- By Wyatt Williams For the AJC
On a recent weekday night, a Kandi Burruss superfan walked into Old Lady Gang and took a look around. She surveyed a happy-looking throng at the bar full of people drinking bright, colorful cocktails and leaned her head into an adjoining dining room filled with the smell of fried chicken. After a moment’s consideration, she said, “This is it? I thought it would be bigger.”
Her sister narrowed her eyes at her, as if to say “girl, please” with her eyebrows, and responded, “You know everything looks bigger on TV.”
If it is true that the camera adds 15 pounds to anyone on the screen, then perhaps we might say it adds 15 seats to a restaurant. Old Lady Gang is by no means a small restaurant, but it is a very comfortable neighborhood bar and restaurant on Peters Street in Castleberry Hill. The short menu will certainly be familiar to Atlantans — fried chicken and sides, shrimp and grits, wings and simple salads. The dishes are prepared well, but nothing special.
I mention cameras, because, in the end, Old Lady Gang is a place that’s all about them. The rooms are camera-ready: The lighting is noticeably bright, the decor clean and polished, the walls touched with sharp white paint and AstroTurf-green accents. It doesn’t just look like it should be on TV, it is.
Old Lady Gang is the creation of Kandi Burruss and her husband Todd Tucker, whom you may know from the wildly popular television series “The Real Housewives of Atlanta.” The name of the restaurant refers to Joyce Jones, Bertha Jones and Nora Wilcox, Kandi’s mother and aunts who, respectively, have become recurring characters on the show. The menu, which focuses on old-school Southern dishes, is an homage to them.
I suppose one perspective might say that none of this should matter much. A restaurant is just about what’s on the plate, right? You could, like I did in early June, slip in for a plate lunch of fried chicken and collard greens and enjoy yourself just fine without ever having watched an episode of “RHOA.” But you’ll probably also leave, like I did, wondering what the fuss is all about. Why is it that every time I go on OpenTable looking for a reservation, I’m told the restaurant has already been booked dozens of times today. Why the crowds? What’s the deal?
I’ve never entirely understood the appeal of celebrity-owned restaurants. I mean, it’s not like Mark Wahlberg is going to be flipping burgers at Wahlburgers, so what does it matter that he owns it? Even if he was, would that really make your burger taste better? I guess my confusion comes from the fact that I don’t know what fans expect to happen in such a place.
So, I wanted to experience this place through the eyes of a fan. I didn’t look back through years of television, to become a fan myself, so I decided to enlist some “experts.” An old friend told me that she’d been watching for years and, after getting over her initial horror that I’d never actually seen an episode, told me she could help. She said that for years now, she’s watched the show with friends. An “expert” in the sense that she sat in the comfort of her own home texting back and forth in one big group chain. She could assemble the whole crew, and they would educate me on the dramatic brilliance of “RHOA” in real time.
This plan hit one snag. Old Lady Gang is so popular these days that getting a reservation for seven people would require weeks of planning. We snagged a four-top at an early-bird hour, and my friend and her sister promised they’d fill me in. By the time I arrived, they were already chatting with a sweet old lady in a charming pantsuit who promised they would love the cornbread. As we walked over to the table, I was informed in an excited whisper, “That’s Nora!”
Before I could quite grasp the significance of Nora, it was time to order drinks. The house list here tends on the strong and sweet side of things, including a frothy margarita that comes served with a full shot of Grand Marnier on the side. A more mellow option is the Housewife Patio Pear, an easy-drinking combination of pear-flavored vodka, white grape juice, and muddled mint, a fruity mojito-type thing.
With the drinks, our server brought a basket of the house cornbread that Nora had promised, a basket of crumbly, moist, sweet cubes that needed no extra butter. Now, I know the question of sugar in cornbread is wildly controversial to some, but I’ll say I liked this just fine, though the honey dip that accompanied it was way too sweet for me.
While we waited on a few appetizers, they tried to explain the show, but where to start? With the lurid rumors and gossipy love-triangle lies that supposedly got Phaedra Parks axed from the show? Or one of the classic jaw-dropping moments, like when Porsha Williams admitted that she thought the Underground Railroad was an actual train? (One assumes that her grandfather, the late, legendary civil rights leader Hosea Williams, would have been dismayed.) Or what about Kandi and the way she tries to keep her head above all that hot-mess drama?
Our appetizers included a basket of fried catfish strips, the thin, lightly fried cornmeal dusting wrapping respectably moist white fish. I was less impressed by the deviled eggs, the whites of which had been battered and fried and then filled with a topping of mustardy, deviled-yolks and bacon bits. Too much gilding the lily for me, though they went down OK with an extra splash of hot sauce.
Entrees fared a little better. The blackened salmon is, I’d say, just right: a strong crust of peppery spices that conceal tender pink flesh. The fried chicken, batter cooked to a dark golden brown, is good, too, though I longed for a bit more depth in the brine or seasoning. A bowl of shrimp and grits boasts snappy Georgia shrimp, though I would’ve preferred a classic dark gravy over the creamy vodka sauce that tops it. All in all, this is the sort of food that inspires the thought, “Just fine!” Not great, not bad. Bring another round of drinks.
We talked about a lot of episodes that night, but my friend’s sister summed it up best, “I just look forward to that moment, when I get the kids to bed and pour myself a drink and the show comes on and for the next hour, I can relax. I’m with my friends.”
She said that not long before we got up from the table. On our way out, the host stopped us and said, “Y’all should go downstairs. Kandi is here.” We took a staircase out the back and down to the lounge-y basement bar. The lights were bright and the music was turned up and there she was, Kandi, hanging out, taking pictures with fans, enjoying herself. It felt a little like walking onto a TV set, but also comfortable, like just hanging out with friends.