My friend Truman loves soul food — he's from the South — and has eaten at the new Peachtree Restaurant in the Power & Light District several times. His major complaint about the place has nothing to do with the food.
"No one there can mix a decent martini," he told me. "If you order one, you feel like you're a sinner among a pack of good Christian teetotalers."
I don't know why he'd feel that way — this newest venue in the expanding Peachtree empire has a bar near the entrance. A large and glamorous bar, in fact, with televisions mounted above shelves stacked with neatly arranged bottles of the very best hooch. That bar says a lot about the evolution of the Willis family's restaurants, which started in 1996 with a buffet — still one of the best meal deals in town — on Eastwood Trafficway. With the opening of their polished and elegant sit-down dining room in the 18th and Vine District five years later, they went upscale.
The Willis family didn't serve alcohol (and didn't plan to) at 18th and Vine. After all, they were used to the buffet's clientele, which consisted primarily of churchgoing people who preferred lemonade to citron vodka martinis. They did serve mimosa cocktails made with nonalcoholic sparkling wine; not until customers started requesting something a little more spirited did the Willises add a small but tasteful wine list.
In the P&L District, where liquor is one of the primary attractions, it made sense for the newest Peachtree Restaurant to go with the flow. But the flow was a little unsteady at the beginning. When I first dined there last November, I took along Bob, Truman, Fred and Georgina. Fred and Georgina are of a generation that starts every meal, except breakfast, with a nice cool cocktail. When Georgina was served a martini in a highball glass — without so much as an olive, mind you — she was so scandalized that she got up, walked across the dining room and showed the stunned bartender how to mix a cocktail her way.
Truman says he had to do the same thing on a later visit. "When I have a plate of smothered pork chops, I simply have to have a little vodka to go with it," he explains. "It's a tradition that dates back to Ponce de León!"
The food was excellent at that meal, but I noticed issues that remain problems three months later. Either the dining room is seriously understaffed or the staff is undertrained — or both. As a former waiter and busboy, nothing irritates me more than seeing plates stack up on tables: appetizer plates not removed before the salad course, dinner plates shoved to the side before dessert. On my last visit, I noticed that it wasn't just our table that hadn't been bused but all the tables around us. I got so annoyed that I almost asked for an apron to do the job myself.
Servers are clearly working hard. The bus staff, on the other hand, gives a somewhat languid performance. And don't get me started on managers who linger at the hostess station when there are plates on any table that obviously need to be picked up. I've worked with a lifetime of those divas, and they can kill a good restaurant.
So can a second-rate bartender, but the Peachtree seems to have solved that problem. Even though we were there on a Sunday afternoon, I saw plenty of martini glasses brimming with Cosmopolitans delivered to thirsty customers.
"It's a beautiful restaurant," Franklin said as he looked around the second-floor space, with its wall of windows, pretty appointments and a shiny grand piano. Accompanying us that day were Lauren and her 12-year-old daughter, Brittany, who had definite opinions on everything, starting with an appetizer of fried okra and green tomatoes. This isn't a modestly priced appetizer, so it should at least have some visual appeal. But the four heavily breaded tomato slices and tiny bowl of crunchy little okra nuggets looked almost forlorn, even with a little dish of ranch dressing.