It’s 6:30 on an early summer evening, and Livingston's patio is throbbing with activity. Women dressed in spangles and silk sip cocktails under canvas umbrellas while seated in luxurious cushioned chairs. The newly renovated Georgian Terrace Hotel's blond brick façade exudes moneyed charm. Across the street, the fabulous Fox Theatre’s marquee twinkles. There’s something about this scene that's apt to fill your heart with Atlanta pride. It’s like the fantasy of what this city could be: a bustling Midtown nightlife; a future that dips into our storied past; a brand of glamour that feels just right.
The revamping of the Georgian Terrace and the opening of Livingston represents something important for our city. For the past year, many of Atlanta’s exciting new restaurants have sprung up in hotels, specifically in big-name chains such as W. Helmed by out of town celebrity chefs such as Tom Colicchio and Laurent Tourondel, these restaurants gave us reason to feel that we're becoming a nationally recognized dining city, but the homegrown element was obviously missing.
The Georgian Terrace couldn’t be more homegrown, from its location at the corner of Peachtree and Ponce de Leon, to its history as the place where Gone With the Wind stars partied after the movie’s premier at the Loew's Grand Theatre. When a city starts to revive the treasures it already holds rather than simply building on top of them, it’s an exciting prospect.
Likewise, Livingston is an Atlanta-specific restaurant. The space is outrageously beautiful, taking the room’s vintage architectural bones — the columns, the wrought iron, the sweeping staircases — and updating them with modern touches such as plush velvet banquettes in the bar area, and floating gauze around the heavy central chandelier. Chef Gary Mennie has deep roots in the city’s dining community, having been the opening chef at Canoe, where he stayed for 10 years, and then moving on to open his own restaurant, Taurus, which closed late last year.
For Mennie, Livingston is a huge and very different undertaking than either of his previous gigs. Running a hotel restaurant, with its round-the-clock nature, is not the same as running a regular restaurant. And Livingston’s proximity to the Fox is both a blessing and a curse. The restaurant has quickly become the go-to spot for pre-theater dinner or drinks, but every time I visited, that bustling 6:30 crowd was gone by 8. Doing all your business in two short hours places a strain on a new restaurant, and Livingston is still struggling to find balance.
The struggle shows in service, which varies from friendly and astute to harried and uneducated about the food and wine. It shows in the food as well. Mennie is a proponent of farm-to-table cooking, and Livingston was an exciting prospect because of the possibility of such a prominent restaurant committing so deeply to local produce. But with the volume Livingston is doing, truly localized produce is difficult. It’s resulted in a June menu that isn’t particularly summery. Brussels sprouts and spring peas make an appearance even when their time is past gone. And while I was excited to see ramps on a softshell crab dish in May (they're advertised as “preserved,” so the late-in-the-ramps season didn’t bother me so much), no ramps showed up on my plate.
What did show up at our table was one of the most glorious soups I’ve ever tasted — silky, Jerusalem artichoke purée punctuated by a tiny, puckery dice of green apples that tasted as though they’d been pickled. The burst of acid against the sweet, rich root vegetable is still in my head weeks later, like a song you heard that you just can’t let go of.
Such subtle and nuanced juxtapositions show up elsewhere. In the short rib ravioli, for instance, a surprising sauce intensly flavored with honey brings out the dish's deep, meaty nature. I was taken aback and then eased into how well the combination worked.
The place where the best seasonal produce makes itself known is the fantastic chopped salad, where items such as crunchy radishes and raw sweet corn have been showing up recently. Mennie's also making a point to source meat locally, although the evening I had the Riverview Farms Berkshire pork, the loin meat was overcooked, and the crispy strips of belly were overpowered by a cloyingly sweet peach mostarda.
And while there’s a lot of great ideas on this menu, the problem I had with the pork — basically a problem of execution — I had elsewhere. A dry rabbit loin. A Riverview Farms strip steak, brightened lovingly with green garlic vinaigrette and cooked to the specified temp, but missing any crust or char on the exterior to give it that steaky magic.
I had a chance to speak to Mennie during one visit — he knew my dining companion — and the inconsistencies are obviously more troubling to him than to most of his customers. It’s entirely possible to have a fabulous meal here, and the drop-dead gorgeous surroundings make small slipups easier to forgive. I can see this chef struggle with the volume, the staffing, and the difficulties of trying to get farm produce onto plates within the confines of a menu that simply can’t change nightly for practical reasons. That he’s willing to take on these struggles is something we should all be glad about, because Livingston has the potential to be a shining jewel in Atlanta’s crown.