Atlanta’s long-term love affair with old-style chicken salad

From the Swan Coach House to upstart Chicken Salad Chick, here’s where to go for the best Southern-style bird-and-mayo spread


It’s a composed dish lost in time, a relic from another era, the apotheosis of Southern lady food.

On a doily of lettuce, a scoop of chicken salad amandine is paired with a blob of pastel-colored frozen-fruit melange. Off to the side sit a couple of crispy cheese wafers for delicate nibbling.

Years ago, when the AJC was literally across the street from Rich’s Department Store downtown, I used to stop by the legendary Magnolia Room for its signature chicken-salad plate. At once comforting and luxurious, a cooling marriage of savory and sweet, it was — then and now — the stuff of memories, a close cousin of what my Southern grandmother dolloped onto her pink Depression-glass plates for her church circle meetings, circa the 1950s and ’60s.

Rich’s closed its massive downtown flagship in 1991, but I recently went on a quest for a facsimile of its celebrated chicken-salad plate. Wandering under a canopy of trees that can make the grounds of the Atlanta History Center feel like a primordial rainforest, I stepped back in time to eat at the mother ship of the city’s far-flung chicken-salad galaxy.

Like the Magnolia Room of days gone by, the Swan Coach House is home to one of Atlanta’s most iconic plates, a retro chicken-salad fantasy that deserves a gold star on the city’s culinary map, right up there with Polaris’ frozen peach daiquiri, Busy Bee Cafe’s fried chicken and the Varsity’s chili dog.

To be certain, Atlantans love their chicken salad, as evidenced by the abundance of upstart chains, grocery-store delis and perky cafes that showcase myriad variations of the chopped bird-and-mayo spread, be it laced with curry powder, studded with fruit and nuts, or brightened with herbs.

With that in mind, here’s where to find the best chicken salad in town. No need to wait for a bridal shower or high tea. Just grab a spoon and dig in.

 

Cafe Lapin

In the corner of Peachtree Battle Shopping Center, Matthew “Mattie” Hines’ 9-year-old French-style cafe is a singular destination for a perfect wedge of quiche Lorraine, a towering slice of coconut layer cake, and some of the most bodacious chicken salad in town. Tarragon, curry with almonds, walnut, apricot and jalapeno: With five options altogether, it’s hard to pick just one or two. I suggest you go with a friend and try them all.

Cafe Lapin’s chicken salad is neither drowning in mayo nor ground to a paste. It is delicately flaky in texture, a top-drawer spread made with quality ingredients that demands to be paired with a salad of jewel-like beets and oranges or the cafe’s piece de resistance: a shiny, Instagram-ready mandarin orange souffle. An elegant congealed salad that recalls the version still served at Neiman Marcus’ NM Cafe, it might easily convert the gelatin snob in you. (Well, hello, Jell-O!)

Cafe Lapin is a hidden gem, and Hines, in part because of his golden touch with chicken sal, is much adored by the ladies-who-lunch crowd.

2341 Peachtree Road, Atlanta. 404-812-9171cafelelapin.com.

Chicken Salad Chick

The first time I tried this fast-growing, 10-year-old Auburn, Ala.-based chain, I thought it was delicious, though I had a couple of minor quibbles (the tacky green-and-red decor of the Roswell Road store; the rubbery chunks of egg white in the sweet-pickle-kissed “Old South” version of the namesake spread).

Stopping by the Vinings location just recently, I was rather tickled by every bite of chicken salad I tried. Loved the Classic Carol (all white meat with celery and mayo), Sassy Scotty (with bacon, cheddar and ranch dressing), Buffalo Barclay (a gently spicy, orange-tinted spread that’s a riff on wings sans bones) and the Lauryn’s Lemon Basil (a zesty concoction loaded with fresh herbs and crunchy pecans).

I suppose these choices mean I lean toward savory chicken sals. Still, I had no qualms with my lady friend’s chick picks: Fruity Fran and Cranberry Kelli. The former, made with apples, seedless grapes and pineapple, was gently sweet and reminded me of one of my Mama’s sweeter chicken-salad creations. The latter, with dried fruit and slivered almonds, was wonderful, too.

There are an astonishing 12 chicken-salad variations on the menu, ready to be eaten with a spoon, paired with soups and salads or spread on bread. If you want to mix it up a bit, the creamy pimento cheese, made with sharp-cheddar and pepper jack cheeses, sits very well on a cracker.

Ten Atlanta-area locations, including Peachtree City, Marietta, Kennesaw, Roswell, Alpharetta, Cumming, Gainesville and Athens. chickensaladchick.com.

Cafe at Pharr

In 1993, a couple from Taiwan opened a Pharr Road bakery. Little did they know their luscious chicken salad would spawn an empire. Though developers long ago bulldozed the original location, Johnny Liu, the family scion, today operates five Atlanta stores, all serving the cafe’s holy trinity of classic, curry and walnut chicken salad.

What distinguishes Cafe at Pharr from the rest of the pack is that it makes its own bread and croissants. (Only the multigrain loaf is outsourced, Liu says, “because our little bakery couldn’t keep up.”) Though I like my chicken sal on crackers, or forked up with a bite of salad greens drizzled with the cafe’s sweet, gingery dressing, I can still appreciate the restaurant’s pastry-making skills via its signature yogurt rolls, included with every entree salad and sandwich.

<<From the menu: The Fickle Pickle’s chicken salad

What’s a yogurt roll?

A tiny bite that Johnny’s father, Mike, conjured out of leftover croissant dough many years ago, it’s like a slice of cream puff filled with something … well, something so sweet and creamy that you won’t believe it’s yogurt. After inhaling your heavenly chicken salad — my fave is the walnut version with plumped-up yellow raisins — it’s a treat to finish up with Mike Liu’s dainty and original confection.

Five Atlanta-area locations, including Buckhead, Westside, Brookhaven and Vinings. cafeatpharr.com.

Swan Coach House

I wouldn’t go so far as to say Swan Coach House serves Atlanta’s foremost chicken sal. I will say it’s the prettiest presentation, in the most genteel setting, and that its frozen-fruit salad is a knockout.

In this regal, crisply tailored blue and white room that exudes Southern charm, I suggest you start with a mint julep. The bar makes a good one and sends it out in a proper cup.

Then on to the main attraction: Two scoops of old-school chicken salad (meaning mayo and celery and little else) are spooned into little heart-shaped timbales (aka pastry shells) and plated with a couple of long, slender cheese wafers; a frozen-fruit-salad disc that’s easier on the eyes than most china patterns; and a purple dendrobium orchid blossom.

The melange of cherries, peaches, grapes and pineapple looks more frigid than the Arctic Circle. But give it a moment to relax, and it soon becomes the sweetest, most melt-y, creamsicle-y and ambrosial thing. When I asked the server how they make it, she referred me to the Swan House recipe collection in the gift shop. When I pranced into the boutique and asked to see the cookbook, the cashier knew exactly what I was looking for. “Page 73,” she murmured presciently.

Guess I’m not the first person to inquire about the tutti-frutti. And I’m sure I won’t be the last.

3130 Slaton Drive NW, Atlanta. 404-261-0636, swancoachhouse.com.

Also keep in mind: If old-fashioned, mayo-whipped chicken salad is not your thing, try the chicken tikka-topped greens at Jai Ho Indian Kitchen & Bar on Dutch Valley Road. … Mediterranea in Grant Park offers a lunchtime grain bowl topped with superb sliced roasted chicken, avocado, boiled egg, olives and other healthy nibbles. … For takeout and picnics, I like the plain and somewhat pasty version at the Candler Park Market (good for sandwiches), while the creamy, perfectly seasoned almond-tarragon spread at Publix is always a pleasure.



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