Food & Drink

At Atlanta’s New Vibe Restaurants, Hospitality Isn’t Always Included

Atlanta has an appetite for mixing food with fun, which created a dining scene built around comforting meals and good times. But over the last few years, a new crop of restaurants has emerged in the city that appears to prioritize style over substance. When you pull back the ubiquitous grass walls at these establishments, they’re simply nightclubs masquerading as restaurants, kicking customer service, food, and value for money to the curb. When did hospitality get so… inhospitable?

Atlanta established a reputation for excellence in Black dining long ago. Stories are still told of Frazier’s Cafe Society, a Vine City restaurant led by Evelyn J. Frazier, a Black woman from Raleigh, North Carolina. Having originally opened the restaurant in 1936 as Evelyn Jones Cafe (under her maiden name), she married Luther Frazier, a chauffeur for golfer Bobby Jones. She was inspired to reimagine the establishment as a place for fine dining after visiting New York City’s famed Cafe Society, the city’s first integrated nightclub, and seeing Lena Horne perform there. The dinner menu featured rainbow trout, filet mignon in mushroom sherry sauce, and broiled lamb chops at $4.75 per order.

Today, that building is the home of the Seafood Menu, owned by Atlanta rapper Lil Baby. It opened in July 2023, offering lamb chops for $43 per plate, and the reviews have probably not been what the superstar hip-hop act had hoped, particularly concerning service.

“Prices were great if the food matched in quality but the price didn’t seem to add up in the end,” said Google reviewer Miz Krickett. And San Francisco Yelp user Lynette J. said she dined at the Seafood Menu while visiting Atlanta but was similarly unimpressed in terms of value. “After paying nearly $85 for two orders and an a la carte item, I’m kind of pissed.”

Supporting Black businesses has long been important to Black communities, and since 2020 there’s been a renewed push to circulate dollars within them. Only Mississippi has a higher percentage of Black-owned restaurants than Georgia. As the seat of Fulton County, which has the largest number of Black residents of any county in the state, Atlanta is the place to go if you want to support Black restaurants.

This can be seen in the rise of Black brunch restaurants now open around Atlanta in high-traffic areas of town like Buckhead, Downtown, and along the Beltline and main drags in metro Atlanta cities like College Park. Critically acclaimed restaurants like the Busy Bee, Bomb Biscuit, and Twisted Soul Cookhouse & Pours are being nationally recognized for their food and service by the James Beard Foundation and Michelin. Restaurants like Southern National in Summerhill, backed by chef Duane Nutter and restaurateur Reggie Washington, are helping usher in a new crop of Black-owned finer dining establishments in Atlanta where food and service are the highest priorities.

But with the increasing number of Black restaurants gaining attention and praise for high standards, complaints of low-vibrational dining experiences are becoming more frequent and getting louder.

“This is some new shit. Nobody came to Atlanta saying we didn’t take care of people. It was Southern hospitality — nightclubs, bars, restaurants,” says Michael Paul, former co-owner of Habanos Cigar Lounge and Atlanta’s first nightlife manager. “Now you have these people who come from out of town and have this expectation of Atlanta. We’re the brunch town with the grass wall, the step-and-repeat, and people dancing in the aisle. There are no standards.”

Nine months before the now-infamous visit from food influencer Keith Lee, Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens spoke proudly of his hometown’s unique dining scene, which also includes its clubstaurants.

“We don’t want to be stuck at a table just sitting there eating,” Dickens says. “We want to lounge and see some things as we eat. It becomes an experience that way. We congregate. I want a soft chair or a sofa, a little music playing in the background.”

Though he admits Atlanta’s Black brunch scene isn’t his thing anymore, he doesn’t mind the celebratory party atmosphere fueling such restaurants as much as he wishes the owners were as committed to the food and service as they are to curating the vibe. For Dickens, who counts Chops and Eight Sushi among his favorite Atlanta restaurants, consistency matters. He’s a big fan of the Consulate in Midtown, a Black-owned restaurant he says gets the vibe trifecta right with its food and drinks, customer service, and ambiance.

However, striking the correct balance between vibe and restaurant virtue can be increasingly difficult as the mere definition of a “vibe” shifts and expands. The Oxford Dictionary defines the word “vibe” as “a person’s emotional state or the atmosphere of a place as communicated to and felt by others,” while an online word reference defines vibe as a verb meaning “to spend relaxed, unstructured time.”

But with that evolution has come an astounding weight for anyone responsible for curating and maintaining the atmosphere at a restaurant. Making the vibe a restaurant’s chief selling point can sometimes be a safer option for longtime success. It can garner the high praise that’s often reserved for expensive, moody restaurant interiors, ones that capture the aesthetic aspirations of the millions of people scouring social media for their next neon-lit date night spot or a boozy brunch with concert-level sound systems. It can also mean drawing in diners from across the globe, with the help of a lucky restaurant review gone viral.

Now, self-described vibe restaurants, and the chefs and workers running them, have taken on a grand task: They must operate fully as restaurants, but with an ever-growing expectation of providing entertainment alluring enough to not only attract a crowd, but woo it into staying for as long as their unstructured time will allow. It’s a monumental task for any restaurant whose plans didn’t center on merging food and entertainment from the very beginning — and it’s proved even more difficult for the swell of clubstaurants helmed by less experienced owners and leadership unsuccessfully angling to do just that.

With such a weight, it’s only logical that corners would be cut somewhere, but increasingly, those cuts come from the quality and pricing of the food available — much to the dismay of Atlanta residents who cherish the city’s rich history of incredible restaurants known just as well for the food on their tables as the talents taking their stages.

When Lee published his unwaveringly candid Atlanta restaurant reviews to TikTok in the fall of 2023, conducted exclusively at Black-owned restaurants, the content creator likely didn’t realize he was touching a nerve — or about to become the catalyst for a conversation quietly simmering under the local industry’s surface for years. Now, Atlanta’s vibe restaurants were being very publicly taken to task by thousands of commenters on Lee’s reviews. Think pieces were being written, and the restaurant owners putting vibes over value found themselves front and center of a dining reckoning.

The lounge loophole

Walter Jordan is a longtime Atlanta restaurant consultant who specializes in helping owners get new restaurants opened by facilitating liquor licenses and expediting permits. In addition to clients like Bartaco, Milk & Honey, Highland Cigar, and Red Phone Booth, he also co-owns Slush Restaurant and Lounge on Edgewood Avenue in the Old Fourth Ward.

Decades of experience give Jordan reason to believe the way the city handles liquor licenses and building permits exacerbates the clubstaurant issue. He describes a labyrinth of paperwork and a disjointed review process requiring approvals from various departments for things like certificates of occupancy, building permits, and more.

“Atlanta is one of the cities that makes things almost impossible,” Jordan says. “It’s very time-consuming, and if a person opening a restaurant is trying to meet with liquor reps, builders, and contractors, they don’t have time to be running down to City Hall every day.”

Among the costs a restaurant owner pays to acquire a liquor license in Atlanta is a $5,000 annual fee. But according to how businesses categorize themselves, there are different regulations that come with getting licensed to sell and/or serve booze. It’s confusing and full of red tape.

Per Atlanta city code, a “restaurant” qualifies as an “eating establishment,” which means it must derive at least 50 percent of its total annual gross food and beverage sales from prepared meals or food. A “lounge” is a separate, air-conditioned room, connected and adjacent to a restaurant or other specific types of venues. A “nightclub” must also have A/C, capacity for at least 100, and feature entertainment as its principal business; serving booze is just incidental by law. Nightclubs, however, must also abide by additional rules, such as being closed on Sundays, denying entry to underage guests, and agreeing not to operate within a certain distance of houses, schools, and other designated places.

Jordan believes this leads to a bait-and-switch by business owners who apply for a restaurant license with the intention of turning it into a lounge or nightclub. “Some people are trying to hide behind the [term] ‘lounge,’ but you’re really a club,” Jordan says. “Clients just want to get open, so they’ll tell you anything. And once they get their liquor license, and the money’s not moving fast enough for them, then they switch.”

Paul thinks the $5,000 fee is too cheap and that the price for a liquor license in Atlanta should be increased to filter out people who are only interested in a money grab, but aren’t maintaining high standards.

Having seen the business as both an operator and governmental representative, Paul agrees with Jordan that leeway in the licensure process leaves room for people to find loopholes in city codes and laws. He also says some operators illegally open as after-hours venues, but they can’t be immediately shut down because of a drawn-out enforcement process.

“During the [Keisha Lance] Bottoms administration, when there was no clear direction or leadership, there weren’t people in city government to do inspections or permitting,” he says. “People did whatever they thought they could or should do, and opened up and operated anyway.”

While night mayor, Paul wanted to create a license specifically for Atlanta lounges. He brought a bill to the City Council that would make a 40-hour certification course mandatory for anyone opening a restaurant in the city who had less than 10 years of restaurant operations experience, which could equip restaurant owners and operators with skills to rise to the mounting pressures and challenges associated with navigating the city’s complex permitting processes without compromising on the quality of service provided through their businesses.

But after the policy stagnated despite Paul’s final efforts to build support before vacating the night mayor position in August 2023, he’s pessimistic about the industry’s future. Paul was also unsurprised by Lee’s unflattering reviews of restaurants like Old Lady Gang.

“It really boils down to the inexperience of the operators currently, because if you look at all the places [Lee] visited, they’re not ‘real operators,’” he says. “They’re real estate developers that buy buildings, and the easiest way to make money is to put a restaurant in it. I’ve never had a great experience at any of those places. People come there to see stars, and they have average-to-subpar people working for them.”

Lounges often have distinctly different dining experiences from restaurants. (Think loud music, lines out the door, and cover charges.) Jordan says being charged to get into a restaurant should be a big red flag, especially if there isn’t a special event taking place there.

Douglas Hines is a co-owner of the Midtown restaurant the Consulate, where the international menu changes quarterly to represent regions from around the world. The scene is always spirited here, and yet service habitually meets the high standards he and partner chef Mei Lin insist upon upholding as a Black- and minority-owned restaurant in Atlanta.

“I feel the expectations are lowered, unfortunately, when an African American owner is presented. A lot of people tend to be surprised when you execute very, very well,” Hines says. But Hines aims for exceptionalism, and he does well enough to make a fan and friend not only of Dickens, but other industry leaders like Jordan, too.

Hines also believes Atlanta’s abundance of hybrid restaurant-nightclubs is partially responsible for the diminished trust in Black-owned restaurants in Atlanta. He experienced this during the early days after the Consulate opened in 2017. Hines turned down a number of independent event promoters promising to bring more people to the Midtown restaurant if allowed to host parties in the dining room.

“I want a restaurant to be a restaurant. A nightclub should be a nightclub. I’m really against this cross-breeding that seems to be predominately in the Black community… It tends to be the norm. It’s not what’s needed — just deliver good food,” Hines says. “You’re not a nightclub. Stop bringing in giant speakers and promoters.”

Yesterday’s price is not today’s price

It’s a seemingly simple charge: “Just be a restaurant.” But for even the most well-intentioned new operators, merely keeping their venue open poses enough of a challenge, as the costs of staying open soar and customers’ desire to justify restaurant and entertainment spending flounders.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index, prices in Atlanta are 40 percent higher than a decade ago. “In 2023, all food prices are predicted to increase 5.8 percent, with a prediction interval of 5.7 to 6.0 percent,” the index states. “Food-away-from-home prices are predicted to increase 7.1 percent, with a prediction interval of 7.0 to 7.2 percent.”

Analyzing data from the U.S. Census Bureau, USA Today reported in August that Georgia ranks sixth in the nation in terms of states experiencing the highest uptick in restaurant inflation. In terms of states that spend the most per consumer on dining in a two-week period, the Peach State ranks third, with an average of $122.75. And while restaurant spending has risen 20 percent since last November, restaurant reservations are down five percent in Georgia since February.

With little end in sight to the pains of inflation, many restaurant owners have sought out endless opportunities to monetize various aspects of their business models, whether that means bottling a namesake sauce, collaborating with locally and nationally adored social media figures, and hosting more events and catering opportunities.

Out of service

According to a National Restaurant Association report, Georgia had 482,900 industry workers in 2022, which dropped by 5,500 people from 2019. Staffing shortages have only increased complaints about the lack of customer service at restaurants, not just in Georgia, but nationwide. Rather than pay employees more, offer benefits, and provide them with proper training and hospitable working environments, some restaurant owners have chosen to simply pass rising costs on to customers. Lee experienced this firsthand when he was charged $1 for extra butter at Atlanta Breakfast Club. His review of the breakfast spot went viral. The restaurant continues to charge the fee.

A photo-illustration shows a five-star rating, as seen on various restaurant reviewing platforms.

Lille Allen | Eater

Positive vibes only

Rule No. 1 for marketing a restaurant on social media: Create a buzz, and keep it going at all costs.

While nationally recognized content creators like Lee can send a business viral with a single post, some Atlanta restaurants are opting to work with local social media influencers to get the word out. These locally famous influencers translate their restaurant experiences into enticing photos and videos for online consumption that could also function as guidance for where diners should eat next in Atlanta.

Nikka Shae has worked as an Atlanta influencer for 12 years and amassed over 50,000 Instagram followers. For Shae’s followers, who are primarily women between 22 and 50 years old, seeing another woman visiting restaurants, hotels, and lifestyle businesses encourages them to give these experiences a try. “They’re looking to me to relay information as a reliable source.”

That desire to have an honest person vouch for a restaurant or an experience before a customer would have to pay for it lies at the heart of all restaurant reviewing and criticism. Whether they come from a communally respected restaurant influencer, a local media outlet, a nationally adored influencer, or a stuffy international restaurant reviewing body, those opportunities to critique a restaurant carry the weighty obligation of transparency and honesty. But many people outside of the world of social media influencing and the restaurant industry still have little insight into what they actually entail.

Shae says people assume all she does is go around getting free food. “It’s way more than that. I share ideas with restaurants. We collaborate on their cuisine. There’s different levels.” She adds that when restaurants invite her to try their food and she feels the need to be more critical than they might prefer, she handles things with grace.

“I might highlight something that’s good, and I probably won’t highlight something that is not standard, but I let them know,” Shae says. “This is something you have to do in a way that is professional, you know, because that restaurant owner knows other restaurant owners. They’re in a network, you know? It’s sheer business.”

Even with Shae’s approach, navigating the world of restaurant and dining influencing (and influencer culture at large) can be a steep challenge, professionally and ethically. That goes double for influencers who profit from attending the growing number of vibey restaurants that regularly go viral on social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram. For many influencers, compensation in the form of payment or free food and staying on good terms with a restaurant, chef, or public relations firm, could outweigh the importance of the full transparency and candor that their social media followers believe the influencer is providing in all of their restaurant reviews and content. But as there are no standard criteria for how influencers are to review restaurants, or what information or negative experiences they’re allowed to share without fear of retaliation from the restaurant being reviewed, diners at home are left to just trust the individual’s integrity.

Sometimes, that works out, like in the case of Keith Lee, whose characteristic candor and patience is a constant throughline in restaurant reviews, which have drawn millions of viewers and followers. Other times, the restaurants upset by an influencer’s reviews lash out privately or publicly on social media. This is often because many clubstaurants have relied on inflated or softened reviews from influencers to boost their status to the point that valid criticism often feels like an outright attack, leading to ample drama and backlash online. However, at its best, the relationship between influencers and restaurant owners can be a lifeline in an industry constantly pummeled by economic downturns, soaring inflation, and the lasting impacts of COVID.

Jordan admits that influencers have been very good for business at Slush, which opened in 2021. He credits a young lady who made a TikTok post about Slush during its first few months open.

“Do you know from the time she made that post until just recently, 75 percent of my business came from her TikTok video? We had people see that video in London and in Africa. Social media plays a huge part when it comes to the lounge, club, and restaurant game in Atlanta. It is what it is.”

One could argue the same for Michelin, which was reportedly paid $1 million by the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau to review Atlanta’s restaurants, with no guarantee of inclusion in the guide. Since the judging criteria are deliberately left somewhat loose and money is being exchanged to help pay for the reviewers’ dining experiences, it’s not entirely unfair to suggest that restaurant influencers are just local versions of the French tire company when it comes to deciding what’s worth recommending, and what such recommendations cost.

Michelin’s inaugural guide in Atlanta went live the same week Lee was in town doing restaurant reviews. The result was a firestorm of comments on the Atlanta dining scene as a whole, with some staunchly defending it, and others calling certain restaurants out on their bullshit. Criticism ranged from Michelin not recognizing any restaurants south of I-20 in Atlanta’s predominantly Black communities, to Lee focusing on reviewing only Black-owned restaurants known by locals for offering vibes paired with subpar food and customer service.

What these criticisms and lack of representation exposed is how differently Black-owned restaurants are perceived by the dining public.

We’re not all vibing the same

In many ways, how some Atlanta restaurants have treated Black diners, or espoused political and cultural views that have been seen as racially divisive, may also play a part in the proliferation of vibey restaurants.

Restaurants in the wealthy Buckhead community have been particularly unaccommodating of Black diners over the years, after denying service based on the uneven enforcement of murky dress codes and posting signage attacking the Black Lives Matter movement during the 2020 protests around the police killing of George Floyd.

Houston’s is a restaurant that often comes up in conversation among Black diners when discussing the inconsistent service and unfair treatment they have previously received. For years, it has been a favorite of many Atlanta diners, Black or otherwise. Dickens praised the Texas-based chain for having reliably good service and food quality. “I’m an operator in my head. I would run a business that would feel like Houston’s. There’s not a single person that doesn’t think Houston’s makes a quality product in a quality environment, and is consistent.”

Still, he acknowledged a muted cultural experience: “But it doesn’t have flair.”

It also doesn’t have a perfect reputation. While it’s unclear if a 2017 boycott (led by hip-hop star T.I.) over the alleged mistreatment of a Black actress was related to the closure of Houston’s on Lenox Road less than six months later, it certainly tested the restaurant’s relationship with Black diners. Despite its reputation for good service and food, some Black diners continue to refuse stepping foot in Houston’s.

Paul, who began his career in hospitality management at Houston’s, says his experience there helped guide service in other restaurant management roles, including at popular Black-owned Atlanta restaurants like Justin’s and the Shark Bar, both of which closed more than a decade ago.

“We were fine dining,” says Paul of how service staff were trained at both restaurants, and what those and other places did to establish a model for Black diners looking for something better. He sees today’s “inexperienced diners” as part of an ongoing problem at restaurants.

Your vibe attracts your tribe

Lifelong residents and Black people who have moved to Atlanta from elsewhere and stayed know what this city means to Black culture in the United States. And there are, of course, cultural sensitivities when you’re a Black diner. Black people sometimes prefer the comfort that comes with patronizing Black-owned and -operated restaurants. When so many Black diners’ parents and relatives might have been forced to drink from segregated water fountains and endure jeering — or worse — while participating in sit-ins, you might head out for supper today seeking satisfaction that goes beyond literal hunger.

We want our dining experiences to nourish us bodies and our souls. We like hospitality sprinkled with culture, a sort of seasoning that may seem intangible but is an inextricable ingredient in Atlanta’s recipe for hospitality. And while all culture matters in this magically diverse city, it’s Black culture that really drives the cultural and social inner workings, and there is good money to be made if you can build a reputation for serving it well. And as the city garners more of the international acclaim it deserves for its dining enclaves, many of the restaurants most likely to debut on lists like Michelin’s lack the flair and seasoning that longtime residents have sought out for decades at places like Houston’s.

Brittanica defines a vibe as “a feeling that someone or something gives you.” But ultimately, Atlanta residents hold the power to define the vibes they cherish for themselves, and they can continue to vote with their dollars, like the generations before them. As long as diners are willing to hand over any amount of money to places that don’t respect their investment, they get what they get, and subsequently, the city will get more of these restaurants. Anyone truly rooted in the city knows Atlanta has no issues curating vibe; now, Dickens, like many others, thinks Atlanta’s newest-wave restaurant operators need to get to work on harnessing its power.

Mike Jordan is an Atlanta-based multimedia journalist and senior editor leading Black Culture coverage at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. A longtime Eater Atlanta contributor, Jordan was a 2023 finalist for the James Beard Foundation’s Jonathan Gold Local Voice Award, and has frequently reported on food and culture for publications such as The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, National Geographic, Rolling Stone, Southern Living and others.

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