Some restaurants have heart. The staff, the owner, the clientele, the menu or the food can communicate it. You find it most often in neighborhood cafes where familiarity evokes it over time (unless you're a jackass). These restaurants, as neighborhood businesses, often become involved in community service projects.
Among those is Radial Café and Homegrown Restaurant Concepts, which operates Doc Chey's and Osteria 832. They were recently awarded 2011 Restaurant Neighbor Awards by the Georgia Restaurant Association. They're now competing for the National Restaurant Association's award.
Their acknowledgement inspired me to visit the three restaurants. And I might as well get the worst out of the way first: I have a conflicted relationship as a critic with Doc Chey's. The one in Grant Park (563 Memorial Drive, 404-688-4238, www.doccheys.com), like the others, has a great staff and comfortable dining room. And I've long known that owner Rich Chey is a huge supporter of community projects.
But I don't care for the restaurant's food. I've tried the Grant Park location five or six times and have never had better than a mediocre meal (with the exception, maybe, of the Korean tacos). Last week, we visited and had an even-worse-than-usual experience.
They had a special of "Thai beef salad." We assumed this would be the classic dish of nua nam tok, but when it came to the table, it was a pile of bland noodles covered with vegetables and three hunks of meat. Noodles are not part of the traditional dish and were not even mentioned in the description of Doc Chey's version. An order of pad thai was better but on the verge of being gooey because the noodles were so overcooked. Still, I find the staff here really delightful — they comped the salad — and it's nice to support a restaurant that does so much good.
Chey originally opened an Italian café, Stella, at the site of the Grant Park restaurant. We still miss it and if you do, too, you should definitely visit Osteria 832 (832 N. Highland Ave., 404-897-1414, www.osteria832.com) in Virginia-Highland. Dining there last week was like rereading Stella's menu. The best thing we sampled was a special of fish stew (zuppa di pesce), loaded with clams, mussels, shrimp and swordfish. Everything, from the seafood to the broth, was just right.
I ordered a favorite dish from the Stella days — a white pizza with smoked prosciutto, balsamic reduction and fresh arugula. My only complaint: It was a bit heavy on the rosemary.
I hadn't been to Radial Café (1530 DeKalb Ave., 404-659-6594, www.radial.us) in years when we brunched there last Sunday. This is one of those diner-like restaurants that, while frequently packed, does exude comfort. Owner Frank Bragg, a longtime Atlanta activist, bought the restaurant last October after 10 years of work with Metrotainment (Einstein's and Cowtippers, among others).
We had a great meal — pillowy, billowy, fluffy buttermilk pancakes with bacon for me and eggs scrambled with Gouda cheese and sausage for Wayne. I also sampled cheese grits and a thick biscuit like your mother made. Bragg said he's considering opening evenings.
I asked Chey and Bragg what motivates their community service. "I've always been involved in something," Bragg said. "It's not just a restaurant thing. I think we all have a responsibility to help others." He was particularly cited for Radial's support of organizations that benefit children, such as For the Kid in All of Us. Radial also regularly hosts fundraising dinners. Bragg's résumé of community service is way too long to describe here.
Chey responded this way: "A big part of what I talk about with my team and my kids is the concept of karma — what goes around comes around. We give back to the communities we serve because it is the right thing to do and we do it with no expectations of receiving something in return. What I have found is that it has helped with employee retention because our people appreciate working for an organization that not only cares about them but also cares about the communities we serve. My hope is that nurturing this attitude of 'being of service' in my staff and my kids will help them 'pay it forward' in every aspect of their lives."
Chey is widely known for his service work, but this year's award especially cites the extensive fundraising he has done for firefighters. I asked him why firefighters. "I was tired of watching the news and continually seeing the fire department's budget being cut. These brave men and women risk their lives every day for modest pay protecting us and our homes so it was a no-brainer to give something back to them."
He also supports the Atlanta Community Food Bank and the Atlanta Track Club's outreach program to educate children to lead a "healthy lifestyle through exercise, nutritional education and smarter food choices."
An Arby's and an Applebee's were also cited for community service.
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