I joined two friends for lunch at the Silver Grill a couple days before the 66-year-old diner closed Dec. 22. The mood in the packed restaurant on Monroe Drive was almost funereal in the best sense -- a nostalgic blend of celebration and sadness. Third-generation owner Kevin Huggins was as hospitable as ever. Peggy Hubbard, 73, and famous for eyebrows that have inspired look-alike contests at local drag bars, was our server.
The restaurant, where I was virtually a daily lunchtime customer throughout the '80s, was full of familiar faces of people who, like me, had doted on the establishment's home-style Southern cooking. The Silver Grill, for countless newcomers to Midtown before it became trendy and expensive, was a warm reminder of the small-town world many had of necessity left behind to claim their identities in the big city. Indeed, when the holocaust of AIDS swept through Atlanta, Peggy was among the first to support dying men who were often abandoned by family, even by cowardly doctors and nurses.
I didn't hear much outright reminiscence during my lunch (fried chicken, of course) but I realized that I had stopped going to the Silver Grill in part because it held so many painful memories of dead friends. My first partner, Rick, and I lunched there together the day we moved to Atlanta from Augusta in our 20s. He died relatively early in the epidemic, waiting for Ronald Reagan to expedite approval of the use of AZT.
So, I got sad at lunch. We were all survivors in a restaurant full of ghosts. But, as I said, there was a celebratory feeling, too -- simple gratitude for an experience others will never have and, for me, whose Southern mother died this year, a startling reminder of the way good food evokes memory and provides comfort.
I think paying more attention to the development of Southern cooking tops my list of New Year's culinary resolutions. Outside of soul food cafes, only a few restaurants -- Horseradish Grill, South City Kitchen and Watershed -- have taken our regional cuisine seriously in the last 10 years or so. But we seem to be undergoing a renaissance with the opening of new places like Sweet Lowdown, SAGA and the Harlem Bar, which is opening Rare for fine dining with a Southern twist. Restaurant Eugene also increasingly features creative Southern cooking.
The issue of wholesomeness and restaurant dining has generally become a concern in the last year, too. Atlanta dining critics and food writers need to pay it closer attention. A new E. coli outbreak seems to occur every month now, calling into question the way food is grown and distributed in the United States. News flash: I got sick three times in the last year after restaurant meals. I can only prove the source in one case when a friend also got sick, but I suspect this is a much bigger problem than is acknowledged in the media. There are other issues related to wholesomeness, like the astounding rate of obesity (more than 60 percent) among American diners. New York City has responded to the problem by outlawing the use of trans fats, which greatly increase the risk of heart disease. The city is also requiring restaurants with fixed menus to provide conspicuous information about calorie content. Will the City of Fried Chicken follow suit?
Nothing is supposed to be as wholesome as organic food. But it's now an issue because its definition has become more of a marketing tool than anything else. Animals are often as cruelly treated in large-scale organic feed lots as in traditional ones, according to author Michael Pollan. I'm resolving to look deeper when a restaurant promotes organic ingredients.
The Silver Grill's closing reminds me, too, that Atlanta has become a city dominated by a few restaurant owners. While many of these restaurants deserve patronage, none of them have the appeal to the heart and imagination that chef-owned neighborhood places often do. Ambiance plays a big role in that respect. I'm resolving to pay closer attention to designers outside the Johnson Studio in the next year. I want to see more interiors that reflect the personalities of chef-owners, not theme-park decors.
Maybe the most disturbing trend of the last year or so is the departure of our city's three most innovative chefs, Sotohiro Kosugi, Richard Blais and Guenter Seeger (whose absence literally leaves a new hierarchy of talent to assert itself). There's not much critics can do to force diners to patronize such brilliant chefs, but God knows an occasional price break would help. Restaurant Eugene's $30 Sunday supper of Southern cooking is a good example. In other cities, such deals are common. I resolve to beg for lower prices.
I'm also resolving to continue paying more attention to handicapped access. Having spent much of the last year on crutches because of knee surgery and still unable to comfortably walk down stairs, I am continually amazed at the roadblocks I encounter.
Generally, I'm resolving to call out several culinary trends that have come to annoy the hell out of me:The overuse of salt -- to the degree that we even had a short-lived restaurant called Salt -- has become conspicuous. Hello? Trans fats are unhealthy and so is salt. The obesity epidemic also means there's an epidemic of circulatory diseases. Salt, as everyone knows, elevates blood pressure.
A few dishes have become tediously predictable on menus everywhere. I love crab cakes. Well, I did until they became omnipresent. Short ribs and brisket are nice ... in moderation. I love arugula. So does everyone else lately. Bread pudding? Who knew there was that much stale bread in one city?
I've given up on single-handedly reversing the so-called tapas trend. While overpriced "small plates" are a bonanza for restaurant owners, they mainly serve the diner by providing an illusion of light grazing -- until the bill arrives. Tapas make sense in their original intention, as a snack while swilling wine, but I'd still rather have a three-course meal after the snack, not more snacks. I resolve to continue whining.
Finally, I resolve to be nicer to Popeye's. No, really.
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