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Hip Restaurants Give Old Buildings New Life (Southern Hospitality, Sept 2006)

Atlanta restaurant Rathbuns, Decatur pub The Brick Store, and LaGrange's Tulla White and his several restaurants on the LaGrange square are the subject of this feature on transforming old buildings into restaurants, published in Southern Hospitality Magazine. You can also read the full article after the jump.

Title: History transformed: hip restaurants give old buildings new life

By Melissa Diskin <word count: 1154>


Chef Kevin Rathbun says his eponymous restaurant has “a sexy feel.” Located in Inman Park, Atlanta’s earliest suburb (now a hip intown neighborhood), Rathbun’s opened after a rehab of the Atlanta Stove Works, a pot-bellied stove manufacturer dating from the late 19th century, jumpstarted an influx of design-oriented businesses. He has good reason for liking the place: “You can get character but it looks as if you paid for it. These old buildings already have it.” With another project, the intimate Krog Bar, recently opened next door, it looks as if he’s here to stay.


The sex appeal of Rathbun’s comes from the juxtaposition of slick, modern surfaces with rough elements, such as the pitted concrete floor and brick walls. Neo-Asian elements, such as the narrow-columned glass bar, trimly outline the rugged open spaces, letting the cuisine take center stage. The melding of old and new is a result of both serendipity and artistic vision. Kevin praises his designer, Bill Johnson of The Johnson Studio, who “painted the wall a monochromatic gray so that the uplighting really shows up the shadows of the brick. “


Even what’s underfoot provides the chef and his customers with a tactile experience: “The concrete floor is not smooth, not level. We painted the floor, but the chairs are always chipping the paint off, because it’s uneven.” Despite having to repaint the large space several times, Kevin won’t level the ground, and he welcomes other flaws: “Some of the leaks come down from the roof onto the walls, but it acts as a patina – we could scrub it off, but we like to leave it there.”           


Kevin’s next project, a “prime steakhouse,” will be located in another 100-year old building about 2 blocks away. First a cotton mill, and then occupied by a Clorox manufacturer from the 1940s until the 70s, the building lies on a foundation of rocks and mortar and retains the large sliding doors and huge archways distinctive of its former warehouse architecture. Much of the building will be gutted and redone, but Kevin is determined to keep the unique character of the building intact: “Underneath the restaurant there used to be 2 large tanks – we’re going to take these out and make a cool wine cellar.”


Kevin credits his architect with the foresight to tackle a building most people would dismiss as uninhabitable: “He has no fear with regard to tearing things out and rebuilding. He had the vision to see an old building no one wanted, and now he’s making office and restaurant space out of it.” Expensive? Sure. But Kevin smiles: I didn’t have to pay for character.”


Not every restaurateur has an architect or designer at his or her disposal. For pub owners Michael Gallagher, Dave Blanchard, and Tom Moore, the hands that did the heavy lifting were their own. The trio opened the Brick Store Pub, in Decatur, GA, after spending 14 weeks as their own general contractors. Their goals were simple: No TVs, no neon signs, and no light beer.


The three partners gutted a former photography and design studio on the Decatur courthouse square and built walls, a mezzanine, and a horseshoe-shaped bar that dominates the downstairs restaurant floor. The curvilinear shape turns heads, but it wasn’t easy to install. “It was tough to bury all the phone lines, beer lines, and electric power underneath the bar,” says Mike. He says the team saved 20% by doing the work themselves, but lost 3 weeks of overall time. “We were all in our mid-twenties – very gung-ho. We didn’t understand the pace. The hardest thing was for us to build out the restaurant and get it started. You lose time when you switch from being a general contractor to being restaurateurs, serving people again.”


Toward the end of the build-out, a little digging in the archives at the historical society next door unearthed an old photograph of the building, merged the past with the present, and provided the trio with just the right name for their restaurant. “In the late 1800s the building was a general hardware store – the only place in town that manufactured bricks – so everyone referred to it as the Brick Store.”


The pub’s rough brick walls and massive door belie a space with several intimate nooks for drinking and dining. Mike’s complaints are few: “Nothing in the space is square, so having anything built to suit the space is tough. However, because the natural elements of the building are weathered and rough around the edges, most of what we put in can have individual and quirky imperfections, and it just adds to the charm and warmth of our place.”


The convivial environment seems to be working: last year they landed on the 15th spot on BeerAdvocate.com’s “Top 50 Beer Bars in the Country” list. Mike’s aim is simple: “We try to be respectful of the natural elements of our space. We're big on treating our customers like guests, and a friendly environment is a good start.”


Historic renovations aren’t limited to the big city. Tulla White is the owner and executive chef of no less than four restaurants in historic buildings just off the main square in La Grange, GA.  Each restaurant varies in its approach to historic preservation. The Basil Leaf, described by the chef as an “upscale international” bistro, took over a space that had already been remodeled by the time Tulla moved in (“on September 11, 2001, if you can believe it”). After three years, the chef had to put his own shoulder to the wheel, replacing the subfloor, tiling the kitchen, and making sure the floors sloped to the drains. “Old buildings, you run into something every year that you have to tweak.”


At another of Tulla’s restaurants, Venucci, he ripped out a wall and acted as his own general contractor, but knew when to hand over the reins to a professional: “I was my own GC -- I tore out everything myself because money was tight, and I contacted a plumber and a brickmason, to do what I couldn’t.” Like many restaurant owners who have moved into historic buildings, he likes the blemishes left behind by previous inhabitants, even if only he can see them: “Venucci has exterior walls of brick with plaster over them. I painted them, but the flaws in the wall and floor are what I really like. Downstairs has exposed brick – but unfortunately that’s the storage area!”


Tulla’s latest venture is The Lazy Peach, a bar that he laughingly calls “Caribbean rustic.” The building had been a clothing store, and dated from the 1920s. At 2900 square feet, the shot-gun style space had a single restroom in disastrous shape and had to be more or less gutted inside, although he was able to save the old awning that graced the front door. “When you get into those old buildings, you don’t know exactly what you’re going to uncover.”



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