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Into the Fire
We went behind the scenes for twenty weeks as Ryan Turner, Todd Mussman, and Chris Hall transformed the failed glitz of Joël Brasserie into rustic kitsch
Chris Hall’s eyelids droop behind his wire-rimmed glasses. He crosses his brawny arms and lowers his jowl to his chest, dangerously close to nodding off. In the two weeks since his restaurant, Local Three Kitchen & Bar, opened, the chef has averaged 130 hours a week on the job. That’s left five and a half hours a day to sleep, to shower, to remember that his dog, Maxine, is more than a picture on his iPhone. Hall can talk rapid-fire on barely a breath—about Georgia Tech football; bourbon; which Def Leppard album is better, Pyromania or Hysteria. (It’s Hysteria.) But as he sits in one of Local Three’s private rooms for a quiet moment, his words have dwindled to a necessary few.
Left to right: Todd Mussman, Chris Hall, and Ryan Turner;
photograph by Gregory Miller
The phones at Local Three still aren’t working right. Incoming calls can’t transfer beyond the host stand, and at this point on a mid-December morning, when the prep cooks are chopping butternut squash for soup and servers are sweeping up last night’s crumbs, no one has time to run out and answer it. Ring, ring! Ring, ring! Hall cringes.
“What sort of restaurant can’t pick up their fucking phone? I wouldn’t go there.”
Hall has already threatened to firebomb the president of the phone company’s house and, if he ever sees him, to punch him in the face for good measure. But as he shuffles around the dining room in his kitchen clogs, his vent sounds drained of bile. He feels drained. He sat down not long ago to write the New Year’s Eve menu and struggled to put thought to paper. His creative spark, snuffed. This is what he wanted, right? A restaurant of his own to rule, one that just so happens to have the finest kitchen in the city?
At the end of last June, the kitchen’s much-celebrated occupant, Joël Brasserie, closed, the latest in a line of Atlanta’s fine-dining destinations to vanish. By then, Hall and his partners, Todd Mussman and Ryan Turner, had signed a letter of intent to lease the place. Chefs in town know about this kitchen, tucked inconveniently in the corner of a west Buckhead office complex. They salivate over it. Many of them mastered beef bordelaise over its burners, on a cooking line sixty-two feet long. All in the name of the man who specified its extravagance a decade ago: Michelin-starred chef Joël Antunes.
Though they never headlined the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton in Buckhead, as Antunes did pre-Joël, the resumes of Hall, Mussman, and Turner are nothing for the scrap pile. Hall was sous chef at Canoe, chef de cuisine at 4th & Swift, executive chef at the Sun Dial. Fifth Group alums Mussman and Turner opened Smyrna’s Muss & Turner’s as a gourmet deli in 2005; since then, it’s grown into a full-service local favorite doing its best business yet.
Still, how did a glorified sandwich shop in Smyrna get hold of this thing? And why did these three think they could succeed where one of the best chefs in the world failed?
Yet here is Hall, barely standing upright because Local Three—despite the phone snafus, despite the server slipups, despite starting without a liquor license—has seen more than double the expected revenue in its first week, ringing up close to $60,000. (M&T makes a weekly average of $35,000.) A gratifying start, especially considering all the weeks of arguing over logos, testing pimento cheese recipes, cursing out Coca-Cola, dickering with wine distributors, and translating French instruction booklets for the bread oven.
“I have to remind myself to stop and enjoy it,” says Hall as he takes off his glasses and rubs his eyes. “I’m as sure now as I was then that this will work, and we can create something lasting and worthwhile.”
Longevity is an increasingly rare feat in restaurants these days. Many run into money problems before the doors open, and it can take years of marathon shifts before one claims success. The business can be especially daunting in Atlanta, where diners are still cash-strapped and foodies tend to flit on to the next burger nook or farm-to-table tavern at the drop of a Tweet. In the last year alone, Shaun’s, Craft Atlanta, Dynamic Dish, and, of course, Joël floated up to that big kitchen in the sky. That’s why opening a restaurant has to be a passion project; no sane person would attempt it otherwise.
“There’s nothing more alluring or powerful or cool than the fact that you can control your own destiny,” says Hall. “And no one controls our destiny but us.”
To begin, he and his partners spent five hectic months transforming Antunes’s aloof temple of French gastronomy into a welcoming neighborhood haunt, risking life savings, mortgages, and hypertension along the way. Watching ovenside, you couldn’t help but worry for them, laugh with them—and respect the seven lessons they used to manage it all.
Butter up the Powers That Be
First, the walls had to come down.
It was late September, two months before opening, and Laura McDonald stooped in front of one, her trousers pooling around her black heels. She and the other women here in the dining room worked one floor up at Ronus Properties, Local Three’s landlord—and a part of Ronus Inc., Joël’s sole investor. With a fat, red marker, she drew a man’s crude likeness on the wall.
“Think of Nicolas,” she said to Ronus CFO Mindy McCloskey, recalling a one-time Joël general manager, “and all the times he pissed you off.”
At that, McCloskey plowed a hammer into the drywall again and again. When the ceremonial pounding was over, the demolition crew began in earnest, carting off metal beams, glass plates, and saffron wall fragments as plaster showered into their hair and onto the floor.
Antunes opened this place a month after 9/11. Dutch investor Ronald de Waal had lured him away from the Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead, by offering Antunes a new restaurant at de Waal’s Piazza at Paces—an ostentatious Italianate complex along Northside Parkway and headquarters for some of de Waal’s American investments—and carte blanche to design his dream kitchen. For Ronus Properties chairman Bob Anderson, who oversaw the Joël investment for de Waal, the partnership became “very painful, to put it mildly.”
“Joël is a great chef, there’s no doubt about that,” said Anderson, his head of snowy white hair shaking as he chuckled. “But he thought he was a good businessperson, and he wasn’t.”
Antunes insisted on the best ingredients. In the early 2000s, a jet en route from Paris to Las Vegas would land briefly in Atlanta to deliver pristine Dover sole and turbot for Joël. “He wouldn’t use domestic salmon if hell froze over,” said Anderson. “He was using the highest-quality food available in the world, and people honestly didn’t recognize it. And they wouldn’t pay for it.” When the crowds dwindled, Antunes left to be top toque at New York’s Oak Room in spring 2008. His sous chef, Cyrille Holota, took over, tacking “Brasserie” onto the name and downscaling the menu. Effusive reviews kept coming in, even if the reservations didn’t.
Six miles to the west, Muss & Turner’s had been open three years, and Chris Hall and his wife, Julie, who lived just around the corner, were regulars. Hall would bring in wine to share from their 1,700-bottle collection. He and Turner golfed together, and he and Mussman swooned over smoked pork. And when Hall helped his drinking buddy and mentor Jay Swift open 4th & Swift, he took copious notes. He and Mussman and Turner had already decided: Their next venture would be a restaurant together.
The three found a spot at the bottom of the Medici, a Piazza at Paces building leased by Silverton Bank and just one building over from Joël. Hall sank $65,000 of his and Julie’s savings, a sizable chunk for a thirty-eight-year-old chef and a high school science teacher, into legal fees and design work by local architects AI3. Just as they were about to sign the lease in May 2009, Silverton went belly-up. The FDIC seized the building.
One good thing came out of the Medici debacle, though: The three got to know Anderson. Hall’s wry irreverence made him laugh, and the two men loved to talk wine; Turner’s business sense impressed him. Anderson kept tabs on them, stopping in at Muss & Turner’s for dinner every couple of months. Atlantans like to eat at restaurants that are a little more laid-back, he decided, where guests gather at the bar, the owners and servers care, and the food is good but doesn’t break the bank. The more he visited Muss & Turner’s, the more he admired their formula.
When the multitudes still eluded Joël Brasserie, de Waal cut the cord. Turner was Anderson’s first call. At first the three said no; they doubted they could afford the lease. Ronus was willing to make a deal, though Anderson won’t disclose the terms.
“My hat’s off to people who make it in this city,” said Anderson. “I think they have to be good businesspeople. And if you happen to be a good chef, good for you.”
But Antunes was not just a good chef—he was beloved by all three. While still at the Ritz, he prepared twenty-one “phenomenally badass” courses for Hall’s bachelor party, including venison terrine with cherries and apricots, and Jerusalem artichoke “lasagna” with fresh truffles. It was one of the best meals of Hall’s life. His partners also had a soft spot for the Frenchman, who used to stop by Muss & Turner’s after a Silver Comet Trail bike ride “because he liked our food and didn’t have to worry about how he looked,” said Turner.
As the demolition slipped into evening, Turner, Hall, and Mussman stood to the side, wide-eyed, sipping Maker’s Mark and beers as Joël fell apart around them. Hall’s stomach lurched in anticipation. Not one of them swung a hammer.
Exorcise the Ghosts
Artist Tracy Hartley knelt on the floor of his rambling East Point workshop. He arranged long pieces of plywood alongside paint-peeled shutters, and strips of black-and-white damask after that. Weathered hands on knee, he looked up at his audience.
“Well, what do you think?”
A group including Chris Hall and AI3’s Dan Maas studied the eleven-by-nineteen-foot wall panel in progress, nodding. Once installed in Local Three, this “rural bar code” would reveal clues about Hall, Mussman, and Turner. Three jumbo thumbprints on one wooden slat, for instance, echoed the night the three sat in a back booth at their favorite haunt, Tasty China, and stamped their partnership agreement with chili-oil-soaked thumbs. The panel also would conceal one of the few things that remained from the dining room’s Gallic-to-rustic conversion: Joël’s iconic red tile wall.
“We need to debunk Joël’s brand,” said Maas. “There’s an established image that people associate with that space that we need to redefine.”
So chocolate browns covered what saffron walls were left, warming the space reviews once called “cold.” Hartley’s hand-wrought tables replaced Joël’s, which Hall sold for cash along with anything else that bespoke early-aughts design: the curved corner bar, the chandeliers, the banquettes.
Hartley stood and walked to a thick pine tabletop resting on sawhorses, the centerpiece for the dining room’s private nook. It was salvaged from a Knights of Revelry Mardi Gras float in Mobile, Alabama, Hartley’s home city.
“Turner wants a story behind everything,” said Hall, pointing to the wood. “He can kiss my butt if that’s not a great story.”
A history to tell about the wood, Hartley’s paintings of the three men as pigs, the Tijuana-commissioned velvet rendering of Jeff Bridges as The Big Lebowski’s “Dude”—all these would help connect guests to Local Three and its owners. The bar top was a get: three quarter-ton slabs of oak from a tree that toppled near Local Three on Mount Paran Road. Hall had picked it out earlier that afternoon at Mississippi Wood Trader, a cavernous Westside warehouse stacked with salvaged wood and run by a good-looking surfer named Darwin. The three owners had talked so much about what they wanted, Hall felt comfortable making the call alone.
Salt and pepper shakers, on the other hand . . .
“Mussman would say, ‘Go to Ikea; buy the cheapest thing out there’; I’d go for something funky and cool; and Turner would end up somewhere in the middle,” said Hall as he rode back from East Point to AI3, a Georgia Tech ballcap shading his eyes. Better to consult first; Hall loved to tell the story of Mussman blowing his top over $400 sconces.
Funky and cool, though, won without a fight: The three chose a hodgepodge of kitschy shakers—a toothbrush and toothpaste, two little piglets, and such—bought on eBay for a song by staff and service manager Carla Penque. The renovation’s total tally? $450,000, a fraction of the $5 million spent on Joël.
But if a guest were to ask about the previous tenant, the staff would be prepared. In the Frequently Asked Questions section of the employee handbook, they added this:
Q: What happened to Joël?
A: Viva le revolution!
Be the Best Personal Ad Ever
“Welcome to the New World Order.”
Hall threw his arms out wide and addressed his newly assembled staff as they sat in the dining room, scented by paint and sawdust on a November morning. His chef’s whites, still creased from the packaging, shifted stiffly around his swath of stomach.
“Throughout the next couple of weeks, our real goal is to build a culture here. And it’s one of openness, and honesty, and transparency, and success. Right now, it’s a blank slate. There’s some stuff on the wall, but that’s not what makes a restaurant. What makes a restaurant is you guys.”
In the restaurant’s nascent weeks, when the kitchen would be figuring out its timing, and Hall would be tweaking his recipes, and the dining room (they hoped) would be packed, whom they had hired could determine whether a first-time diner became a regular—even more than the food, perhaps.
“We spent a lot of time attracting people who give a shit. That’s the secret sauce,” Turner said when it was his turn. “Goddammit if I’m going to pay you to be apathetic.”
The carefully crafted Craigslist ad that brought many of them here set the tone:
Local Three Seeks Front of House Staff:
Are you tired of the same old restaurant “grind”? Do you like to think & work “outside the box”? Are you passionate about food, drink, & most importantly people? Do you want the freedom to be yourself, engage your guests, and serve great food? Do you want to work in an atmosphere where people genuinely care about what you think? . . . We believe that great food doesn’t have to be expensive and that hospitality is paramount. We’re committed to finding great people & serving exciting, seasonal food. We believe in guests as opposed to customers and that authenticity reigns supreme . . . Come be a part of our family.
One of the new hires was Ashley Hinson, a graphic artist and fifteen-year veteran of the restaurant business. She had just moved from South Georgia to help her pastry chef partner open up Sugar-Coated Radical in Virginia-Highland, and she’d dreaded looking for a server job—until she saw Hall’s ad. Same for CoToya Myers: “I’ve worked in the restaurant industry since I was sixteen, and this one has the best culture. The people in leadership positions are actually leaders, and they want you to have this knowledge. And I’ve never been at a restaurant like that.”
Penque and Matthew Lathan—the jaunty-capped beverage director (and ex-M&Ter just back from working in L.A.)—quizzed the servers on the likes of menu ingredients and wine provenance. Penque knows that knowledge empowers the staff. Years ago, when she was a server at Canoe, she wanted to learn more about the kitchen. Hall was the one who took the time to teach her.
“I’ll go where he goes,” she said. “I would follow him into battle.”
In some cases, though, Hall’s hiring choices looked questionable. He green-lit a few novices as chefs, including Keith Remes, a twenty-two-year-old with no formal training and only a spoonful of experience. In his response to the Craigslist ad, Remes wrote, “I’m not just some jaded [cook] who shows up to make the money and then leaves, cooking is my hobby and life and if your ad is true then your restaurant is where I need to be.” For Hall, it was like looking at a younger version of himself. His career began at the Pizza Hut on Collier Road. He never went to the Culinary Institute of America, like Mussman did.
“You can’t teach passion. The kid asked, ‘Do I need to go to school?’ No, you need to work in the best restaurants you can.”
One of Hall’s two sous chefs, spiky-haired Ben Barth, worked his way up at Muss & Turner’s and lives around the corner from 4th & Swift. When Hall worked there, Barth would stage (French for internship, pronounced “stahj”) with him. “Jay would have me cutting up vegetables or something, and Chris would come in and be like, ‘Let’s do something cool.’” Co-sous Brandon West, another M&T “boomerang” (who recently lost a tooth doing a backflip), had worked in Vegas and directed other cooks before. Even so, with Hall consumed by contractors and paperwork, he and Barth would face leadership duties for which neither was prepared.
That’s why Hall—who made $7,000 gambling last year—made sure he had an ace in the hole: Oscar Cortez. A longtime prep cook at Canoe, Cortez would be the “head Mexican,” as Hall called him. That meant Cortez would help the other Latino prep cooks and dishwashers fill out paperwork or get rides to work. He would also be the highest-paid hourly cook, no, chef, at Local Three. While talented enough to do any job in the kitchen, including Hall’s, he prefers working prep. In a pinch, he can jump on the line and bail out a struggling cook. When they met at Canoe, Cortez didn’t like Hall, who by his own account barked at other cooks and was “young and arrogant.” But as Hall matured as a cook and as a manager, he and Cortez became friends.
“Chefs call me all the time, wanting me to come work, but no,” Cortez said, shaking his gleaming head as he cleaned mussels. Before Hall called, he’d only said yes once to splitting his time elsewhere.
“Oscarito! Ayúdame!” Hall shouted from the service elevator. The dining room’s centerpiece burlap-covered lights had finally arrived.
“You drive me crazy, gordo!” Cortez replied. Then he smiled.
Don't Let the Devil in the Details Steal Your Soul
By early November, with opening day just three weeks away, tensions were running high in the Bushwood.
Named for the country club in Caddyshack, the private dining room behind the kitchen hosted the weekly meetings between Hall, AI3, and the general contractors, Structor Group. Construction was supposed to have been completed the day before, and the certificate of occupancy—a document that would allow them to move forward with their health and fire inspections and liquor license—was still days away from being delivered.
“I’m not worried,” Hall said at first.
“I’m glad someone’s not,” said Brian Bollins, Structor’s project manager on the job.
Jacob Porter, a baby-faced representative for WelbornHenson, the company handling most of Local Three’s millwork (shelving, baseboards, and the like), sat down the table from Hall. A few changes were needed, Hall told Porter. Porter replied: These might take a few weeks.
Hall’s eyes bulged. He claims he doesn’t yell anymore—at his cooks, at servers, at anyone. But now:
“I want the fucking angels to sing on the twenty-ninth! Is it going to happen, yes or no?”
Porter, cheeks flushed, croaked out the only thing he could: “Yes.”
Hall relaxed, for a moment. But he was soon back to obsessing over deadlines and the $4,000 he’d had to shell out for coffee brewers, grinders, and French presses. So much was over budget already: $9,700 to melt away the wax-swirled saffron paint (they’d slated a third of that); $12,500 on Tectum acoustic panels to muffle crowded Saturday nights; $500 to repair a water heater valve that had dumped hundreds of gallons of water into the pastry kitchen. At one point, Hall warned his partners, “We’re spending money like drunken sailors on leave. The only thing we’re missing is burning pee.”
October 1 had been the first opening date, then the fifteenth, then Halloween. Hall’s patience wore thin; delays are standard for new restaurants, but if they go on too long, they can be fatal. After all, every day Local Three didn’t open was another day spending money, not making it. Mussman and Turner were drawing checks from M&T’s, but Hall was still living off of savings and Julie’s salary. The management team and Hall’s sous and pastry chefs were excited enough to meet and plan for weeks before getting a check. The partners could only afford to pay the rest of the servers and cooks two weeks before showtime—thereby leaving little time to train them.
When mid-September passed without a construction permit, a new date was set: December 1. This time, it was etched in stone. Any later, and it would be the thick of Christmas.
As it was, holiday bookings were filling up. The pressure mounted daily from Ronus to reopen the old Joël sundry shop across from Local Three, where they would serve sandwiches and soups to the building’s office workers. Hall did his best to delegate the nitty-gritty that goes into opening a restaurant—are there calculators next to registers, how will controller Eleanor Seale handle payroll, what do we need for the host stand (“Valium,” deadpanned opening general manager Terri Swartz)—but it was hard; he wanted everything to be perfect. It was his name on the menu.
The day the angels were to sing, November 29, arrived. It was the first of two friends-and-family nights; without a liquor license, it was a dry run of dinner service in more ways than one. The WelbornHenson millwork remained incomplete, but Hall, calm, laughed and cracked jokes. He addressed his staff, explaining his equanimity:
“Eleanor said the most important thing today: ‘You’re not alone.’ We’ve got to lean on each other.”
And with that, he took the servers through the cheese and charcuterie plates put together by Mussman, the Jew obsessed with pork. Hall taught the items’ histories, geographies, components, and textures, and offered the servers all a taste. He could not explain it to the guests for them.
Don't Let the Bureaucrats Get You Down
The City of Atlanta building inspector limped in unannounced, his foot in a cast. Conversations halted, and Hall’s eyes followed the man as he hobbled around the dining room. If Local Three got his stamp of approval, it would be awarded a certificate of occupancy, which meant the health and fire inspections would be next, and then Mayor Reed would sign off on the golden ticket: a liquor license.
Hall bounded into the kitchen, yelled “Yes!,” pumped his fist, and gave Mussman a high five. Local Three had passed. Hall had waited for this day since August, when he stood in his chef’s jacket before the License Review Board at City Hall with his attorney, Michele Stumpe. Stumpe shepherds restaurants and bars through Georgia’s byzantine liquor application and approval procedures. Her cut of the $15,000 process was six grand, but she was worth it. She had coached Hall on how to field the board’s questions: How will you train your staff? What will be your ratio of food sales to booze?
It had been nothing but bureaucratic hell from all sectors since.
Even though the kitchen’s permit ran through 2011, the Fulton County health department still wanted to reinspect it under the new ownership. The inspectors were concerned that the grease trap might be missing a baffler—in Hall’s words, a “stupid-ass piece of metal.” For the liquor license, all three of them had to go down to a sketchy building on Piedmont Avenue to be fingerprinted while the woman in charge yelled at her daughter the whole time; later, a background check held up the liquor license a little longer when it revealed Mussman had forgotten to pay $12.90 on his 2007 taxes. Could he cut a check? And there are not four-letter words crude enough for Coca-Cola. Hall needed them to move Local Three’s extremely long syrup line, but reps wouldn’t call him back, or he got passed from person to person. He finally pulled out the p word: “Pepsi, Pepsi, Pepsi!” Coke didn’t care—they had eight more businesses lined up to get systems that week.
But now, finally, good news. After high-fiving Mussman, Hall headed to his office. “I’m calling the bureaucrats right now.” The mood in the kitchen lightened. For the first time in months, the place smelled like cooking food, a new aroma idling through every few moments—first duck confit, then fresh-baked baguettes.
When Hall returned to the kitchen, something about his smile seemed off-kilter.
“This is why you don’t celebrate too early,” he told Turner. “Want to hear what happened? Our health inspector is on vacation till after Thanksgiving. I begged her to send a replacement. She said, ‘I’ll see what I can do.’”
Hall felt faint. The delay meant their liquor license would not arrive until two days after opening, costing them $3,000 or so in sales. They decided to give out liters of free wine and beer to pacify guests in the interim.
“There’s nothing I can do, right?” he said with a sigh. He gestured to the cooking line, where West and Barth were teaching recipes to the other cooks.
“All I can do is this.”
Kaizen Till you Drop
“Now I know why Joël acted the way he did; now I know why he came to me wanting us to make him sandwiches five years ago.”
Mussman, punchy from two nineteen-hour days, ranted to Turner and Hall as they met on the afternoon of Local Three’s opening. He’d had it up to here with the sandwich shop across the way. They finally launched it just before Thanksgiving, and the building’s workers were already complaining to Ronus: The bahn mi and the Italian sub and the rest of the sandwiches—between $7 and $10—were too expensive. This was an insult especially to Mussman and Turner, who made a name for themselves inventing some of the most popular grinders in town. Mussman had been determined to make it a mini M&T’s: They would buy fresh-baked bread, roast their own meats, and make them to order—all of which took money.
For months they had made fun of Antunes’s half-hearted menu at the shop. Now they understood why he neglected it.
“If you change prices, it’s going to affect the food,” said Hall. He threw his hands up in exasperation. “Fine. Go down to Chick-fil-A. See what they charge, and base it on that.”
Turner gave Ronus notice they would be changing the shop. “They’re thrilled we came to them first, and that we are willing within a week of opening to try to fix it. They never got that in ten years with Joël.”
Kaizen is the Japanese principle of continuous improvement; Turner heard about it pre-M&T’s, and it’s become their credo. They proselytized its message of humility and learning from mistakes to their employees every chance they got. To abide by kaizen, they must set their egos aside. (“And I have an enormous ego, let’s put that out there,” said Hall.)
Part of Hall’s ego is fueled by what his guests will think of his food. For two months he met weekly with Barth, West, and his pastry chef, Fifth Group vet Gary Scarborough. As they honed ideas for menu items, a theme of seasonal comfort food emerged—some saddled with tongue-in-cheek nicknames by Hall. The Tribute to Grandma, for instance—a grilled cheese with San Marzano tomato soup the chef tried to get as close to Campbell’s version as possible. Or the McDowell, Hall’s take on the city’s thin-pattied burger obsession, named and modeled after a fast-food joint in Coming to America. Other dishes included a deconstructed duck confit cassoulet and a grilled hangar steak with blue cheese–shallot butter.
Not all of his recipes satisfied Hall, though. It was time to kaizen. He removed the mac and cheese before the doors even opened, because his cooks weren’t able to duplicate it with any consistency. He got rid of the ravioli within the first few days when plates of it came back uneaten—too doughy. Other aspects needed tweaking, too. The partners read guests’ comment cards and talked about ordering more chairs with backs; the stools in the dining room weren’t comfortable. Yet several nights, those with reservations had to wait more than an hour to be seated because guests had taken the menu’s edict to “sit deep and stay long” at its word. That one, in its own way, was a good problem to have.
But back on December 1, Local Three’s first night had its lulls; without a liquor license, they’d opted for a softly heralded opening. Even so, the cooks had to work to get their sea legs. In the middle of service, while grating beets, young Remes sliced his finger open on the mandoline. Blood trickled. He tried to tough it out, till his eyes rolled ever so slightly toward the heavens and Hall made him leave to have the future battle scar bandaged as his area was cleaned. It was a rookie mistake, one that Hall hates. But he hired him. At the end of the night, he thanked Remes—or “Remer,” as he is known in the tradition of kitchen nicknames—and said he was proud of him for staying and finishing the night.
“I know I’m supposed to feel happy we managed to get open, but that’s not even half the battle. I’m not even thinking of paying bills. It’s how do we get better?” said Hall as he circled the dining room before he left, thanking the rest of his employees as they blew out candles and rolled silverware.
“I dreamed my whole life for this. If we don’t blow them away, they won’t come back. We’ve put too much time and effort into this to fuck it up.”
Give Atlanta the Hug It Requires—and Maybe It Will Hug You Back
We are a city of immigrants, constantly arriving from both near and far. It may be for this reason, then, that the time and effort put into a restaurant can mean nothing unless the place comes infused with a feeling of familiarity. Perhaps it’s why stiff-collared joints such as Joël and Seeger’s couldn’t stay afloat; a dining experience that encourages you to put down roots—and perhaps even evokes that classic Southern ideal of hospitality—wins out here over white tablecloths.
Hall, Mussman, and Turner certainly think so. Turning their guests into friends—asking about their lives, remembering their names, whatever it took to show they cared—was the key to M&T’s success, and they hope to do the same at Local Three. Several M&T “ambassadors” now love the partners enough to invest in Local Three, making up the $300,000 the men needed beyond Hall’s portion, itself funded by a loan from his ninety-four-year-old grandmother.
Penque trains her servers around the idea: “I want you to think about the restaurant as your own house. Serve from left or pour from right with left or right hand, because it’s like you’re hugging the guest.”
Affectionate or not, it’s natural to question whether the restaurant’s location at the bottom of an office building will hurt them. Hall believes it will be a boon; Local Three’s neighbors, he says—sitting pretty in one of the most well-to-do zip codes in town—hunger for an option between the OK Cafe and Canoe. Just two weeks in, he has greeted some of the same locals two and three times during his nightly turns about the dining room, a habit that might have made a shy chef such as Antunes more endearing.
“I’m just trying to cook great food in a neighborhood restaurant,” says Hall back in the private room, still looking wilted. “If people want to come for it and drive from miles away, cool. But that’s not the intent. The intent is to make sure this neighborhood’s really taken care of, because we feel they can really support us.”
Perhaps, too, what Ronus’s Bob Anderson says is true: Antunes wasn’t successful because he cared more about his long-term reputation as a chef than bending to his diners’ desires.
“It’s where a lot of people fail—it’s where Joël failed,” agrees Hall. “He cared more about getting an award and a star by his name than making people happy. I don’t give a shit about a star. I give a shit about a hundred smiling faces.”
And for the time being, he’s seeing at least that—plus 120 more—on a busy night, leaving little time for him to process what a dream come true feels like. There have been a few moments. Like the night when he stepped out for a late dinner at the bar and looked across a full dining room. Or the Thursday night, eight days into opening, when everything began to click—people three deep at the bar, a party in the Bushwood, ten in the Knights of Revelry nook, sixteen at the communal table, cooks getting dishes out on time, servers satisfying guests. The skipping needle had found its groove.
Kitchens run on rhythm, Hall says time and time again. And though there are still flat notes and miscues—the ringing phones, Remes cutting himself again, a chef failing to finesse a plate of hand-cut pasta with guanciale—the dust is off this once-silenced museum of a kitchen, and it hums a tune of “in at eight, out at midnight” once more.