Stepping into Rare, the new restaurant from the owners of the Harlem Bar, is an experience that reminds me of a children's novel, where a door from this drab, troubled world opens to reveal a fantastical new dimension. The desolate-looking block of Piedmont Avenue houses the brown-papered storefront where the restaurant makes its home, and nothing about the exterior hints at the wonderland behind that dark glass.
But slip in through the door/portal, and beyond a brocade velvet curtain you'll be greeted by a dark room with a long bar, vintage-looking chandeliers and a vibe that is part Old West bordello, part 1930s swinging Harlem club. It's kind of like stumbling onto a movie set. And yet there's something about Rare, the dichotomy of homegrown glitz, that feels deeply Atlantan. This is quite a trick, Atlanta's true personality being a slippery chameleon that so often eludes us.
In that sense, too, the food is so Atlantan it's almost laughable. Soul-food tapas? Where else but here, a city with a deeply Southern food history and a modern transfixion with fashion and fad. More on that later. The scene at Rare is worth paying more heed.
Beyond the bar is a hallway that leads to a room I had a hard time getting into. The first time, the host informed us that we could only sit in the bar area because we didn't have a reservation. The back room didn't come close to being half-full the entire time we were there, but I guess an air of exclusivity isn't such a bad thing. The next visit, I made sure to make a reservation for myself and a friend whom I met there. When I arrived, the hostess instructed me to sit at the bar to wait for my friend. Half an hour later, a waiter informed me that my friend was in back waiting. She had been there the entire time – the hostess hadn't bothered to check.
And so, finally, I got to partake in the supercool scene that the back room of Rare offers. The closest thing I can compare it to is the dining room at the now-defunct B.E.D. – Rare serves its soul tapas on trays to diners who recline on bedlike platforms. Unlike B.E.D., Rare doesn't charge a $600 minimum to occupy its padded platforms, and the vibe here is way cooler. It's dark, and the music is loud, and old black-and-white movies are projected onto a wall. It's all slightly silly, and very impressive.
In some instances, the same can be said for the food. There are dishes on the menu that I will return for again and again, and most of them include the fantastically amped-up, house-made hot sauce. It's the very lack of gourmet pretension that makes this stuff so good. It tastes like Texas Pete on steroids. Buffalo chicken livers with onion rings drizzled in ranch stands out as one of my favorite dishes of the year. Why didn't someone think of this before? Dredged in flour and hot sauce and fried to a pink medium, they have all the satisfaction of good, slutty bar food, but with a twist of ingenuity that's admirable. Likewise, the fried Cornish hen served on a plate covered with hot sauce is the perfect tapas answer to fried chicken. But you know, you could serve just about anything with enough of that hot sauce and I'd be happy. I could eat it on my cereal for breakfast.
When the food works at Rare, it's because of a clever mind in the kitchen. Chef Anthony Sanders, a culinary-school grad who grew up working in his grandmother's soul-food restaurant, knows how to combine the familiar and the innovative. Collard-green potstickers are a cute and tasty twist on the Asian fried dumpling. Surf-and-turf pot pie is full of flavor, but it was the first place I noticed a reliance on flavor from a bottle. The dish would sing a clearer note with fresh herbs.
Oysters Rockerfella (Hova would be proud) are topped with collards and bacon, but then suffer from a smattering of Parmesan cheese that looks like it came from a green can. Deviled eggs – served as a set of three varieties in classic, topped with shrimp, and topped with bacon – are ruined by sugar whipped into the yolks. The result tastes like those scary supermarket deviled eggs, and for $5 for three mouthfuls, that's disappointing. There were instances at Rare when I felt that had the ingredients been better sourced, the food would be twice as good.
Service is friendly and a little uninformed. "What exactly is the dipping sauce?" my husband asked a waiter when he brought our collard-green potstickers. "Oh. I don't know," the waiter said. End of discussion. At every meal, I was greeted by someone who painstakingly explained that they didn't have appetizers, only entrees because they serve tapas. I understand that they may get customers who've yet to be indoctrinated in the way of tapas, but this description is misleading at best. It's also important as a waiter to learn how to inform without condescension. Something along the lines of "all of our plates are small, tapas-size portions" would do the trick.
To be honest, the service issues and kitchen missteps bothered me at first, and I wasn't sure this place was worth the hype. But after a couple of fruity cocktails, a couple of servings of hot sauce and an hour spent on the bedlike platform, I really warmed up. I kind of love this place.
Rare is where the old Atlanta meets the new, where homegrown meets uptown, and it's a combination that works. The design is truly innovative and original, with small eruptions of genius, such as the teeny vintage television above the bar playing cartoons from the '30s. It reminds us of the plasma screens that have invaded almost every bar in the city, but this TV only adds to the atmosphere, the opposite of its high-tech counterparts. That, along with service that's well-meaning, and food that offers both humor and flavor, make for a restaurant we can be proud to call Atlantan.