) chili. Ditto the hamburger ($10); cheeseburger ($11); and the traditional fountain drinks: IBC root beer in an ice cold glass ($2); extra thick milkshakes and malts ($4); black cow, Coke or root beer float and ice cream soda ($3). You can still get Granny Smith apple pie in its sugared pecan crust a la mode ($5) and "James Beard award-winning white chocolate banana cream pie all by itself" ($6).
Macaroni and cheese is a $4 side dish, and the celery mashed potatoes ($3) can be ordered alone or chosen as a substitute item. The "famous" homemade potato chips with warm Maytag blue cheese remain, although the quantity and gooeyness of the melted cheese makes this tower of fat, salt and cholesterol seem nothing more than glorified nachos. A sad fate for otherwise wonderful chips and glorious all-American cheese.
But both the traditional (more or less) bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich is gone, as is the salmon BLT. They have been replaced by the Buckhead Diner B & BLT ($13), comprising beef tenderloin, bacon, lettuce and tomato on farm bread. All of these vestiges of the diner's upscale comfort-food history clash with the new dishes on the menu. Not to mention that the new entrees fight with their accompaniments when they aren't being browbeaten by a sauce or marinade or similar odd addition. Chicken, for instance, pan fried on Sundays and Wednesdays only, is infused with raspberry ($13). Oak-fired Atlantic salmon pairs with buttered leek grits and red onion-black pepper jam ($18). Hazelnut-crusted grouper arrives with butter beans and basil marinated tomatoes ($16). The delicate flavor of seared Georges Bank sea scallops is not enhanced by either the hummus mash or the roasted pepper chive butter thrown in ($17).
Not every new dish is so labored as these, fortunately. Richly flavored lamb shanks from the renowned Jamison Farm pair with golden tomato baked beans ($18). And the daily fish catches are often accompanied by barely wilted spinach. Buckhead Diner's egg fettuccine with flat leaf parsley cream and parmesan with herb roasted chicken ($14) or garlic shrimp ($17) is no heavier nor richer than similar dishes served elsewhere. If these sound like too much to you, you can opt for such sandwiches as the sloppy garlic studded roast beef sandwich "with an extra napkin" ($13); griddled three-cheese sandwich on sourdough with hot ranch fondue dip ($8, $11 if you add smoked salmon); grilled or pan-fried grouper sandwich on brioche with oven-dried tomato remoulade and butter lettuce ($13). (Being a lettuce aficionado, this is one time I do not cringe at the excessively specific menu description.)
Salads large and small include fried green tomatoes and creamy sweet onions ($6); sirloin carpaccio with crisp potatoes ($6); crisped Georges Bank scallops and dill shallot mayonnaise ($14); and a vegetable salad with parmesan and tomato basil vinaigrette ($10).
One could live with the menu's split personality if those entrees that so obviously aim for an edge actually had one. At the moment, however, the kitchen's liberal spicing and disjointed pairings are either excessive or just plain odd.