I usually hate restaurant reviews that spend the first 11 paragraphs talking about decor or service. Sure, tell me if the tables are all cubist shapes that make the food fall in your lap, or if the waiters kick you in the shins each time they bring out a plate. Mostly, though, I just want to know if the food is good.
This, however, is not a review of Home, the Atlanta restaurant featuring Richard Blais from Top Chef Season 4. I’m not qualified to do that, other than to say the food was terrific overall: fresh bursts of cilantro in the rich silken corn soup with lump crab relish; perfectly cooked shrimp over creamy, almost rice-puddingish grits (though I’m not sure I want to know what the “she-crab butter” is that presumably gives the grits their surprising sweetness); do-I-really-want-to-taste-it-okay-I’ll-eat-some-more ranch ice cream. The sour cream pecan cake was kind of dry, but the peaches, cream, and sweet tea ice cream that accompanied it matched the rest of the meal.
No, this is an appreciation of an underrated quality, in chefs as well as our culture at large: being nice.
In fact, Home just might be the nicest restaurant in America. (Ed. Note: I have, surprisingly, not been to every restaurant in America.)
Season 4 was the first full season of Top Chef I watched. What struck me wasn’t just how skilled Blais and eventual winner Stephanie Izard were, both technically and creatively, but how nice they seemed to be.
It’s a sad commentary that kindness was so refreshing. But after 15 years of Real World catfights, Temptation Island snogging, Survivor backstabbing, Fear Factor humiliation, Flavor Flav minstrelsy, C-lister fame-grubbing, Rock of Love whoredom (is that a word?), and endless cable-news idiocy, their earnest decency was almost radical.
So when I found out I’d be going to Atlanta for a Society of Professional Journalists conference, my fiancee (who had to stay behind in D.C.) wouldn’t hear of me coming back home without having gone to Home. After my experience during today’s conference lunch break, Melanie might have to fly here herself. Here’s how it went down.
My colleague Tammi and I sat down after riding past the mansions, Sotheby’s for-sale signs, and country clubs of Buckhead. We felt a wee bit out of place, so it was nice to feel welcomed by Caleb, our waiter. He helped us pick from the menu, seemed to appreciate it when we told him we had made a pilgrimage from D.C., and was generally nice.
The next time he came to our table, I decided to be dorky and ask if Blais was in the kitchen. To my surprise, he said yes! I asked if Blais ever came out to say hello, and Caleb said sure.
I got all excited, but started mentally fretting because meetings between celebrities and normal people are so culturally and interpersonally fraught (see: Michael Ian Black’s Idiot’s Guide to Meeting People More Famous Than You).
I mean, yeah, I wanted to meet Blais partly because he was on TV, but also — mostly, I’d like to think — because of who he is. I’m not rushing to meet Spike Mendelsohn’s at his new D.C. joint, f’rinstance.
But what’s he going to care that some random person is excited to see him? Plus any questions are going to be inane things he’s heard a zillion times before. Then there’s this, from a recent blog post Blais wrote after returning from a Top Chef tour in L.A. (a post that I thankfully didn’t read until later in the evening when I discovered he had a blog):
Being ON STAGE all the time is tough. I don’t mean physically on stage, but knowing that everyone you meet, or who recognizes you walks away with an impression makes you really want to validate yourself, your performance, your personal character. I’ve never not given any supporter or fan everything I have even if it’s only for 2 minutes in passing. It’s important. We (Top Chef, quasi celebrity, e- listers, whatever ) really need to validate the integrity of what we do. It’s a responsibility. But this trip grinded on me, and for the first time I just wanted to throw on a baseball cap and some sun glasses, maybe even a fake beard, and just chill out for a bit, alone…
How can you respect that while also asking someone to act like he’s happy to meet a complete stranger? You can’t, really. Just hope he understands that you understand the strangeness (for both sides) of the celebrity encounter.
And of course Blais was exceedingly gracious when he came by our table. He submitted to a photo op, and didn’t seem obviously annoyed by my questions. Excused himself, went to a few more tables, back to the kitchen.
So that was exciting. But wait — there’s more!
As we were looking over the menus for dessert, Tammi asked if we could take a menu back with us so I could show Melanie. Caleb said sure. Then five minutes later he brought us another menu — signed by Blais! I’m loving it, which of course makes me feel extra dorky but I don’t care.
So that was exciting. But wait — there’s more!
After Caleb told us more about the restaurant, Tammi asked the hostess if she would show us around. The hostess (also very nice, though I didn’t catch her name) took us downstairs to the private dining room (note to self: when rich, treat friends to dinner in Home’s private room) and the wine cellar, complete with table for two (note to anyone about to get engaged: fly to Atlanta and propose in Home’s wine cellar).
She brought us back upstairs and took us out to a patio, passing the kitchen (I gave Blais a kind of half-wave) on the way. Then Blais came out to talk to us again!
So yeah, that was exciting too. But wait — etc.
As we were leaving the parking lot, Tammi took out her phone to take a picture of the front of the restaurant (it’s a converted old house). Meantime, a man was walking out from behind the house, wearing shorts and a sweaty T-shirt and carrying a bag that looked like it might have carried mulch. He offered to take a photo of us — and oh by the way, mentioned he was the general manager (Chet, I believe). He had come by to mow the lawn — you know, no big whoop.
So Chet chatted for a bit, told us about the restaurant’s m.o. and whatnot. Again, super nice guy.
We finally left, marveling at our full tummies and the wonderful welcome we had received.
It’s more than just good service. I’ve been to restaurants with very good service, but that’s all it is — they’re performing a role to serve you. Home didn’t have that forced, luxury-hotel-brochure feeling. Everyone was just … nice.
To be honest, my reaction sort of confounds me (I don’t think it was just a matter of being starstruck).
I don’t think of myself as a curmudgeon yearning for the days before road rage when people allegedly stopped to talk to each other, doffed their caps, walked old ladies across the street, and did assorted other thoughtful “in my day” stuff. But something must be missing often enough — from restaurants, from celebrities, from everything — for Home’s mood to have struck me the way it did.
So just in case I didn’t adequately convey my appreciation, I want to say again: Thanks Richard, Caleb, Chet, and everyone else.
For some great food — and for being nice.
UPDATE: I suppose I should note that two days after my visit, Blais announced he was leaving Home. Which makes all of the above seem even more noteable, considering he probably knew at the time that he was nearly done there.