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Historic Buildings, Hot New Chefs (Flavors, June 2007)

It’s all too easy for anyone hailing from north of the Mason-Dixon line to snicker at an Atlantan’s use of the word “historic” when talking about the city’s architecture. (We admit -- after Sherman razed the city in 1865, it did seem to live up to its old soubriquet of “Terminus.”) But the following restaurants manage to keep in touch with the past while continuing to update their menus -- for carpetbaggers and natives alike.
Vinings Inn

The small town of Vinings was one of Sherman’s rest stops in 1865, but the original Vinings Inn shared the fiery fate of most of Atlanta. Rebuilt nine years later, the Inn continued to service the ferry business of the nearby Chattahoochee River, occupying what is now the home of the Vinings Historic Preservation Society, across the street from the current Inn. Diners would drink cocktails across the street while waiting for a table and then walk back to the restaurant when their table was ready. When the tavern outgrew its home, the restaurant moved to its current site, the clapboard Forty-Forty Building (named after its 40-foot square lot), which had seen incarnations as an armory, general store, post office, gas station, and hardware store.

 The Vinings Inn’s chef, Glenn Barnett, credits his interest in food to his mother’s devotion to cooking. His love for offbeat foods coincided with empty pockets in college at the University of Georgia, spurring an interest in cooking from scratch. After attending the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, he spent time in Aspen serving stylish food to even more stylish celebrities.

 Now in his own kitchen, Barnett’s aims are practical. “My goals are first, to make money for the restaurant,” he says, “and second, to make food that fits where you are.” The restaurant’s seasonal menu is shifting away from stodgy standards in order to please a younger crowd, but Barnett nods to the restaurant’s history with what he calls “Southern Traditional,” putting a spin on old favorites such as crab cakes, shrimp and grits, and pecan-crusted trout.

 City Grill
The City Grill occupies space in the former lobby of the old Federal Reserve Bank downtown. Built in the Chicago style in 1913 by Joel Hurt, a prominent Atlanta developer, the 17-story skyscraper was built to fit the narrow triangular lot, and the floors above the restaurant now house a myriad of businesses that form much of the restaurant’s clientele.

 The classic grandeur of marble and gilt is now directed at the groups of professionals lunching in the 2-story restaurant space, converted in 1988 to the City Grill. The parts and pieces that make up the interior and fittings all have their own stories: The marble comes from a single quarry in Italy. The bar is made of wood from a single tree. The restaurant’s silver comes from Brazil, its chandeliers from Italy. The hand-painted woodland mural shows a fanciful landscape of trees not found in nature, with one single animal hiding among the painted greenery.

 Recently-minted executive chef Sean Pruitt is creating a hot-weather seasonal menu that he calls “a reintroduction to the outside.” With a sizeable lunch crowd that is often convention driven due to the restaurant’s downtown location, Pruitt says he “achieves excitement through simplicity” by resisting trendy dishes or hopping on the latest culinary bandwagon. “I don’t follow trends,” he says. “I change by not changing.” The restaurant focuses on regional food with international flair, but by using classic techniques and flavors, says Pruitt, he can provide “food that is understandable but has a wow factor.”

Native son Derek Morgan returned to Cartersville after several years as a chef in Los Angeles and Phoenix to open his own restaurant in the town’s central historic district. His eponymous restaurant occupies a building itself dating from the 1880s that went through a series of retail incarnations before Morgan purchased the building in 2001.

 “I wanted to restore the building to its old grandeur – the floors, ceilings, and original brick,” says Morgan. Gutting and restoring the building took three years, and the labor of love was a family affair. Morgan’s dad was the builder. His mother, an interior designer, worked with a local artist to faux finish the walls, chose the space’s décor, and provided antiques as finishing touches, including a large chandelier that dominates the dining room’s 18-foot ceilings.

 The restaurant opened in June of 2004, with a 20-seat wine bar nestled in the former basement below the main dining area. The pine removed from the main space was repurposed for the bar downstairs, and the restored storefront is clean and simple, with entry through the original, refurbished doors. Amber walls, chocolate ceilings, and exposed brick provide intimate scale despite the room’s lofty ceiling, but the antique server station and period pieces aren’t allowed to lapse into nostalgia – contemporary art lines the wall, and a glimpse into the gleaming white kitchen shows that the chefs mean business (the kitchen takes up half the main floor).

 Morgan’s seasonally-driven menus are based in French technique with Asian and European inspirations, and his food follows his theme of “Grand Simplicity.” He and his wife Meredith (the restaurant’s pastry chef) often source from local and organic farms, and both are committed to ensuring that the preparation and flavors of the food are straightforward and fresh, “with everything done in grand fashion behind the scenes.”


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