- By Wyatt Williams For the AJC
Maybe you have heard about the roadside diner’s club on Memorial Drive.
It is the one hidden in the back half of the building, behind the sunny California-styled coffee joint called Muchacho. The one with the moose head hanging over the padded horseshoe bar, where bartenders are just as happy to stir up a rye cocktail as they are to pour a Czech Pilsner into a gold rimmed glass. The place where the reel-to-reel machine never stops turning all night and it seems like your favorite Irma Thomas song is always playing. Where the mustachioed maitre d’ is working the floor, and the menus are offering garlic knots swimming in butter and crispy crab Rangoon and sirloin steak with onion rings piled on top. Where you might ask yourself, is this a movie set from 1967 or 2018?
You must have heard about this place.
It seems to me that half of Atlanta must have heard about Golden Eagle by now. If that’s true, they’re probably currently telling the other half. Twice, I’ve been by and the restaurant was so full that the valet was declining to take any more cars. Once, that was on a Tuesday evening. Somebody must be telling somebody.
What are they saying? I would be very surprised if the first thing that anyone talks about is anything but that room.
To get inside the Golden Eagle, you have to take the side door. It’ll take a moment for your eyes to adjust, because the lights in this room have been calibrated to a golden glow that can only be called seductively dim. Oh, the things there are to see! No, this isn’t a movie set from the late midcentury, though the cumulative effect is nearly as impressive. Every detail of the room has been worked over. From the vintage couches and coffee tables lit by candlelight to the vintage speakers hanging over the bar to the enamel paper towel dispensers in the bathroom, which must be hand cranked like windup toys, it is hard to find a false note. This is a room arranged to please and delight. Clearly, it does. Every night I’ve been here, a crowd has packed every single seat.
What do they talk about next? Probably the drinks. Golden Eagle is a cocktail bar that excels without taking itself too seriously. The list is classically styled, although the working definition of the classics here includes both a boozy Old Pal and a towering Blue Hawaiian, which quite nearly glows like a neon bulb. The latter smacks of rum and pineapple without becoming too sweet; the former is the solid one-two punch of rye and Campari that it should be. Both are made with precision. I’ve yet to taste a cocktail here that isn’t. It is the kind of bar that I always hope to find in the basement of some old hotel, but never do.
I’m sure someone is talking about the food, too. It’s good, though it is taking a backseat to the drinks and the room at Golden Eagle. Like the owner’s other restaurant, Ladybird Mess Hall & Grove, this is primarily a drinking establishment. The menu here is mostly focused on evoking a visually pleasing version of Americana nostalgia.
All of it might be summed up by the pleasure and the problems with two dishes. At the bar one night, my tavern steak au poivre arrived picture perfect, the sirloin arranged in thick slices, onion rings towering behind it, and a gravy boat of au poivre on the side. If dishes were only meant for Instagram, this one would have been flawless. As perfect as it looked, I longed for a finer touch on the au poivre, which had lost the looseness of a pan sauce and congealed too thick with cream. And though they were perfectly golden brown, the onion rings were weighed down by a thick, unbecoming batter.
Yet, the finesse that I longed for could all be found in a confit leg of duck, golden brown and resting on a bed of Brussels sprouts, black cherries and cipollini onions. The onions had been halved and cooked to a golden just shy of caramelized. The cherries were blistered and softened in a gastrique balanced by the vegetal crunch of the sprouts. And the confit leg that sat atop this had all the tender, salty, fatty essence to marry it together. The tavern steak certainly looked more impressive, but the duck stole the show.
The smaller dishes tend to fare more consistently. A tiny dish of garlic knots are delivered swimming in a pool of clarified butter so rich that I could hardly eat one, but refused to give up for the rest of the night. A snack of crispy, thin-shaved okra was so addictive that my date had to put the plate out of reach so she could be sure to get some. A plate of steak tartare perched atop a roasted and smoked cross section of bone marrow underwhelmed, mostly because the bouquet of herbs and thick grilled sourdough bread that accompanied it overwhelmed the clear beefiness that I crave from such a dish.
The plate of crudites, which I ordered one night out of a kind of bored obligation to the lighter appetites among our table, surprised me. The radishes, carrots, cauliflower and turnips had been tweezered into a pretty menagerie, sure, but the balance between the bright chimichurri atop it and the rich, spiced aioli below it was excellent, too.
I should mention I had no chance at anonymity at Golden Eagle. The front of the house is run by William Bubier, whom many may recognize as the longtime gatekeeper of Kimball House. I’ve long admired his attention to detail and the slightly eccentric personality he uses to smooth over the complex art of service.
I was never in the room for more than a few seconds before he made it clear he had spotted me. I would not be surprised if the dishes I’d been served were a little more fussed over due to this fact. But I also mention it because I don’t think much of anything happens in the Golden Eagle without Bubier noticing it within a few seconds. He floats around between tables constantly, telling bad jokes, checking in, making sure people are enjoying themselves in this room.
At the end of the evening, do yourself a favor and take his dessert advice: order the platter of cookies. It’s a spread of little things, chewy gingerbread and powdery wedding cookies and so forth that you’ll pick at with your fingers with your friends. This isn’t a bad time to order one more Rob Roy, either. After all, you’ll want to spend just a few more minutes in this room.