2014 Best New Restaurants: #1 Kimball House

Everything about Kimball House works. Through the design, the service, and the food, it manages to balance preservation and progress.

As my group of four settled into a high-backed leather booth, we sat fixated by the menus. One championed absinthe-based cocktails. Another listed 22 oyster varieties, most sourced from small family farms, with the kinds of tasting notes more frequently reserved for wine lists. The Chelsea Gems from Eld Inlet, Washington, were likened to “anise and buttered truffle”; the Northern Cross from Fisherman’s Island, Virginia, “salted parsnip and green onion.” It was obvious this place was special; it merited a crowd. So, like a group of bon vivants with a line to the golden age fêtes of Paris, we texted our friends to come join the fray. By the time our oysters arrived atop their heaving, iced-down pewter tray, the four-top had grown to eight, squeezed in elbow-to-elbow.

When the 88-seat restaurant opened last September in the old Decatur train depot, those oysters and cocktails garnered a quick following, and rightly so. I’ve yet to see another spot in the South with such a thoughtful—and joyful—oyster program. And Miles Macquarrie wields his magic wand with drinks such as the Afternoon Delight, a heady yet refreshing mix of absinthe, pineapple, tarragon, and bubbles. It’s no wonder this hot spot in food-frenzied Decatur, an intown suburb of Atlanta, quickly became accustomed to holding court.

Temporarily sated by the half-shell display in front of us, my group turned its attention to the dinner menu, with each dish named according to the star ingredient: Grilled Trout; Baby Turnips. But don’t be fooled: The simplicity belies the complexity. Philip Meeker and Jeffrey Wall, the duo of classically French-trained wunderkinds in the kitchen, build the menu on impeccable technique and a real respect for flavor. Take the glazed butter beans, studded with house-made ham and lacquered in butter, lemon, and garlic. The ultra-tender octopus balances sweet and savory with apricot chutney and peppery arugula. But you may never see those dishes again, thanks to the menu’s daily revisions based on seasonality.

One mainstay, the three-course Kimball House Steak Dinner, pays homage to the restaurant’s inspiration, the Kimball House hotel, a regal Atlanta landmark from the late 1800s. The team pored over piles of the hotel’s hundred-year-old menus, and discovered a constant: steak dinner, a luxurious traveler’s repast of New York strip, soup, and salad. 

Beyond the food, the modern Kimball House takes its cues from that turn-of-the-century easy elegance. Mammoth windows filter in the last bit of dusky light. Penny-tile floors lie framed by antique pine milled from the abandoned Old Crow distillery in Kentucky. Vintage sconces dot the walls.  

Everything about Kimball House works. Through the design, the service, and the food, it manages to balance preservation and progress. 

At the end of the night, as we ordered one more cocktail and contemplated a second round of oysters, my merry band of revelers realized that Atlanta might have found entrée into its own new golden age.

THE ESSENTIALS
RESERVATIONS: Not accepted. COST: Apps, $2-$12; Mains, $12-$27. ADDRESS: 303 East Howard Avenue; kimball-house.com