THEN: Ten years ago, Atlanta’s foodie scene was still dominated by the Buckhead Life Restaurant Group, which began in 1979 with the opening of Pano’s and Paul’s. Until the opening of Bistro Niko two months ago, the company had not opened anything since in eight years. Back in 2000, the new royalty in Atlanta’s restaurant kingdom, Todd Rushing and Bob Amick (and their Concentrics restaurant group), wouldn’t arrive on the scene for another two years. Concentrics’ properties — the first was One Midtown Kitchen — would become the quintessentially expressive restaurants of the decade: dramatic decors (by the Johnson Studio) for a mainly young and bankrolled clientele with an implacable appetite for the moderately exotic. Meanwhile, Tom Catherall’s Here to Serve Restaurants began to appeal to much the same crowd, adding a more explicitly party dimension to venues like Shout and Twist. The truly adventurous continued scrounging Buford Highway for ethnic novelty.
NOW: Perhaps the present is best signified by the emergence of chef-driven restaurants, where quality — and simplicity — reigns. Miller Union, Repast, Cakes & Ale, Restaurant Eugene, Holeman & Finch, and Woodfire Grill now create the most excitement. This is partly due to the so-called cult of the celebrity chef, but it’s also about a return to intimacy. These restaurants are quieter, their menus typically more egalitarian in pricing, their ingredients closely sourced. Taste and comfort matter most, which also explains the emergence of the gastropub, the renaissance of the burger, the return to our Southern culinary roots, and the growing practice of serving meals family-style. Expense-account fine dining is now mainly confined to hotels where, interestingly, ethnic cuisine is showing up, too (Spice Market, for example). As for design, ai3 — the firm that drew initial attention with the (now closed) Globe — dominates the scene. Whereas the Johnson Studio’s interiors frequently look operatic, ai3’s are often minimalist and witty (think Flip). Fittingly, the minimalism helps turn the focus away from the scene toward the food and the personality dominating the kitchen.
PROGNOSIS: We’ve evolved food-wise, and that’s good for everyone’s appetite — and their wallets.