It was the Tex-Mex place that sent me over the edge. The Tweet from WhatNowAtlanta.com came over the transom explaining that a Tex-Mex restaurant was scheduled to open near Seventh and Peachtree streets, two blocks from my apartment and smack-dab in the middle of Midtown. "Thank goodness," I thought. I had visions of Javier's in Dallas, a neighborhood eatery with a sterling bar, a cigar lounge, top-notch service, and, oh yeah, fantastic Tex-Mex staples. Nothing chef-y, nothing precious, just great food, drinks, service, and atmosphere. The very combination Midtown seems incapable of offering.
Then I saw the name: Señor Patrón. Oh, no. Basically, "Mister Mister." The "chain" has one restaurant — in the Tex-Mex hotbed of Ohio. Then I saw the website. If Mike Judge were ever to remake Office Space and needed a Tex-Mex joint to replace Chotchkie's, this would be it. It's a parody of Tex-Mex, right down to the names of the dishes, including, but not limited to, the "Speedy Gonzales."
What the hell is wrong with Midtown? Since moving here in October, I've spent a good deal of my time trying to find "my place": a bar or restaurant with a bar that has those four qualities previously mentioned. I'm picky, but not elitist. In Dallas, "my place" was an Irish pub, but it had some of the best bar food you'll find (artisan cheeses, outstanding mussels and frites, etc.). But my secondary home away from home was a high-end steakhouse, with big pours, friendly bartenders, and the city's high-end hookers waiting for the city's high-profile athletes to stop by. In other words, a truly great neighborhood hang can be high- or low-end, specialize in $2 Pabst or $12 for three fingers of Booker's, a well-charred burger or sublime charcuterie.
And the entire spectrum between those categories can offer up disappointments, too. That's mostly what I've been fed in my search. Whether it's snotty service burger joints, over-hyped Southern foodie locales, trendy paeans to douche culture, inferior branches of places that do it better across town, or (most often) just plain average-to-bad food, Midtown struggles to offer anything that approaches a must-visit neighborhood joint.
Perhaps that's why there's such turnover. Already, places like Ludacris' Straits have closed. (That place could not be considered great by any means, as the pricey food was not much better than chain steakhouse quality, but the drinks were stiff and I did have fun wandering in there in the wee hours to what seemed always to be a private party for a DJ and his friends hanging out, hoping Luda would make an appearance.) And there are other places I've visited either for this story or in the past whose eventual shuttering is an inevitability.
Because of a series of such disappointments, some of my favorite places in Midtown are the simple chain-like spots that have little ambition other than to do one or two things well. Hudson Grille, for example, just wants to be a better-than-average sports bar, and it is that, with surprises like a flavorful Parmesan-and-herb-filled turkey burger and a sinfully decadent Sunday brunch menu. Joe's on Juniper (same owners, turns out) just wants to flaunt its great location, patio, and the gay male sex jokes on its menu, and it does all those things well, which covers for the sad state of the actual menu items.
I have hope the worm will turn and this often-mocked area of town — I love when I tell folks I live in Midtown, and the cool kids all make that condescending "oh, that's interesting" face — can find its groove as a place with real neighborhood offerings. To that end, I'm pretty excited about some upcoming places such as the Lawrence, the Juniper Street restaurant from the Top Flr/Sound Table guys. In fact, I crashed the soft-opening invite-only dinner last Friday evening, all but challenging the staff to act all haughty and throw me out. (Would have been completely deserved.) Instead, the bar/wine manager (didn't catch his name; I'm not what you call an excellent "reporter") asked me if I lived nearby ("457 steps; I just counted!"), told me about the vision behind the place (translated: "be kick-ass"), and whetted my appetite.
Because, here's the deal, and I'm sorry for burying the lead: To me, any great neighborhood restaurant has to also be a great bar, or the bar has to have restaurant-quality food. I always eat at the bar, because that's what you do in a place where you feel comfortable. It's where you get to know the staff and the regulars. And the Lawrence's bar looked promising, if a bit too much a part of the dining room for my taste. (To me, you have to be able to sit at the bar without feeling as though you're intruding on people's dinner.)