My neck hurts. For the past two hours it has craned to the left to watch an acoustic show by guitarist-songwriter Richard Thompson at City Winery.
I’m also feeling a bit dazed. Not because of that glass of wine — a City Winery label 2015 pinot noir served on tap that was tight, but tasty overall. It’s because dining in the dark, and during a concert, is odd.
I could not see my food. I could not converse with my dining partner.
But City Winery’s 350-seat capacity concert venue is not a normal dining affair, despite a New American menu of small plates, entrees, sides and desserts that might make you think otherwise. Unless you pay more for VIP seating that equates to your own table, you will sit with strangers. If you are seated in a corner, as I was, facing away from the stage, you will be forced into a contortionist act: turn 180-degrees to watch the show, then angle back the other way to eat your food.
Amiable servers stand near the walls. They come when you signal, but you’ll feel guilty raising a hand. Being in the midst of a mature crowd of music lovers, you don’t want to wreck their night by whispering your order too loudly or making too much of a commotion when the food arrives.
But, you’ll want to make a commotion when food like pimento mac-and-cheese comes out, the pasta overcooked to bloating, the pimento cheese tasting like a cheap processed sort. Likewise when you order the margherita flatbread and what is set before you is a circular metal tray holding what can only be called a pizza, a barely cooked, round, 10-inch thin-crust pizza with no crispness or char.
City Winery wants to be a lot of things — concert venue, winery, restaurant, bar, private event space, even speakeasy. Is it possible to be all things and do all of it well?
City Winery has a lot going for it. It is located in an outbuilding at trendy Ponce City Market. It’s the brainchild of Michael Dorf, who knows music. The creator of iconic New York City music venue the Knitting Factory, Dorf harnessed those years of experience in the concert industry to conceive of City Winery, launching it in Manhattan in 2008, then expanding to Chicago, Napa Valley (since shuttered), Nashville and now Atlanta, with one slated for Boston next year.
City Winery also is a true winery, making its wine on-site. (The eight house wines currently served on tap come from other City Winery properties. The juice in tanks here will be ready next year.) And directing that program is its head winemaker, David Lecomte, a native of France’s Rhône Valley with multiple winemaking degrees and experience working at prominent wineries around the globe.
The executive chef at the Atlanta location is Jeffrey McGar. The 25-year restaurant industry veteran has worked in such local establishments as the Atlanta Events Center at Opera, Atlanta Improv, Czar Ice Bar and Cellar 56.
So, important elements are in place to manage food, wine and music.
But the one thing that City Winery cannot control is people. People drop glasses that shatter during the middle of a show. People clang knife, fork and spoon when consuming dishes like pan-seared trout or fried chicken.
When I visited City Winery with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s music critic, Melissa Ruggieri, she noted that, while the acoustics were fine, she, too, was distracted by the full-service dining component. Was she being disruptive finding her knife to cut through dense, dry, room temperature meatballs in a marinara sauce that lacked depth of flavor? Or by ordering mid-set a dessert of pumpkin spiced bread pudding with crème anglaise and caramel sauce that, while highly pleasing in texture, left a powdery cinnamon coating in the mouth?
There are other places to enjoy food more comfortably at City Winery than in the lower-level concert hall.
The dining room and the bar are spacious and attractive, with reclaimed barrel staves serving as an elegant, unifying design element. An expansive patio with greenery, umbrella-covered tables and string lights is especially inviting during the evening. These are the spots for a more conventional dining experience, especially if you seek a subdued vibe rather than something loud and clubby.
But the food needs to improve for the dining experience to be worth it, especially with abundant eating options at Ponce City Market’s food hall. The burrata was bland and gummy, outshined by heirloom tomatoes and a generous serving of grilled garlic bread. The interior of the risotto balls was wet, rather than molten and creamy. Duck confit tacos were dry, when the duck should have been moist from having cooked in its own fat.
The dish that did stand out was the shrimp and grits, satisfyingly spiced with Cajun flavors, with yet more flavor coming from smoked gouda.
City Winery can simply serve as a watering hole. Its eight wines on tap are available by the glass and in half and full carafes. If you don’t want City Winery-made vino, the bottle list includes more than 400 choices. Thirsty for craft beer? A cocktail? A shot of your favorite spirit? City Winery can’t do all things well right now, but it can do that. And its bartending team and service staff will do it capably and with a smile.